Sir! No Sir!

GIs Just Say No

Sir! No Sir!
Directed by David Zeiger
2006, Displaced Films
Running time: 84 minutes.

One of the greatest achievements of the anti-Vietnam War movement was the creation of a GI coffeehouse and counseling network. The first coffeehouse opened outside Ft. Jackson, SC, in late 1967, two-and-a-half years after U.S. troops were sent to Vietnam in large numbers. Within weeks, hundreds of GIs had visited during their off- duty hours. Over the next year, similar projects sprang up outside a dozen other major U.S. bases.

Inside the coffeehouses, a "counter-cultural" spirit of sex, psychedelic drugs, and rock 'n' roll co-existed with a strong antiwar message. Civilian activists from the antiwar movement worked in tandem with active-duty GIs, some of whom had just returned from Vietnam. In some cases, soldiers took the lead in setting political goals, providing GI counseling, and putting out an antiwar newspaper-a staple of every GI organization. By 1971, the GI movement extended from Germany to Vietnam, from enlisted personnel serving in Alaska to Air Force specialists eavesdropping on the Vietnamese in northern Thailand.

Sir! No Sir! is the first documentary film to tell the story of this dynamic and sometimes misunderstood movement. It reveals that resistance within the armed forces was the most important factor after the heroic tenacity of the Vietnamese in convincing Nixon to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam.

To tell this incredible story, filmmaker Dave Zeiger uses interviews with participants in this movement such as Vets for Peace President Dave Cline, former Green Beret Don Duncan, Dr. Howard Levy, West Pointer Louis Font, military nurse turned antiwar activist Susan Schnall, and Jane Fonda.

Zeiger focuses on the Oleo Strut coffeehouse outside Ft. Hood in Killeen, TX, where he himself was a civilian activist. It's a good choice, since this was one of the most successful GI projects, attracting national attention when it organized thousands of active- duty GIs to march through Killeen's streets protesting the war.

The film also details the grassroots campaign led by antiwar sailors in San Diego, who conducted a "vote" among local residents on whether the carriers USS Coral Sea and Kitty Hawk should be returned to Vietnam.

The film also makes clear that, in many cases, Black GIs were the most militant and courageous critics of war policies. It also appears that they suffered more physical abuse from the command than did white critics of the war. The story of their principled refusal to be used as riot police against their own communities, which were rebelling after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., is well told. Greg Payton, a Black Vietnam vet, provides an account of how mostly Black inmates protested conditions at the Long Binh Jail in Vietnam by burning some of the buildings to the ground.

Probably because of a dearth of documentary material, the film doesn't devote much time to the antiwar organizing that went on in the combat zones of Vietnam-although this was the Pentagon's greatest concern. One report of "combat refusal" at Fire Base Pace is featured, with footage and segments by journalist Richard Boyle, who captures the drama of one company and then another refusing orders to go out on patrol against a vastly superior Vietnamese force. During a two-and-a-half-year period from 1969 to 1971, there were dozens of such "combat refusals" and 435 "fragging" incidents (attacking members of one's unit using fragmentation grenades) in which 80 percent of the targets were officers.

Sir! No Sir! is not without deficiencies, however. It makes no mention of the work of the American Servicemen's Union; its support fund, which raised money for the movement; or its influential newspaper, The Bond. It also fails to acknowledge the Pacific Counseling Services at Asian bases or the Concerned Officers Movement (COM), which brought many low-ranking officers into the antiwar struggle.

Perhaps the film's greatest defect is its muddled treatment of the war crimes issue as it relates to low-ranking combat veterans. It features only one witness from the Winter Soldier Investigation of war crimes in Vietnam and does not delve into the "search-and-destroy zones" and "body counting" that were conceived at the highest levels of the civilian and military leadership. It is also erroneously stated that Lt. William Calley was the highest-ranking person charged with the My Lai massacre. In fact, his superiors Captain Ernest Medina and Lt. Col. Oran Henderson were also court-marshaled, although both were eventually acquitted.

Yet none of these shortcomings should deter anyone from seeing this historic film and working to broaden its distribution. Sir! No Sir! restores an important chapter to our living history. While it's important to study the history of earlier antiwar struggles, activists should always ask: How can we apply these lessons to our situation today? So far, no one has organized a GI coffeehouse to serve the tens of thousands of soldiers who have been sent to fight in Iraq. Still, within the movement of anti-Iraq War vets, one can hear murmurs of such a revival.

Tod Ensign

Tod Ensign is director of Citizen Soldier, a GI/veterans advocacy group established in 1969. He is also author of America's Military Today: The Challenge of Militarism (New Press, 2004). He can be reached at citizensoldier1[AT] or (212) 679-2250.