Sir! No Sir!

The title of David Zeiger’s documentary about resistance to the Vietnam war from within the armed forces — Sir! No Sir! — comes without what schoolchildren used to be taught to call a vocative comma after “No.” Perhaps this is another gesture of 1960s-style rebellion against The Man and the intolerable oppression of his rules of punctuation. If so it would certainly fit with the retro feel of the rest of the film. Having been around and politically aware myself at the time, I well remember the sort of drug-addled, know-nothing hippy radicalism into which much of the once-thoughtful antiwar movement had sunk by the time of the Cambodian invasion in 1970. One of Mr Zeiger’s interview subjects says as if he’s proud of the fact, “We really believed that what would stop the war was when soldiers stopped fighting the war.” That kind of babyish, “Give Peace a Chance” naïveté is something that politically serious anti-warriors have been trying to live down for the last 35 years. Mr Zeiger brings it roaring back.

Not only does he bring it back, but he acts as if it had never been away. It probably hadn’t been among the radical fringe to which he belongs. My suspicion is that the new wave of radical chic to which hatred of George W. Bush has given rise in today’s Hollywood is what enabled him to make this throwback to the ‘70s. Still, you’d think that the film would at least have made a gesture or two in the direction of balance and judiciousness. Did none of its interviewees, all of whom protested, resisted, deserted or mutinied during the war, ever agonize about what he did? Wasn’t there anyone among the anti-war GIs to whom it occurred to say that he loved his country and that it caused him indescribable pain to oppose it, and work against it? Apparently not. Everyone here really is, it seems, from the hate-America party, carelessly throwing around charges of “crimes” and “atrocities” against their democratically elected leaders as if they weren’t even controversial.

Here, too, the so-called “Winter Soldier” investigations of 1971 are still what their publicists and media apologists said they were at the time, an exposé of a military establishment rife with corruption and unpunished war criminals. You wouldn’t know that Winter Soldier had subsequently been shown — by the historian Guenter Lewy, for example — to have been a miscellany of unsubstantiated charges brought up as part of a propaganda circus. Like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which organized that circus, Mr Zeiger’s film takes it for granted that the US was the bad guy, the enemy the good. The question of why we went into Vietnam in the first place never even arises. I guess he assumes that it was because we were the fascists, oppressors and warmongers the communists always said we were, in which case no further explanation is needed. Naturally, too, the enemy never appears here in any other guise than as victims of the American war machine. There they were, it seems, minding their own business, when we decided to come along to oppress and murder them en masse.

You would have to say that the quality of thought and argument in all this is astonishingly low, the propaganda amazingly crude, except that since the films of Michael Moore came into vogue, stupidity, crudeness and shrill one-sidedness seem to have become common in political documentaries. The people who buy tickets to them don’t expect to learn anything they didn’t already know, only to have their most treasured political resentments flattered and encouraged. In other words, they come to the subject of Vietnam in the same spirit as Mr Zeiger’s interview subjects, some of whom did hard time and all of whom have a vested interest in justifying themselves retrospectively for acts that many people still regard as disloyal, if not treasonous.

Even the practice of “fragging” — the murder of officers and non-coms by their own men with fragmentation grenades — is only mentioned in connection with the prosecution of an alleged fragger, one Billy Dean Smith, who turned out to be innocent. After his acquittal, Mr Smith went off his head, so we are told, which adds the ruin of his life to the overflowing bill of indictment against the US Army. Meanwhile, it is (at least implicitly) time to Rally ‘Round the Frag, Boys for Mr Zeiger and Co., since the victim for them is not the poor guy, whoever he was, who got fragged but the guy falsely accused of fragging him. But who cares? Presumably the fragee got what he deserved, since in order to have been fragged he must have been among the vile war criminals who made up, on this film’s showing, pretty much all that part of the army that weren’t among the protesters and peaceniks.

At the end of his film, Mr Zeiger blandly informs us that “the war ended in April 1975.” There is no mention of the Paris treaty of 1973, of the subsequent violation of it by the North Vietnamese, of America’s betrayal of its South Vietnamese ally or — of course — of the misery visited upon those tainted by association with Americans or the boat people who, over the next decade and more, were so desperate to escape from the communist prison we left behind us. There’s not a word, either, about the killing fields of Cambodia. Do you have to wonder why? At one point in the film we see a montage of fronts from underground newspapers and magazines of the period. One contains a mock disclaimer: Warning! This contains communist propaganda! Though intended ironically, this was most likely no more than the truth. Anyway, there should be a similar warning label attached to Mr Zeiger’s film. That it is propaganda on behalf of a system which is now in retreat in Vietnam itself, as in all but a couple of isolated outposts where once it existed, ought to tell you something about the current state of political discourse in Hollywood.

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