Synopsis and Treatment
Sir! No Sir! A Film About The Gi Movement Against The War In Vietnam.
This is the story of one of the most vibrant and widespread upheavals of the 1960's–one that had profound impact on American society, yet has been virtually obliterated from the collective memory of that time.
In the 1960’s an anti-war movement emerged that altered the course of history. This movement didn’t take place on college campuses, but in barracks and on aircraft carriers. It flourished in army stockades, navy brigs and in the dingy towns that surround military bases. It penetrated elite military colleges like West Point. And it spread throughout the battlefields of Vietnam. It was a movement no one expected, least of all those in it. Hundreds went to prison and thousands into exile. And by 1971 it had, in the words of one colonel, infested the entire armed services. Yet today few people know about the GI movement against the war in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War has been the subject of hundreds of films, both fiction and non-fiction, but this story–the story of the rebellion of thousands of American soldiers against the war–has never been told in film.This is certainly not for lack of evidence. By the Pentagon’s own figures, 503,926 “incidents of desertion” occurred between 1966 and 1971; officers were being “fragged”(killed with fragmentation grenades by their own troops) at an alarming rate; and by 1971 entire units were refusing to go into battle in unprecedented numbers. In the course of a few short years, over 100 underground newspapers were published by soldiers around the world; local and national antiwar GI organizations were joined by thousands; thousands more demonstrated against the war at every major base in the world in 1970 and 1971, including in Vietnam itself; stockades and federal prisons were filling up with soldiers jailed for their opposition to the war and the military.
Yet few today know of these history-changing events.
Sir! No Sir! will change all that. The film does four things: 1) Brings to life the history of the GI movement through the stories of those who were part of it; 2) Reveals the explosion of defiance that the movement gave birth to with never-before-seen archival material; 3) Explores the profound impact that movement had on the military and the war itself; and 4) The feature, 90 minute version, also tells the story of how and why the GI Movement has been erased from the public memory.
I was part of that movement during the 60’s, and have an intimate connection with it. For two years I worked as a civilian at the Oleo Strut in Killeen, Texas–one of dozens of coffeehouses that were opened near military bases to support the efforts of antiwar soldiers. I helped organize demonstrations of over 1,000 soldiers against the war and the military; I worked with guys from small towns and urban ghettos who had joined the military and gone to Vietnam out of a deep sense of duty and now risked their lives and futures to end the war; and I helped defend them when they were jailed for their antiwar activities. My deep connection with the GI movement has given me unprecedented access to those involved, along with a tremendous amount of archival material including photographs, underground papers, local news coverage and personal 8mm footage.
Sir! No Sir! reveals how, thirty years later, the poem by Bertolt Brecht that became an anthem of the GI Movement still resonates:
General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect: He can think.
Like the Vietnam War itself, the GI Antiwar Movement started small and within a few years had exploded into a force that altered history. And like the times from which it grew, the movement involved organized actions and spontaneous resistance, political groups and cultural upheaval. The movement was never characterized by one organization or leader. Rather, between 1966 and 1975, groups of soldiers–some small and some numbering in the thousands–emerged to challenge the war and racism in the military. Group action and individual defiance, from the 500,000 GIs who deserted over the course of the war to the untold numbers who wore peace signs, defied military discipline and avoided combat, created a “Fuck the Army” counter-culture that threatened the entire military culture of the time and changed the course of the war.
Sir! No Sir! Loosely divides the war and movement into four chapters, each reflecting the mood, politics and culture of the years it depicts as American society became increasingly polarized. Here is a brief outline:
1965-1967: “A Few Malcontents.”
As the Johnson administration turns what was initially a small “Police Action” into an all-out war and the peace movement begins, isolated individuals and small groups in the military refuse to participate and are severely punished: Lt. Henry Howe is sentenced to two years hard labor for attending an antiwar demonstration; the Ft. Hood 3 are sentenced to three years hard labor for refusing duty in Vietnam; Howard Levy, a military doctor, refuses to train Special Forces troops and is court-martialed as Donald Duncan, a celebrated member of the Green Berets, resigns after a year in Vietnam; and Corporal William Harvey and Private George Daniels are sentenced to up to 10 years in 1967 for meeting with other marines on Camp Pendleton to discuss whether Blacks should fight in Vietnam.
1968-1969: “We Thought The Revolution Was Starting.”
The war escalates as the peace movement becomes an international mass movement, and soldiers begin forming organizations and taking collective action: The Ft. Hood 43, Black soldiers who refused riot-control duty at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, are sentenced for up to 18 months each; the largest military prison in Vietnam, Long Binh Jail (affectionately called LBJ by the troops), is taken over by Black soldiers who hold it for 2 months; The Presidio 27–prisoners in the stockade on the Presidio Army Base in San Francisco–are charged with mutiny, a capital offense, when they refuse to work after a mentally ill prisoner is killed; underground newspapers published by antiwar GIs appear at almost every military base in the country; the American Serviceman’s Union is formed; antiwar coffeehouses are established outside of military bases. In Vietnam, small combat-refusals occur and are quickly suppressed, but on Christmas Eve, 1969, 50 GIs participate in an illegal antiwar demonstration in Saigon. Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) is formed.
1970-1973: “Sir, My Men Refuse To Fight!”
