Written & Directed by: David Zeiger
"Obedience to the law is freedom," reads an ironic sign above a stockade yard in an archival photograph shown in Sir! No Sir!, and the image elicited a chuckle from the small group of anti-war activists with whom I had gathered to watch the film, a documentary that purports to relay the story, largely untold to my knowledge, about the GI anti-war movement during Vietnam. Well, for better or worse, it does just that, delivering well on its promise though it's a little awkwardly assembled and a little rambling. Most likely, Sir! No Sir! would be more effective printed on a page rather than burned onto celluloid, but if it'd been a book I'd never have gotten around to reading it. (You ought to see my nightstand!) It's a story worth hearing and Sir! No Sir! is a quick and easy way to hear it.
Focusing primarily on a handful of (now) veterans, Sir! No Sir! spends its early scenes requisitely examining their initial eagerness to join the military, and then their subsequent, rapid disillusionment, resulting from the horrors they witnessed and the atrocities in which they were personally involved. It traces the anti-war movement within the American military from its inchoate stages of unorganized resistance, as individual soldiers simply refused to fight on personal grounds and/or went AWOL (according to the film, over the entire course of the Vietnam War, there were 500,000 incidents of desertion), leading to court martials and imprisonment, to the mammoth, army-destroying, full-blown movement it had become by the early seventies. The filmmakers portray the Vietnam-era as a time when forced conscription nearly led to the very disintegration of the US Army, as the soldiers sought to bring down the military from the inside. While drug use became increasingly rampant, officers were being assassinated by their own men, and gatherers of intelligence were refusing to gather intelligence; members of the Air Force increasingly refused to fight, ultimately rendering the Air Force itself unusable in the war.
Meanwhile, in solidarity, the young people—there are no elderly activists in the film—returning from Vietnam began their own stateside, domestic anti-war movement, in cooperation with their fellow citizens, and thus fomenting an unlikely coalition of whites, blacks, hippies, civilians and military—essentially, ordinary Americans defined not by their race or creed but by their commitment to humanism. Underground presses sprang up, businesses that encouraged or supported the war were picketed and boycotted, and leaflets were dropped on military bases, mimicking the propaganda techniques used by the United States in relation to the Vietcong.
The film, whose tone borders on the self-righteous but is more accurately legitimately prideful, is told in sections, each reel devoted to a different smaller story of the larger picture; for instance, there's one portion devoted to the support for the GIs from Hollywood, complete with the standard appearance of Hanoi Jane waxing nostalgic, and another dedicated to the separate, self-conscious black movement within the greater military movement. It's essentially your basic documentary format—talking heads talk, a narrator fills in the spaces, and old footage pops up on the screen from time to time to provide ocular diversions. Rebellious soldiers, though, are a compelling documentary subject, and each that appears on the screen is articulate, sincere and serious; they're not only likable, but thoroughly respectable, offered a legitimacy lacking from your boilerplate activist by the places they've been and the things they've seen and done.
Sir! No Sir! is unique amongst its documentary contemporaries as its story is actually one that's hard to hear anywhere else; it has its genuinely moving moments, as when one vet talks about the first time he individualized his enemy, or the same one recalling having to take care of the crippled soldiers, returned home, that would beg him to kill them because they couldn't do it themselves. But there are a fair share of uninteresting moments as well, so forgettable that I can't even remember them now, and on a whole it's very hit-or-miss; the relentless strings of anecdotal and personal information, while vaguely tied into the larger context of the anti-war movement and the historical era, is informative but rarely brought together comprehensively.
The underlying message is that war ends when soldiers stop fighting it, that the army can't function when its own soldiers undermine it. Essentially, war is over if they want it. The strongest part of Sir! No Sir! is when it addresses the fact that this now secret history of GI resistance that it's telling was quickly whitewashed and rewritten, with fictional stories of proud, returning soldiers being spat on by headbanded hippies at the San Francisco Airport (a fictional place). Jane Fonda is shown performing for thousands of cheering troops; but I thought she gave comfort to our enemies?
Indeed, as recusant soldiers are the enemy! While the talk today is that those who don't support the war undermine the troops, the hidden truth is in fact that as the troops themselves didn't want to be there then, surely many if not most don't want to be there now. At bottom, the basic message to take away is: don't believe everything you hear about troop morale on the nightly news. And do what you can to stop the war. In fact, find an Iraq Veteran to help!