Sir! No Sir!

Sir! No Sir!

I reacted very favorably to this documentary, but that’s largely because I think the subject matter is so important. I don’t know that the film itself was unusually good as a film. I’d say it is a solid, straightforward, conventional documentary, mixing historical footage with retrospective interviews with participants. But in its way, that can be a very good approach when you’ve got excellent material. The American Ruling Class, for instance, has a lot of good things to say, but it frustrated me because it tries to get all cutesy with its gimmicky structure instead of letting the material stand on its own merits. Sir! No Sir! admirably avoids the temptation to spice things up like that.

Sir! No Sir! explores the opposition to the Vietnam War from within the U.S. military. There are a lot of interesting points made, only a few of which I was already familiar with. Indeed, one of the things pointed out in the film is that conservatives have done a pretty darn effective job in rewriting history and burying a lot of facts that don’t fit with the worldview they are pushing, including the very existence and prevalence of an anti-war movement amongst veterans and active servicepeople.

It’s not so much that it’s “hidden” in any absolute sense from professional historians or diligent researchers, but more that the vague impressions that the average layman has about the Vietnam War and U.S. soldiers of that era have been shaped and manipulated by those who would prefer people not realize the extent of opposition to the war from within the military, because it fits their purposes, in selling present and future wars among other things, that people take for granted that being anti-war means being anti-soldier.

Thus the constant reiteration during every war of the “support the troops” message, and the insistence that anyone who opposes a war not only is unpatriotic and hates America, but specifically blames and hates the brave individuals who are putting themselves in harm’s way on their behalf. For people trained to have that worldview, soldiers opposing the war doesn’t compute. How can they hate themselves? Maybe a few desert because they are cowards and were never true soldiers in the first place, but the idea of a large movement of soldiers with battlefield experience and informed opinions opposing the war and refusing to participate in it any longer just doesn’t make sense.

But opposition within the military was actually quite extensive. The military admits to about half a million desertions during the Vietnam era. Blatant disobedience up to and including fragging officers was not some rare anomaly, but became increasingly common the longer the war went on, to the point where it was a significant factor in political decisions of how to conduct the war. There were a lot of things you couldn’t risk doing if you couldn’t count on sufficient troops obeying you.

Anti-war underground newspapers and underground radio stations run by servicepeople became more and more prevalent as the war dragged on, as did coffee houses and social gathering places that were explicitly anti-war located near military bases.

Many of the most prominent peace marches and other domestic anti-war activities were undertaken either by anti-war veterans groups alone or as an important part of a larger coalition.

And this was well known at the time. (It’s hard to ignore when you have masses of veterans throwing their medals at the Capitol in protest.) A look through newspaper archives shows many front page stories about soldiers turning against the war. So back then, no doubt the public was quite aware of the phenomenon, even if now it’s been partially erased from history.

I found it a little jarring that the film has several clips (from then and contemporary) of Jane Fonda. It’s not that I’m anti-Jane Fonda; my overall impression of her is neutral to positive. But my feeling has been that the trashing of her and her reputation, however dishonest and unfair it may be, has been very effective, and that thus anything she is associated with will be tainted by that association. So the last thing you want to do is have your point of view publicly endorsed by her.

But while I thought it was strategically inexplicable to include her, on another level I respect it. It’s like the filmmaker is saying he refuses to cooperate in treating someone as a pariah if it’s not deserved on the merits, regardless of the consequences.

And her material is actually quite interesting, because people forget she (and others like her) were welcomed by a great number of U.S. soldiers around the world. What they were doing was a sort of an alternative to the Bob Hope-style shows, combining entertainment with anti-war messages. And though of course they could not perform on army bases and had no official sanction, they still drew tens of thousands of U.S. service personnel cumulatively to their shows (while Hope was routinely being heckled and jeered).

Certainly the documentary is one-sided, in the sense that it’s seeking to educate people about one specific aspect of the Vietnam War, rather than trying to cover everything from all perspectives. That would be a problem if this film existed in isolation. But as one piece of the puzzle, as one viewpoint among a huge number of (mostly conservative and sometimes blatantly dishonest) available viewpoints, I think it’s a valuable contribution.

But yes, one should remember that the people depicted and celebrated in this film had a great deal of opposition to their activities, and it’s certainly possible some of that opposition had some merit. So even though this film doesn’t provide it, a complete education about the war would have to also include an understanding of the perspectives of the soldiers who felt utterly betrayed when their fellows turned against the war, the politicians and academics and others who honestly believed that as bad as war in general and the Vietnam War in particular are that there would be a lot more total human suffering if the U.S. had refrained from entering the war or pulled out prematurely, the segment of the Vietnamese population who welcomed the American military presence, and so on and so forth.

To me, a lot of the folks in this movie are heroes. I think what they did required incredible courage (to go along with the more conventional courage in battle that most of them had already displayed), and a willingness to think for oneself and speak out even when it was most unpopular to do so. But I recognize that other people can have a much different take.

One thing worth mentioning is I’m very glad they addressed this idiot urban legend about antiwar protesters spitting in returning soldiers’ faces. I mean, with millions of protesters and millions of potential encounters with veterans, it wouldn’t be surprising if it happened once in a blue moon, though no one has yet been able to confirm a single case of it. But the point is, even if you could find one or two instances of it somewhere, that kind of gesture never remotely reflected the prevailing attitude of the anti-war movement.

First of all, as this film conveys, that movement consisted to a significant degree of veterans, who one can assume didn’t spend a lot of time spitting on themselves. But even beyond that, anti-war groups were far, far more inclined to exonerate the “grunts” and pin all the responsibility on the politicians and others who used them to fight the war. (If anything they went too far in that direction; surely people who carry out genocidal or near-genocidal war bear some degree of responsibility for what they do. Otherwise you’re allowing the “I was just following orders” defense.) Anti-war folks tended to bend over backwards to avoid opposing “the troops,” ss people opposing wars since then continue unfailingly to do.

Anyway, a great deal more could be said about Sir! No Sir!, but if I continue writing I’ll mostly just be listing the movie’s contents. Better that people see it for themselves.

Strong recommendation.

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