Opposition to the war turns militant and the counter-culture rises to its peak: Tens of thousands of soldiers desert and flee to Canada, France and Sweden; thousands of soldiers organize and participate in Armed Farces Day demonstrations at military bases; drug use is rampant and underground radio networks flourish in Vietnam as Black and white soldiers increasingly identify with the Antiwar and Black Liberation movements; combat refusals and “fragging” of officers in Vietnam are epidemic. Thousands are jailed for refusing to fight or simply defying military authority, and nearly every U.S. military prison in the world is hit by riots. Jane Fonda’s antiwar review, The FTA Show, tours military bases and is cheered by tens of thousands of soldiers; the Pentagon concludes that over half the ground troops openly oppose the war and shifts its combat strategy from a ground war to an air war; the Navy and Air Force are both riddled with mutinies and acts of sabotage. VVAW holds the Winter Soldier Investigation, exposing American war crimes through the testimony of veterans, and stages the most dramatic demonstration of the Vietnam era as hundreds of veterans hurl their medals onto the Capitol steps.
Epilogue: The Myth Of The Spitting Hippie
As the U.S. military and its allies flee Vietnam in disarray in the Spring of 1975, the government, the media, and Hollywood begin a 20 year process of erasing the GI Movement from the collective memory of the nation and the world. Ronald Reagan’s “Resurgent America” campaign re-writes the history of Vietnam and erases the GI Movement; by 1990, over 100 theatrical films have been produced about the Vietnam War, none of which portray the GI Antiwar Movement or any opposition to the war by soldiers; the myth that antiwar activists routinely spat on returning soldiers is spread as part of the buildup to the 1990 Gulf War.
The story is told with the rising intensity characterized by each chapter–the vivid, heart-wrenching stories of participants in the movement are, fitting the times, surrounded by and infused with the growing swirl of events of which they became a part.
One thing that is startling about the GI Movement, given how thoroughly it has been erased from memory, is how widely it was covered by the media at the time it happened. There are literally thousands of news reports, both from local and national television and newspaper and magazine articles about the movement–several of which appear in the film. We have obtained thousands of editions of GI Underground papers from archives around the country. With this material, we have created a vivid picture of the development of the movement.
In addition, we have obtained exclusive rights to the handful of documentary films that dealt with the GI Movement at the time, along with: FTA, the feature film about Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s antiwar review that traveled to military bases around the world (and we have included an exclusive interview with Jane Fonda about her role in the GI and veterans’ antiwar movements); moving footage of Vietnam veterans hurling their medals onto the capitol steps in 1971; an audio recording made by Richard Boyle, journalist and author of The Flower of the Dragon and the Oliver Stone film Salvador, of the combat refusal by troops at Firebase Pace in 1971 that sped up the final withdrawal of U.S. ground forces; and never-before-seen Super-8 and 16mm film footage of events in the GI Movement shot by GIs and civilian activists.
The heart and soul of Sir! No Sir! is found in the individuals who’s stories it tells. A few are:
- Greg Payton, an African-American, imprisoned at Long Binh Jail for refusing to fight, who was part of the uprising there.
- Dave Cline, wounded three times in Vietnam and antiwar activist at Ft. Hood, the site of some of the staunchest resistance to the war and racism.
- Keith Mather, jailed in the Presidio for publicly refusing orders to go to Vietnam and a leader of the Presidio 27 mutiny.
- Dr. Howard Levy, jailed three years for refusing to train Special Forces troops.
- Navy nurse Susan Schnall, jailed for dropping leaflets from an airplane onto the Presidio army base.
- Terry Whitmore, a highly-decorated combat veteran who deserted to Sweden.
- Members of “WORMS” (We Openly Resist Military Stupidity), Air Force linguists stationed in Asia who went on strike during the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong.
- And many more of the thousands of GIs who, during what was the worst time in their lives, created something new, dynamic and groundbreaking.
About David Zeiger - Producer/Director
David Zeiger’s last film, A Night of Ferocious Joy, premiered at the 2003 International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. The festival, which featured it as part of its “USA Today” Section, described the film as “not an ordinary concert film…because it will go down in history as the first anti-war concert of the new millennium.” Its U.S. festival premiere was at South by Southwest in 2004, which described it as “A rousing and eventful performance film.”
Zeiger created, produced and directed the 13 part documentary series, Senior Year, for broadcast on PBS in January 2002. The series follows a group of 15 students at Fairfax High, the most diverse school in Los Angeles, through their last year in high school. About the series, Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Others have tried to document high school life (remember American High?), but this series succeeds where those drier efforts failed…High school is a time for experimentation, and finally, a truly experimental filmmaker is there.” Senior Year was broadcast in Europe on Planete Cable, and was a premiere series on the new U.S. English/Spanish cable network SíTV in 2004.
His short film Funny Old Guys premiered August, 2002, at the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles. Its television premiere was August 19, 2003, on the HBO Documentary series “Still Kicking, Still Laughing.” Funny Old Guys captures the final months of the life of Frank Tarloff, formerly blacklisted Academy Award winning writer, as he and a group of friends, all former TV and film writers, confront his imminent death.
The Band, Mr. Zeiger’s tribute to his son, aired to critical acclaim on the PBS series P.O.V. in 1998. It has screened at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam and AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, and was awarded "Best Documentary" and "Best of Show" at the Central Florida Film Festival. The Band was broadcast in 2000 on the French/German network ARTE.
Displaced in the New South aired in the United States on PBS in 1996 and on The Discovery Channel International in 1997. That film looks at life in and around Atlanta from the point of view of Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants. Its festival screenings include the Chicago Latino, Cine Acción Latino, South by Southwest, Doubletake and San Francisco Asian American Film Festivals. Displaced in the New South was the inspiration for the Indigo Girls' single "Shame on You", featured on their 1997 release Shaming of the Sun.