Sir! No Sir!—break the chains
Published Jun 16, 2006 11:09 PM
From the first moments of “Sir! No
Sir!” the film grabbed me and hurled me back to the sights, sounds and
political taste of 1968: to the struggle to stop the war against Vietnam, to the
struggle to stop the war against Black America and to the hundreds of thousands
of U.S. youths who, while wearing a uniform of one of the armed forces, fought
to end that war, fought racism and tried to upend the U.S. war machine.
Jane Fonda’s FTA tour, 1970.
you lived through that period, see the film to remind yourself what it was like.
If you didn’t, see it for a glimpse of what was possible, and imagine what
can be possible.
Producer and director Dave Zeiger’s portrayal of
the events he chose to show was accurate, though one’s heart beat faster
seeing five years condensed into 90 minutes. Moving back and forth between more
recent interviews and archival footage, he lets GIs and dissident officers and
Jane Fonda tell their stories.
Some of the best archival footage is from
the FTA—not Fun, Travel and Adventure but F—k The Army—tour
that Fonda, Fred Gardner and Donald Sutherland did in 1970 as an anti-war
version of Bob Hope’s USO tour. Fonda had to perform off base, but still
played before tens of thousands of GIs in Japan and Okinawa.
himself part of what was known as the “coffee-house movement.” These
were anti-war activists, youths for the most part, who set up “coffee
houses” in towns near the large military bases where tens of thousands of
GIs were being trained. Zeiger was at the coffee house in Killeen, Texas, near
Fort Hood, called The Oleo Strut—named after a helicopter part.
don’t remember ever meeting Zeiger, but we experienced many of the same
events, at a different angle. I was a civilian organizer from 1967 to 1971 with
the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) and circulation manager for The
Bond, the ASU’s monthly newspaper—which reached tens of thousands,
maybe hundreds of thousands of GIs. In August 1968, and again in October of that
year, I was in Killeen and at Fort Hood with other ASU members to help with the
legal and political defense of the Black soldiers known as the Fort Hood
A broad span of resistance
“Sir! No Sir!”
manages to cover a broad span of military resistance. It shows the moral
repugnance to an unjust war felt by officers like Capt. Howard Levy, who refused
to train Special Forces to cure skin ailments—a talent they used to try to
win the confidence of villagers in order to better murder the political leaders
of the Vietnamese liberation movement.
It also shows how some Black
soldiers, fed up with racism, identified more with the Vietnamese than with
their white officers, and how all were affected by the revolutionary upsurge in
the Black communities in 1968.
After Martin Luther King, Jr. was
assassinated in April of that year, there were rebellions in 100 U.S. cities,
some of which were repressed through the intervention of the U.S. Army. So
should it be any surprise that 50 to 100 Black GIs at Fort Hood, all having
recently returned from a tour in Vietnam, balked at being sent to Chicago for
the Democratic National Convention?
“fragging”—the action by rank-and-file GIs of killing
particularly vicious, racist and bloodthirsty officers and sergeants with
fragmentation grenades. It happened a lot during the Vietnam War. The film
focuses on the case of Billy Dean Smith, a Black activist GI who was obviously
framed on a fragging charge because he was politically outspoken. He finally won
the court-martial, but only after spending a long time locked up.
of movie reviewers in the corporate press attacked Zeiger because, to them, the
film seemed sympathetic to the fragging. “Is he for violence?” one
asked, apparently forgetting that those who “frag” are soldiers and
marines who are trained and ordered to kill Vietnamese people who did them no
harm. These troops have simply awakened and pointed their weapons at those who
order them to kill.
Even more reviews chided Zeiger for “not
presenting the other side.” We hope as many people watch “Sir! No
Sir!” as watched the one-sided, racist “Rambo” fantasy or
distortions of history like “Forrest Gump.”
The voices you
hear first and most often in “Sir! No Sir!”—at least those
giving the most complex explanations for their resistance—are from
dissident officers like Levy and Lt. Susan Schnall, Special Forces Master Ser
geant Donald Duncan and a group of Air Force codebreakers. Their explanations
about why they were ready to face punishment are honest, centering on their
moral revulsion to the war, in stark contrast to the hypocrisy of the Johnson
and Nixon administrations and the Pentagon brass.
The movie represents
best that part of the 1960s movement that was not oriented toward the working
class and the class struggle, but that had a revolutionary spirit, a growing
solidarity with the Black liberation struggle and with the Vietnamese and a
disdain for authority.
The army in class society
however, another dimension to the GI movement. The military is an instrument of
rule by the capitalist class over the working class. The military’s own
struc ture also reflects, in a more rigid way than in civilian life, the class
differences and class privileges in society.
Instead of the civilian
worker, supervisor and boss, in the army there are enlisted people, officers and
generals. Rules that forbid fraternizing and make obedience to orders a prime
virtue help exacerbate these differences. Breaking this rigid system, breaking
the chain of command in any way, has revolutionary
There’s no doubt that the heroic struggle of the
Vietnamese people to liberate their country was a driving force of the
resistance of enlisted people inside the U.S. military, and that the Black
liberation struggle had an additional impact. But in addition, the GIs who
joined the ASU also hated being forced to salute their officers and call them
“sir”; they hated the orders and those who handed them out; they
hated the privilege of rank and wanted to elect their own struggle leaders.
This class attitude came through in “Sir! No Sir!” in the
scenes with the Black enlisted men. Also in one of the interviews with a white
GI in Vietnam about fragging, the interviewer asks him about attitudes toward
the officers and sergeants. “Well,” the GI answers, “you know
we call them ‘pigs.’ That’s our name for them.”
If you go to the site www.sirnosir.com you’ll find a schedule of
where the film is showing, and lots of GI movement history—including many
references to ASU organizers Pvt. Andy Stapp, Pvt. Terry Klug, Pvt. Tom Tuck and
others who made it clear during the organizing from 1967 to 1974 that the battle
of GIs against the Pentagon is a class struggle. They too were willing to risk
punishment, but their goal was to organize enough of their class brothers and
sisters to win that struggle.
Today, let’s make sure that
“Sir! No Sir!” gets to this generation’s enlisted people in
Email: [email protected]
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe [email protected]
Support independent news DONATE