8.08.2008

sir! no sir!

Last night we finally watched "Sir! No Sir!". We've owned it for a long time, but never got around to watching it. Red Sox night off + rain = movie, so its turn finally came up.

This is an excellent film. Talk about an untold story! "Sir! No Sir!" reveals the massive military resistance to the Vietnam War - the peace movement within the military. It's an excellently made film - gripping, powerful and revelatory. Don't miss it.

I want to highlight a few bits that were particularly striking to me.

  • Military resistance to the war in Vietnam was spread and fed through an underground press. What was once called pamphlets, later called 'zines, and are now called blogs, were written, mimeographed and distributed by and among enlisted men. GIs who had already been to Vietnam told the truth about what they witnessed (and participated in) there, and encouraged resistance.

    Googling, I found a book on the subject, Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers during the Vietnam War, out of print, but perhaps I can find it used.

    Writing or distributing these newspapers was a court-martial offence, and people served serious prison time for it.

  • It was brilliant to see people making connections between the civil rights movement at home and what was going on in Vietnam. To see African-Americans realizing that they were being turned into tools of oppression - the same oppression that their ancestors had experienced - was very powerful. White soldiers realized it, too, and stood in solidarity with them.

    The Army was used to violently put down riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and to attack peaceful protestors at the Pentagon. African-American soldiers rebelled and organized against this. When troops were called in to bash heads at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Black troops were held back.

    A generation earlier, African-American soldiers' experience in World War II gave rise to the civil rights movement, as returning men questioned why they fought for something in Europe that they didn't enjoy at home. Now their sons and daughters were advancing that fight.

  • It was beautiful to see Jane Fonda's personal contribution to the peace movement celebrated. Fonda's appearances in Vietnam have been so distorted and mocked that wingnuts fling her name at us as an epithet. But she was part of a movement that brought peace-loving, subversive entertainment to GIs hungry for that affirmation. Tens of thousands of US soldiers came out for these "anti-Bob Hope" shows. Rita Martinson sang "Soldier, We Love You." They felt that love, and they wanted peace.

    It was similarly thrilling to see and remember that powerful symbol of defiance and solidarity: the raised fist.

  • At one point during the Vietnam War, more than 500,000 soldiers were AWOL. This number does not include draft resisters. There were half a million deserters.

  • I've blogged about my own memories of the 1969 Moratorium against the Vietnam War; it's one of my earliest memories of political awareness. I never knew that 1,400 active duty soldiers signed a petition in support of the Moratorium and the March on Washington, and wore black armbands to show their support - in Vietnam.

  • As the war escalated, military resistance became more widespread, more intense, and more desperate. Spies and translators made false statements, attempting to thwart US plans to bomb civilian targets. Enlisted men conspired to attack their officers, so companies couldn't move into "battles" that were really just suicide missions.

    Right around this time, the US started to bomb Cambodia. One former soldier says, "Many of us were convinced that Nixon had to go to an air war because he couldn't trust us on the ground. And for good reason - we were shooting his officers and refusing to go into direct combat whenever we could."

    When the US war against Vietnam changed from primarily a ground campaign to primarily an air campaign, military resistance surfaced in the air force and navy.

  • Finally, there's another connection for me. Ron Kovic - who you probably know as the author of the autobiography Born On The Fourth Of July, and the subject of that movie - is one of the fathers of the disability-rights movement.

    Paralyzed Vietnam Veterans have been at the forefront of the independent living movement (and the wheelchair sports movement) for decades. Many of those veterans, however, cling to their beliefs about why they are paralyzed: they were serving their country, they were fighting for freedom, the US are the good guys. Kovic and many other paralyzed veterans knew that their sacrifice was unnecessary, and completely preventable, as were the deaths of 58,000 Americans and probably 1,000,000 Vietnamese.

    Kovic is still active in the peace movement. He is a living connection between military resistance to war and a movement which demands equality and justice for all living people.

    * * * *

    "Sir! No Sir!" stirred all my intensely negative feelings about the nation of my birth and the many evils it has perpetrated. But I wept in admiration and awe of people's courage and strength and determination to do the right thing.

