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Sir! No, Sir! A Lost History

Reviewed by Paul Cox

Presidio Mutiny--Sit-down strike of 27 prisoners at the Presidio Stockade over the killing of a prisoner by a guard. They were charged with Mutiny, a capital offense.

Donald Duncan, Howard Levy, Susan Schnall, and Keith Mather are names that do not, as far as I know, appear in any high school or college history texts that survey the Vietnam War.  But they should.  Sir! No, Sir! is lost history excavated, displayed, and annotated. Filmmaker David Zieger presents some of the highlights of the diffuse but exceedingly important anti-war and anti-military movement by active-duty servicemen and servicewomen during the Vietnam War.

Most texts minimally cover the anti-war movement, generally focusing on a few seminal events such as the 1968 Chicago police riot, the large mobilizations, or draft-card burners--and generally take a neutral to semi-hostile tone. But nary a word is spent on the actions of these early four and thousands of others who as active duty GI’s gave the brass that good old late night indigestion.

DZ at Armed Farces Day--the 1971 Armed Farces Day demonstration of over 1,500 GIs in Killeen, home of Ft. Hood. Guy with the bullhorn is me.

Duncan’s high-profile resignation from the Green Beanies, and Dr. Levy’s refusal to train Special Forces medics for Vietnam were the first indications that all was not well in the ranks, and Dave Zieger’s film captures very well the immense importance of their stands.

The brass saw the GI Movement as one of several elements of the poor morale that very quickly dragged down the effectiveness of the US fighting forces in Vietnam. Drugs and desertions were the two other critical morale indicators, but it was the organizers and barracks lawyers who were going to bring down the house of cards upon which military discipline was built.

Zeiger, himself a GI activist at Fort Hood, effectively uses the available footage and still graphics to tell a compelling story about the resistance within the military. He also filmed numerous very moving interviews with people who were central to these events.

Duncan, about his tour in Vietnam: “I was really proud of what I thought I was doing. The problem I had was realizing that what I was doing wasn’t right. I was doing it right, but I wasn’t doing right. As bad as the [torture of prisoners] was, the cynicism that attached to it was the part that was really sickening.”

Mather, about his arrest during the Presidio Nine’s high-profile resignation from the military: “I had nothing to lose, and I had no idea what was going to come. That’s a free place, a really free place, you know? You don’t know what’s going to happen or where you are going, but you know what you are doing.”

Schnall, an army nurse who helped organize the first anti-war demonstration by and for GI’s and veterans: “I remembered hearing about the B-52 bombers that were dropping leaflets on Vietnam, urging the Vietnamese to defect. And I thought, if they can do it overseas, then we can hire a small private plane and load it up with leaflets and drop them over bases in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

The film makes clear that organizers and resisters sometimes paid heavy prices. Levy spent 3 years in prison; Schnall was court-martialed for wearing her uniform to a demonstration; Mather escaped the Presidio stockade and spent 18 years in exile in Canada, then 5 months at Leavenworth when he was arrested back in the States in 1984. A marine activist was gunned down in Oceanside; the Fort Hood Three got 5 years and dishonorable discharges for refusing orders to Vietnam; two black marines were given 6-10 years for organizing a meeting to discuss whether black GIs should go to Vietnam.

Still, the GI movement eventually reached from Germany to Cambodia, from Fort Bliss to West Point. Nearly 300 underground newspapers were printed and distributed surreptitiously by GI’s during the war.

Coffee houses, bookstores, and off-base “safe houses” sprung up all over, supported by veterans and civilian anti-war activists. Civilian lawyers were recruited to help with the legal problems. Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and others mounted the FTA show that toured the US, Europe, and Asia. They played to tens of thousands of enthusiastic GIs, carrying an unequivocal anti-war, anti-military, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperial message.

Ultimately, anti-war sentiments, faltering “morale,” and a general lack of enthusiasm for the idea of being the last man to die in Vietnam, led to a near breakdown of fighting ability within the military. GI’s refused to deploy to the Democratic Convention in 1968. Troops in Vietnam refused orders to patrol. The military admits to more than 1600 instances of fragging. Naval ships were monkey wrenched. Thousands of GIs signed petitions against the war. At least 500,000 deserted. Added to the hundreds of thousands of young men who avoided or resisted the draft, these realities eventually forced Nixon to pull troops out of Vietnam as surely as any other pressure. The Vietnamese were courageous and steadfast, and were not going to give up; but it wasn’t our economy or even the general lack of popularity of the war--it was, as Billy Dean Smith says in the film, “the low state of morale among enlisted men.”

Sir! No, Sir! skims the surface of the GI movement, touching some highlights, leaving others unexamined. For example, the first attempt at organizing a union of active duty GI’s isn’t mentioned. It was started at Fort Sill by Andy Stapp and others as the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU). Important support organizations the United States Servicemen’s Fund (USSF) and Pacific Counseling Service (PCS) also aren’t mentioned. But all provided crucial funding, legal aid, and organizing expertise to dozens if not hundreds of GI initiatives throughout the world.

David Cortright’s 1975 book Soldiers in Revolt, recently reprinted by Haymarket Press, and Richard Moser’s The New Winter Soldiers are two sources of more detail about the GI movement for those who wish to learn—or revisit—those times.

Still, Zeiger picked many important events of the GI movement, and when the film was screened this summer at the Veterans for Peace conference in Dallas, some young Iraq vets and resistors present were delighted to learn of that history, having had no clue of its existence. Resurrected history, presented in this well-paced format, will be a useful addition to any history curriculum. It may even enjoy a modest commercial run if the filmmakers can get it marketed.

For me, a survivor of Vietnam but a veteran of the GI movement, the film captured my own activist compulsion when former and current activist David Cline described his disillusionment with the war: “You find out that it’s all lies, they are just lying to the American people. And your silence just means you are a part of keeping that lie going. I couldn’t stop; I couldn’t be silent. I felt I had a responsibility to my friends, and to the country, in general. And to advocate for the Vietnamese (who were) fighting for their country.