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Steve Theberge
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006

Sir! No Sir!, the poignant new documentary from filmmaker David Zeiger, could not have been released at a more relevant or important moment. Tracing the evolution of GI resistance from 1965 to 1975, the film uses an agile blend of interviews, stock footage, and personal narratives to unearth a story of resistance that defined a generation.
In 84 taut, fast-paced minutes, Sir! No Sir! manages to scrape away 40 years of mythology and cover-up about GI resistance during the Vietnam War and offer some invaluable lessons for the anti-war movement today.

One of the more polished and coherent of the recent crop of anti-war documentaries, the film takes a clear-headed look at the anatomy of a movement, from the GI coffeehouses and underground newspapers that proliferated across the country, to the uprisings of imprisoned conscientious objectors. Without exaggerating the scope or scale of the GI resistance movement, Sir! No Sir! is both a call to action and a deeply textured history.

The film begins as the GI resistance movement did, with a handful of people very publicly refusing to participate in the war in Vietnam, often facing severe punishment for their actions. As the war escalated and the civilian peace movement expanded, GI resistance exploded on bases across the globe, rapidly maturing in its political expression and organizational structure. By the early 70’s it had its own newspapers and organizations, and even its own roadshow—Jane Fonda’s “FTA Tour”, which played to thousands of soldiers across the world. Accordingly, as Sir! No Sir! unfolds, it reveals a sprawling network of refusal, as multi-racial, working-class, and politically diverse as the US armed forces itself. Zeiger wisely steers clear of the saccharine “flower-power” narrative that plagues so many films about the 60’s, choosing instead to illustrate the profoundly grassroots nature of the resistance.

You probably won’t recognize most of those who appear in the film and for good reason—this movement was made up of everyday soldiers, people who underwent a profound personal transformation and faced tremendous risk and repression. These men and women are shown decades later still proud, and often still moved to tears as they describe what it was like to refuse to fight. For those involved in supporting and building the current GI resistance and veterans’ movement, the film’s chronology is a heartening one, in that it clearly illustrates both the centrality of GI resistance and the possibility of a movement growing in the most unlikely of places.

Key figures in the peace and anti-war movement explain their transformation from soldier to resister. We see how this movement was sparked and led by soldiers, yet deeply bolstered by support from outside the ranks. We see Greg Payton, a leader of the primarily African-American rebellion at the Long Binh Jail military stockades, who was imprisoned for refusing to fight. We walk the grounds of the Presidio Army Stockades with Keith Mather, jailed for publicly refusing orders to go to Vietnam, and an instigator of the Presidio 27 uprising. Each of the interviews radiates a sense of humility and urgency, laying bare the trauma of war and the redemption that can be found in collective action.

Political forces

Moreover, Sir! No Sir! articulates the clear connection between the war abroad and the war at home, presenting the strong identification that many soldiers had with the Black Panthers and other stateside revolutionary organizations. In an impassioned example of the maturation of the movement, we see a young soldier read a statement (in front of thousands of his peers) demanding the withdrawal of US armed forces from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Japan, Guantanemo…until he is drowned out with cheers. It is a snapshot of a movement against global imperialism at its zenith, miles from its humble beginnings.

While it deftly avoids mentioning the war in Iraq, Sir! No Sir! is structured as both a handbook and a cautionary tale for a new generation of anti-war activists. It offers up some essential lessons for our work, all the while warning us of the complexities and difficulty of building and supporting a GI movement. Refusing orders is no small act, and Sir! No Sir! shows us the deep need for support and community that many anti-war soldiers have. The lesson that the film leaves us with is not that we need to replicate the tactics of the movement during Vietnam, but that we need to replicate it’s adaptability, it’s commitment to long term relationship building with the troops, and its persistent creativity and commitment to popular education. As a step in this direction, Zeiger is promoting the film as an organizing tool, and has teamed up with Iraq Veterans Against the War to offer free DVDs to soldiers in Iraq. This raises a much larger question for those committed to supporting contemporary resisters and anti war-vets—how do we go about translating individual refusal into collective action?

The world we live in and the wars we are fighting could not be more different than that of the 60’s. The draft, arguably one of the most radicalizing political forces of the 20th century, has gone the way of the GI coffeehouse, and the anti-war movement today lacks both the teeth and the urgency of a generation ago. Sir! No Sir! says that we cannot give up. It shows us that GI resistance is integral to the success of our movement, that strong, principled, and accountable relationships with veterans and soldiers are the key to our ability to win, and that most of all, we cannot lose faith in the possibility of individual transformation in every moment.

Displaced Films, 2006