    We haven't watched all the DVD extras yet - which total a longer running time than the film! - but we did see one. There is a short piece on Camilo Mejia, an Iraq War resister who was court-martialed, sent to prison, and given a dishonourable discharge. Standing next to Mejia was his lawyer, who we recognized from "Sir! No Sir!" as Louis Font. Font graduated from West Point Military Academy; the Army was sending him to the Harvard School of Government when he himself became a military resister.

    The fight continues.
  • 10 comments:

    James said...

    Enlisted men conspired to attack their officers, so companies couldn't move into "battles" that were really just suicide missions.

    I've been told that this is the origin of the video-gaming slang term "frag" for an in-game kill -- it was originally Vietnam-era military slang for killing your officer to keep him from getting the rest of you killed, from "fragmentation grenade", a popular means of doing so.

    It brings to mind the British in WWI, whose officers would be the last out of the trenches during a charge, so they could shoot any British soldiers who refused to run into the machine-gun fire.

    There is no source of concentrated idiocy quite like war.

    L-girl said...

    I've been told that this is the origin of the video-gaming slang term "frag" for an in-game kill -- it was originally Vietnam-era military slang for killing your officer to keep him from getting the rest of you killed, from "fragmentation grenade", a popular means of doing so.

    The movie confirms that. I'm not aware of vid-game slang at all, but according to Sir! No Sir! the word "frag" did refer to killing or at least attacking the officer to stop a mission, often done with a fragmentation grenade, just as you say. Desperate measures.

    redsock said...

    It brings to mind the British in WWI, whose officers would be the last out of the trenches during a charge, so they could shoot any British soldiers who refused to run into the machine-gun fire.

    ***

    Edmund: Don't forget your stick, Lieutenant.

    George: Oh no, sir -- wouldn't want to face a machine gun without this!

    James said...

    Edmund: Don't forget your stick, Lieutenant.

    George: Oh no, sir -- wouldn't want to face a machine gun without this!


    I was going to mention the final scene of the final episode of the final series of Blackadder, but skipped it. But it's a brilliant ending to a brilliant series, and dead on target.

    L-girl said...

    a brilliant ending to a brilliant series, and dead on target.

    Brilliant and heartbreaking. A truly great anti-war comedy that is hilarious and chokes you up at the same time.

    deang said...

    So glad you finally got to see it! It really succeeded in bringing back to vivid life the massive extent of antiwar and peace sentiment in the US at the time. People frequently make comparisons between the current Iraq war and the Vietnam War, with some saying that both inspired protest, but those too young to know - or too brainwashed to remember clearly - have no idea just how much more massive and deep-rooted antiwar sentiment and action were during the Vietnam era. This film really shows it.

    To quote Rahul Mahajan on the contrast:

    The Vietnam War caused a moral crisis for a large number of Americans; the Iraq War has created a moral smugness that the rest of us are not George Bush and Dick Cheney. The Vietnam War created a revulsion against the status quo of U.S. foreign policy and even, for some, against the internal operation of U.S. society; the Iraq War has created a fervent appreciation of the status quo, symbolized in the newfound appreciation for Bush the Elder, one of the most immoral and cynical presidents we’ve ever had. The Vietnam War delegitimized the military as an institution and drew massive criticism of the military-industrial complex; the Iraq War has led to an almost unprecedented valorization of the military and no attention to the military-industrial complex even as the military budget has metastasized.

    L-girl said...

    Thanks, Dean. That quote is really something. I will have to read that a few times before I can absorb it.

    I always try to emphasize that there is a peace movement now. But to try to portray the two eras and movements as the same, or even similar, is to rewrite history. The whole country was divided into doves and hawks. It permeated every facet of life. There's no equivalent now.

    Still, most people in the US don't support the occupation. But they feel utterly powerless to affect change.

    impudent strumpet said...

    translators made false statements

    While doing verbal interpretation? Because that would take crazy talent.

    L-girl said...

    translators made false statements

    While doing verbal interpretation? Because that would take crazy talent.


    While intercepting communications. They're sitting in a communications centre, intercepting messages about who will be where. They begin to realize that the US is purposely targetting hospitals, schools, villages, etc. So they decide to turn in false information, to try to send the bombs to unpopulated areas. The people they report to don't speak Vietnamese.

    impudent strumpet said...

    That makes more sense then. I thought at first they were making up false information on the spot during interrogations or whatever, which would be like reading the newspaper out loud and improvising falsifications it as you go along without your audience noticing.