Sir! No Sir!

It is impossible to watch David Zeiger’s documentary about the GI antiwar movement during Vietnam, Sir! No Sir! (IMDB), in 2006 without thinking about the war in Iraq, and the producers of the film have worked with groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War to campaign against the war in Iraq by providing free DVDs of Sir! No Sir! to active duty and deployed soliders. More crucially, the activist, agit-prop spirit of the film inspires action through its focus on the Vietnam soldiers’ acts of resistance. But what I found most compelling about the film, and what will make Sir! No Sir! an important document long after the Iraq War, was its use of archival materials to remind audiences of a history of protest that has been lost, if not entirely, rewritten in the years since the Vietnam War.

Specifically the film features extensive TV coverage of the acts of rebellion of thousands of American soldiers against the war, as well as lesser known documents such as Newreel films about the soldiers’ acts of resistance. The film also featured an extended discussion of the underground newspapers produced by the soldiers, primarily using typewriters and mimeograph machines as their “press” (the film’s website provides links to several libraries with extensive holdings of these GI newspapers), and as a media historian, I’m fascinated by this do-it-yourself use of media.

In addition, the film documents the coffeehouse culture that grew up around many of the military bases where soldiers were preparing to go to war, giving some sense of the culture of resistance as well as the documents associated with it, and what fascinated me about the courage of soldiers who saw what was happening in Vietnam and joined the anti-war movement. In Bruce Patterson’s review of the film, he describes in some detail his experiences in the anti-war movement. Among other activities, he contributed to the Bragg Briefs, a GI paper distributed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Sir! No Sir! also explores how the protests against Vietnam have been rewritten, particularly the urban myth that soldiers were routinely spat upon in airports by hippies. The film features Jerry Lembcke, who has challenged the credibility of this myth in his book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. The film demonstrates in some detail how films such as Rambo have managed to rewrite these protest narratives. While the film spends less time thinking about how andwhy history gets rewritten, its true value is in offering compelling images of the very significant GI anti-war movement during the Vietnam War.

Sir! No Sir! is currently touring the US, playing in a few theaters a week before being released in July on DVD. It’s scheduled to play in DC through Thursday at the E Street Theater.

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