Opposition to the Vietnam War is usually recalled through images of campus protests and massive demonstrations. What's missing, as David Zeiger's eye-opening "Sir! No Sir!" recounts, is the insurrection that occurred inside the armed forces.
Using rare archival clips, combat footage and interviews, the documentary presents an all-but-forgotten story of resistance that shook the military and helped end a disastrous war.
Fast-paced and packed with information, the film brings to life the anti-war sentiments found in barracks and Army stockades, in the more than 200 underground newspapers published by soldiers around the world, in national GI organizations and at demonstrations by active duty servicemen.
Just how conflicted soldiers were can be found in this one fact alone: The Pentagon reported some 503,926 "incidents of desertion" between 1966 and 1971.
That makes it all the more odd that the lasting image of soldiers from the war has become one of returning soldiers being called "baby killers." A clip from "Rambo: First Blood" reinforces that myth, and "Sir! No Sir!" puts the lie to it: A researcher explains how an exhaustive search failed to produce a single reported incident.
Former Green Beret Donald Duncan and medic Howard Levy are among those who present compelling personal stories.
The tragic case of Billy Dean Smith is also examined. The outspoken black GI who spent 22 months in solitary confinement was eventually acquitted of "fragging" an officer [a practice in which American soldiers killed higher-ups with fragmentation grenades], but not before suffering severe mental damage from the isolation.
There are clips of Jane Fonda entertaining enthusiastic troops under the FTA banner, a crude take-off on the Army's "Fun, Travel and Adventure" recruitment slogan. In a later interview, she sheds light on those times when she was the anti-war's Bob Hope. The film's narrator is her son, Troy Garity.
The comparisons between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War can't help but hover, whether the topic is presidential lies, mistreatment of prisoners, failed escalations or the lack of popular support at home and abroad.
The film would have benefited from perspectives by independent historians. Nonetheless, it presents a counterargument to the notion that criticizing a war hurts troop morale. For these soldiers, it was about the only thing that gave them hope.
"Sir! No Sir!" screens at 8 tonight in Hallwalls.
SIR! NO SIR!
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Jane Fonda, Donald Duncan, Howard Levy and Keith Mather
DIRECTOR: David Zeiger
RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes
RATING: Not rated, but PG-13 equivalent.
THE LOWDOWN: Documentary recalling GI resistance to the Vietnam War.