by Jerry Lembcke; History News Network; November 06, 2006
The new documentary about the Vietnam-era GI anti-war movement, Sir! No Sir!, opened in theaters during the spring and summer of 2006. The film compiles the historical record of the rank-and-file rebellion that grew during the war years and reached the level of mutiny in
I have a part in the film as author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of
My place in the film has created some opportunities for me to participate in post-showing discussion groups. Invariably, those discussions have drawn comparisons between then and now, the resistance of soldiers and veterans of the
Typical responses to the question take the form of: there is "no movement" today, by which speakers seem to mean there is no larger, more general movement for social reform that might succor the efforts of would-be in-service resisters. It's an answer, though, which itself bends back into more questions: why is there no movement? Why isn't there a movement now like there was then?
The "no movement" response may pack a bit of nostalgia for times that are better in memory than they were in reality. Leaving aside the purely wistful -- "we don't have a Peter, Paul, and Mary," said a patron at the Green Mountain Film Festival -- it is undeniably easier to remember the fewer large and successful turn-outs against the war than the many more frustratingly small ones that never made it to the Sunday papers. Romance for "the day," in any case, diminishes the enormity of the mobilizations against the looming invasion of
Similar questions need to be raised about the claim that the news media was more forthcoming with information about the war in
By seeing the GI movement as an appendage of other oppositional efforts of the time, moreover, one of Sir! No Sir!'s most important points is obscured, namely, that in-service opposition to the war in
It would be a mistake, though, to flip the analytical coin over and assign causative powers to in-service resistors, thus crediting the early dissidents like Duncan with spawning the Vietnam-era movement that followed their path-breaking actions, and then, by extension, blaming the absence of '60s-like demonstrations on the relative quiescence of today's GIs and Marines. Rather, the focus should be on the chemistry between military and civilian dissent and what is different about today that helps account for the seeming disinterest of many Americans, both in and out of uniform, in what the war is all about.
One difference is the absence now of an embraceable enemy-other, an avuncular leader like Ho Chi Minh and a hardscrabble underdog like the National Liberation Front. In 1965, within weeks of the first Marines landing at Da Nang -- when the U.S. government was still demonizing the Vietnamese as terrorists -- "Women's Strike for Peace" saw something else in the "enemy" and sent a delegation to Hanoi to talk to them; a year later but still early in the war, the Quakers were taking medical aid to the communists; and by the end of 1967 American civilians acting independently of their government had negotiated the first prisoner releases. Within the military there was a similar recalibration of reality taking place. In the film, David Cline recalls looking at the Viet Cong soldier he had shot and thinking that that guy was fighting for his country too, and that he (Cline) had an obligation to honor what he died for and help end the killing.
Battle-born epiphany's like Cline's may happen more often than we think but what was different about that war was the opportunities it created for raised consciousnesses to be put to meaningful action. Lt. Susan Schnall was dealt a court-martial for protesting the war while wearing her uniform, and soon thereafter began doing support work for the communist Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam; Joe Urgo (also in the film) returned from Vietnam not only to protest the war but to go to the enemy's capital, Hanoi, as a peace activist -- while U.S. bombs were still dropping. By contrast, in-service resistance today lacks a comparable political context: it's difficult to discern whose interest, besides their own, would be served by refusals of
Another difference lies in the cachet carried by veterans from previous wars. Some of the most credible voices in the early movement against the war in
It's an image that Sir! No Sir! corrects for. The turning point of the film comes early when veteran Bill Short tells that he was sent to the unit shrink in
Were the film to be paused at that moment, and the audience quizzed, many in the theater would say, ". . . and the doctor pulled a diagnostic manual from the shelf and sent Sergeant Short stateside for psychiatric rehabilitation." A few might add some riffs from Charlie Clements's autobiography Witness to War about his confinement to a mental-health ward for refusal to fly in
After his own pause, Short says the doctor pulled down a copy of the November 9, 1969 New York Times; Bill doesn't need treatment, he needs a social movement and here it is: a full-page advertisement against the war signed by 1,365 active-duty soldiers -- [up-tempo music] the GI Movement is born.
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A funny thing happens after the screenings of Sir! No Sir! -- all the talk is about empowerment and the place of soldiers in the anti-war movement. Funny, because interest in veterans nowadays turns, more typically, to talk about the mental and physical health of returnees, talk framed by the medical imagery given the war and post-war experience of veterans from
Sir! No Sir! is about a social movement that bridged the boundaries normally separating civilian and military dissent: ministers chaining themselves to in-service resistors; civilians running off-base coffee houses for on-base personnel; and petition campaigns that united sailors and shopkeepers to stop the deployment of Navy ships. It's a story of the powerless finding their voice and a generation of people mobilized for war who found each other and made common cause to help end that war.
Reviewing the film for Now Toronto, Susan Cole quipped, "Somebody smuggle this thing to
1 The Monday, March 8, 1965 New York Times reported the first
The contrast of coverage for the two wars after one week is even more striking. On March 28, 2003 the front page of the Times was still 100% war coverage, whereas, on March 25, 1965, a week after the Marines landed in Da Nang, they had been supplanted by a 4-column photo and story, "Freedom March Begins at Selma: Troops on Guard."
2 See Peter Conrad and Joseph Schneider's Deviance and Medicalization From Badness to Sickness (
3 This seems to be the effect of Jarhead, the first major film portraying returnees from the Persian Gulf War. In its final scenes, a bus carrying the home-coming Marines is boarded by a disheveled and uninvited character with a political message for the troops. A
4 This is my observation from having participated in post-screening discussions during the spring and summer of 2006 in
Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at