what i'm watching: 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.
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