Sir! No Sir! never mentions the words Iraq or Afghanistan. It doesn’t have to. Unseen and unremarked upon, those bloody venues nonetheless inhabit the entire 83 minutes of David Zeiger’s impassioned documentary like some deadly, creeping virus for which there’s no cure.
Zeiger’s actual subject, which he says has been on his mind for decades, is the GI antiwar movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a phenomenon far more powerful than Swift boaters and neocon revisionists would have us believe. From its mild beginnings—poetry readings and discussion groups for young recruits—to its angriest, most desperate measures (the “fragging” of officers in the field by their own men), radical opposition to the Vietnam War by thousands of our own servicemen has been largely forgotten. So have the uniformed dissidents’ underground newspapers, pirate radio stations, and huge stateside demonstrations. If we can believe Zeiger (and his evidence is pretty convincing), the entire movement has been more or less erased from the record, like the inconvenient fact of romantic love in 1984 or the notion of individual freedom in Stalinist Russia.
Sir! No Sir! recalls the follies and failures of one American war, but disturbing parallels to the current one are inescapable. For Zeiger, who as a young activist helped organize demonstrations of veterans against the war, the time is right to remember. To that end, he has assembled a collection of grizzled servicemen who have plenty to say about what happened to them. Dr. Howard Levy, a dermatologist who served three years in prison for refusing to continue training Green Beret medics, tells how during his court martial, hundreds of GIs would hang out of their barracks windows, flashing him the peace sign or the clenched fist. David Cline, an ex-grunt wounded three times in combat, recalls the terrible day that he shot a North Vietnamese soldier at close range and, moments later, stared into the dead man’s face, wondering about his family, his life, his dreams. Medic Randy Rowland remembers grotesquely paralyzed U.S. soldiers begging him to kill them in their hospital beds because they couldn’t do it themselves. Later, convicted of mutiny, Rowland recalls, “Within two days of hitting the stockade, I was facing a death sentence for singing ‘We Shall Overcome.'” (The Seattle resident will join other vets from Sir! No Sir! to help introduce the 7 p.m. screening on Friday, Aug. 11.)
Love her or leave her, Jane Fonda’s also in the film, talking (a bit self- absorbedly) about how she found a way to combine her acting career with her antiwar sentiments (“It just seemed like a perfect fit”). As for John Kerry, he’s not mentioned, perhaps because Zeiger thought he would have been a major distraction. You’ll have to catch Going Upriver for that story.
As it is, this one is compelling enough: a potent mix of outrage, residual anger, and sorrow that speaks not just to the legacy of our misadventures in Vietnam but to the entire uncertain future of a nation at war. BILL GALLO