“General, your tank is a mighty vehicle.
It shatters the forest and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs drivers.
General, a man is quite expendable.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.”
-- Bertolt Brecht
award-winning actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland organized an
anti-war review, touring U.S. military bases and towns around the world,
the GI rebellion against the war in Vietnam was already in full force.
In one theatrical episode, evoking laughter
and applause from thousands of soldiers and Marines, Fonda played the part
of an aide to President Richard Nixon.
“Richard,” she exclaims. “There’s a terrible
demonstration going on outside.”
Nixon replies: “Oh, there’s always a
demonstration going on outside.”
Fonda: “But Richard. This one is completely
out of control. They’re storming the White House.”
“Oh, I think I better call out the 3rd
Marines.” Nixon exclaims.
“You, can’t, Richard,” says Fonda.
“Why not?” says Nixon.
She answers: “Because they ARE the 3rd Marines!”
Archival footage of the Fonda tour appears
in David Zeiger’s exciting new film, Sir, No Sir, which
opens in select
theatres throughout the U.S. this month.
Sir, No Sir, the untold story of the GI movement to end the war in
Vietnam, is a documentary. It’s not a work of nostalgia. It’s an activist
film, and it comes at a time when GI resistance to the current war is
spreading throughout the United States.
There are more than 100 films -- fiction and nonfiction -- about the war
in Vietnam. Not one deals seriously with the most pivotal events of the
time -- the anti-war actions of GIs within the military.
The three-decade blackout of GI resistance is not due to any lack of
evidence. Information about the resistance has always been available.
According to the Pentagon, over 500,000 incidents of desertion took place
between 1966 and 1977. Officers were fragged. Entire units refused to
Large social movements create their own “committees of correspondence” --
communication systems beyond the control of power-holders and police
authority. Despite prison sentences, police spies, agent provocateurs,
vigilante bombing of their offices, coffeehouses and underground papers
sprung up in the dusty, often remote towns that surrounded U.S. military
bases throughout the world. “Just about every base in the world had an
underground paper,” Director Zeiger tells us in Mother Jones.
When the first coffeehouse opened in Columbia, South Carolina, near Fort
Jackson, an average of six hundred GIs visited each week. Moved by the
courage and audacity of soldiers for peace, civilians raised funds to help
operate the coffeehouses and to provide legal defense.
When local proprietors, like Tyrell Jewelers near Fort Hood, fleeced GIs,
GI boycotts were common. At one point, the Department of Defense tripled
its purchase of non-union produce in order to break the United Farm
Workers boycott. American GIs, many from the fields and barrios of
California, immediately joined the Farm Worker pickets. Mocking signs
appeared on military bases saying “Officers Buy Lettuce.” The GI movement
was a profoundly class-conscious movement.
A counter-culture blossomed inside the military. Affinity groups, like
“The Buddies” and “The Freaks” were formed. Afros, rock and soul music,
bracelets and beads, the use of peace signs and clenched fists -- a
culture antithetical to the totalitarian culture of military life --
proliferated. Prison riots in the stockades, from Fort Dix to the Marine
brig in Da Nang, were common by 1970.
In response to a detested recruitment slogan -- ”Fun, Travel, Adventure”
-- GIs named one periodical “FTA,” which meant “Fuck The Army.” When GIs
ceased to cooperate with superiors, the military lost control of culture
Military attacks on GI rights -- the right to hold meetings, to read
papers, to think for themselves, to resist illegal orders -- did not
subdue the growing anti-military movement. Repression actually widened the
Kevin Benderman, Kelly Dougherty, Camilo Mejia -- to name a few
war resisters of our time -- the GI resisters of the 60s and 70s showed
incredible courage. Pvt. David Samas, one of the
Fort Hood Three, who refused to serve in Vietnam, said in one
impassioned speech: “We have not been scared. We have not been in the
least shaken from our paths. Even if physical violence is used against us,
we will fight back ... the GI should be reached somehow. He doesn't want
to fight. He has no reason to risk his life. And the peace movement is
dedicated to his safety.”
In July 1970 forty combat officers sent a letter to the
commander-in-chief. If the war continues, they wrote, “young Americans in
the military will simply refuse en masse to cooperate.” That’s exactly
what happened. Nothing is so fearful to power-holders as non-cooperation.
In 1971, even the Armed Forces Journal published an article by a
former Marine Colonel, entitled, “The collapse of the Armed Forces.”
A point was reached where the resistance became infectious, almost
unstoppable. It spread from barracks to aircraft carriers, from army
stockades and navy brigs into the conservative military towns where GIs
were stationed. Even elite colleges like West Point were affected by
revolt. Thousands of defiant soldiers went to prison. Thousands went into
exile in Canada and Sweden.
In the end the GI anti-war movement -- enlisted youth, draftees, poor kids
from ghettos, farms and barrios -- paralyzed the biggest death machine of
modern times. In short, people power altered the course of history. (The
Soldiers In Revolt, by David Cortright, makes an excellent
companion to Sir, No Sir.)
Meeting The War Resisters
Sir, No Sir
is organized around the testimony of prominent war resisters. Yes, there
are a lot of talking heads in “Sir, No Sir.” But their revelations, backed
with images and footage of rebellion, are unforgettable. We meet Donald
Duncan, the decorated member of the Green Berets, who resigned in defiance
in 1963 after 15 months of service in Vietnam. His article in Ramparts, “I
Quit,” generated great excitement in the student movement.
We also meet Howard Levy, the Green Beret medic who refused to use medical
practices as a political tactic in war. His court martial caused a huge
impact on GI and civilian consciousness. The troops supported him.
“When the court martial began on base,” he tells us on film, “it was the
most remarkable thing when hundreds and hundreds would hang out of the
windows of the barracks and give me the V-sign, or give me the clenched
fist. Something had changed here, something very important was
That something was GI revolt.
Thousands of separate, individual acts of moral defiance eventually merged
into a collective movement with a specific goal: end the war.
Sir, No Sir is not a preachy film. Geiger does not lecture us; he
tells a story. Yet we cannot afford to miss the built-in lesson from the
eventual triumph of the GI resistance, a lesson that goes against media
ideology and conventional wisdom. In the words of George Lakey, “People
power is simply more powerful than military power. Nothing is more
important for today’s activists to know than this: the foundation of
political rule is the compliance of the people, not violence. People power
is more powerful than violence. The sooner we act on that knowledge, the
sooner the U.S. Empire can be brought down.”
Of course times have changed. The ’60s are over. And while every
generation determines its own destiny in its own way, while history itself
is but “a light on the stern” -- it is still true that “The spirit of the
people is greater than man’s technology.”
Sir, No Sir is a work of hope.
is a columnist for
Motion Magazine. His latest essay on military resistance appears
10 Excellent Reasons Not To Join The Military, edited by Elizabeth
Weill-Greenberg, just published by New Press.
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