Here’s a strange thing about the people who protested the Vietnam War: a lot of them were soldiers. Even stranger, that’s not what most people remember.
It is, however, what’s recognized by Sir! No Sir!, a documentary about the GI anti-war movement during Vietnam. Consisting of interviews and archival footage, Sir! No Sir! begins with the words of steely-eyed Green Beret Donald Duncan: “You must understand I liked being a Green Beret. I thought it was good…I was doing it right. But I wasn’t doing right.”
Duncan’s is the first of many stories about soldiers, most of whom were in the service, protesting against the war they were being told to fight. What’s surprising about it all is not so much that it happened—and a lot of time is taken to prove it did with story after story supported by press clippings—but that it has somehow been expunged from the record of how opposition to the war shaped up.
But there, on the cover of Life magazine, is the story of soldiers refusing their orders; and in the New York Times, a full-page advertisement signed by 1,400 active duty soldiers decrying the war. In another example, 1,200 sailors on one aircraft carrier sign a petition declaring their opposition to deployment. By the Pentagon’s own count, more than half a million incidents of desertion occurred over the course of the war.
Sir! No Sir! is history—but of forgotten times, a face of the Vietnam protest movement that does not exist in the popular lore of the conflict. In a telling contrast toward the film’s end, after more stories about the burgeoning GI anti-war movement, Sir! No Sir! detours into a discussion of the spat-upon returning veteran, an iconic image often dredged up from America’s collective memory to squelch criticism of later military actions.
Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran, sociology professor and author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, went looking for the returning soldiers who were spat upon but only found reports with tenuous connections to plausibility and myths inflated by fictional representations of the war’s legacy. Instead of soldiers turning against civilians for opposing the war, Lembcke heard numerous accounts of soldiers themselves resisting the war. “If you looked back at the front pages of newspapers in 1969 and 1970, what are you going to see about Vietnam vets?” says Lembcke. “They’re in the streets. They’re political activists. They’re on the Capitol lawn. They’re giving the Nixon administration fits.”
Until now, it’s been easy to forget that.
Sir! No Sir! screens Thursday, April 12, at 5:30 PM and 7:30 PM in UM’s UC Theater as part of the Peace & Justice Film Series. Free