War and Misremembrance

Washington City Paper | May 19, 2006
There’s a vogue these days for the secret history, which deciphers an intricate conspiracy in terms that are—and this just might have something to do with its appeal—satisfyingly tidy. Hollywood has long embraced such tales, and this week it unveils one of the most anticipated: The Da Vinci Code. The secrets this film contains are so shattering that Columbia Pictures declined to show it to critics in time for the Washington City Paper’s deadline. (If only there were a book we could have read to reveal its mysteries.) So for now, we must turn to the personal-meets-political revelations of Sir! No Sir! and The Lost City. Vietnam and antiwar-movement veteran David Zeiger’s powerful documentary is a rejoinder to the largely successful attempts to delete GI resistance to that conflict from the record. Actor-turned-director Andy Garcia’s fictionalized account of his native Cuba’s 1959 revolution is more romantic and less urgent, perhaps because its political message—Castro is a bastard—isn’t exactly breaking news.

A conventionally assembled and structured documentary, Zeiger’s film takes a largely chronological passage from a few prescient ’60s military dissidents to the wider antiwar campaign that had developed by the early ’70s. But in its final segment, Sir! No Sir! expands its critique to include right-wing efforts to depict Vietnam vets as an abused minority, victimized by leftist elitists and other unpatriotic creeps. This argument is so crucial that it rallies “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, long silent on the war, to speak out once again. (Or maybe she’s involved because her son, Troy Garity, is the movie’s narrator.)

The doc opens with footage of napalm bombing—Apocalypse Now for real—and then introduces Dr. Howard Levy, who spent three years in prison for refusing to train medics heading to Vietnam; Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse who organized an antiwar leaflet drop over San Francisco; and Louis Font, who graduated with honors from West Point but announced he wouldn’t serve in Southeast Asia. These people were trouble, but their positions could have been (and were) called “isolated.” Things became trickier for the U.S. military, and for presidents Johnson and Nixon, when antiwar soldiers, sailors, and airmen began working together.

After an inmate was shot in the stockade of San Francisco’s Presidio in October 1968, other prisoners staged a sit-in, which led to 27 convictions of mutiny. Established near military bases, GI coffeehouses provided places for men on their way to Vietnam to meet antiwar activists, many of them veterans or still on active duty. The underground GI press began an antiwar USO alternative whose acronym officially stood for Free Theater Association—but also, in an ironic use of a military recruitment slogan, for Fun, Travel, Adventure. And, of course, for Fuck the Army. Black nationalism arose within the ranks, and, the film alleges, African-American soldiers at Fort Hood were arrested and beaten for refusing to work as riot-control forces at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In 1971, the Winter Soldier conference assembled Vietnam vets to recount atrocities they had witnessed—and committed.

The standard line is that the war was lost at home, where protesters undermined the morale of troops at the front. Sir! No Sir! contends that the soldiers themselves were a much bigger impediment than the demonstrators. Vietnam brought more than 500,000 incidents of desertion, as well as the phenomenon of “fragging,” in which hated officers were simply killed, sometimes by the fragmentation grenades that gave the practice its name. Whole companies began refusing to fight, which, according to Zeiger’s sources, forced Nixon and Kissinger to switch to an air war. No wonder today’s battle planners prefer a stretched-thin volunteer force to a reintroduction of the draft.

Only 84 minutes long, Sir! No Sir! doesn’t have time to fully develop its concluding topic. But Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran who’s now a sociology professor, debunks every aspect of the story of the spat-upon vet, which has passed into popular myth thanks to the Rambo films and their ilk. Its setting at a commercial airport is wrong, he asserts, because returning vets didn’t arrive there; so is the common claim that the spitter was female, because, in U.S. culture, spitting at others is an overwhelmingly male behavior. Offscreen, in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Lembcke makes many other interesting connections, including the fact that proto-Nazis spread similar stories of spat-upon veterans after World War I.

Lembcke’s book is highly critical of movies, including plenty of now-obscure ones, for establishing the image of the Vietnam vet as damaged goods, betrayed by his country and capable of being redeemed only by another war—which both Hollywood and the Pentagon were happy to arrange. Sir! No Sir! even includes a clip from First Blood derived from the kind of script Lembcke says is common after “lost” wars: “I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win.” The way Zeiger chooses to counter this mythology, however, is a credit to his medium: He doesn’t give Rambo the last word.

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