The Vietnam War is known for its brutality and the protests in America surrounding the controversial involvement of the US army. David Zeiger’s Sir! No Sir! (2005) breaks away from the typical images of loyal troops and turns a thoughtful eye to a topic that is not widely discussed: the involvement of American soldiers in the anti-war movement. From boycotts, to subversive underground newspapers and protests, growing numbers of GI’s made it known loud and clear that they did not support the war. Zeiger’s film shines a light on personal stories of these veterans and shows another side of the army, one led by its conscience.
The film includes interviews of many veterans, both male and female, who were drafted in Vietnam and would soon discover that they could not support their government’s actions. Many of these soldiers came from military families and had fathers and grandfathers who fought in the ‘good’ wars (ie. WW1 and WW2), where there was a more obvious line between good vs. evil. They soon discovered the Vietnamese war was another beast entirely. Many note with disgust that the measure for US success was based on the war’s accumulated body count, which of course not only included Viet Cong, but innocent villagers: women, children and elderly alike. When it became clear that the war and what they were asked to do flew in the face of everything they believed, boycotts and subversive actions became commonplace. The army moved quickly to stamp out any insubordinate behaviour. They crushed protests, shut down coffee shops near army bases which served as meeting grounds and organization centers for like-minded soldiers, and served prison sentences to any offenders they could uncover.
Although focusing mostly on the experience of white men, Sir! No Sir! incorporates biracial elements by also tackling the reactions of black men enlisted in the American army. They too deeply disagreed with the war, which raged during the Civil Rights and Black Power movement. These social justice movements had far reaching effects and galvanized black troops to protest. Many simply could not justify fighting for a country that had no regard for their lives or their rights as citizens.
Sir! No Sir! makes excellent use of archive film, photographs, and documents to illustrate its points. It contains a strong message and interesting historical subject matter. And yet, I believe the film could have benefited by including interviews of former generals or soldiers who were not a part of the movement in order to hear juxtaposing viewpoints. I also wish more time had been spent on the assertion that the image of the scorned Vietnam veteran was actually a myth. Reaching out to other soldiers to get their take on this ‘myth’ would have enhanced the film, and explored what I believe is a very intriguing idea. Furthermore, although the material is interesting, the documentary lacks a key narrative thread to draw its audience through the GI anti-war movement. The structure of Sir! No Sir! is very pieced together, more like watching the news or looking at a bulletin board of a collection of events, rather than being pulled into a compelling narrative tale. While each form of protest covered is interesting, the film feels flat. Despite this, Zeiger’s film is still important and worth viewing to bring awareness to a largely ignored movement of great importance, particularly in light of current events.