[Marxism] "Sir! No Sir!"
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 17 10:20:38 MST 2006
"Sir! No Sir!" is the definitive documentary on the GI antiwar movement of
the Vietnam era. Drawing upon archival film, still photos and interviews
with the key activists, director David Zeiger has made a film that
illuminates the past and also helps us to think about political
possibilities today as the USA is bogged down in another big muddy.
Zeiger, who is now 55 and who began making in the early 90s, had exactly
the qualifications to make such a film, since he was one of the organizers
of The Oleo Strut, a coffeehouse in Kileen, Texas that attracted GI's from
nearby Fort Hood during the period 1968 to 1972. All around the country
there were such coffeehouses where soldiers could come to listen to poetry,
folk music and read leftwing and antiwar literature. In other words, they
were acting exactly like their peers on campus.
Well-known figures of the movement now in their sixties describe what
motivated them to stick their neck out. Dr. Howard Levy, a dermatologist
who spent 3 years in prison for refusing to train people in Vietnam, says
that he thought that the training would be used to curry favor with
peasants when some minor skin disease was cleared up. But when compared to
the impact of napalm bombing on their villages, he felt that such public
relations would violate the oath he took as a physician.
Navy Lieutenant Sue Schall, a nurse, decided to march in uniform at a peace
demonstration in San Francisco on November, 1968. In the days leading up to
the demonstration, she dropped leaflets from a small plane over military
bases in the Bay Area promoting the demonstration. When the brass told
Schnall that marching in uniform was not permitted, she responded that if
General William Westmoreland could speak at prowar rallies in uniform, then
she should have the same rights. Such defiance grew out of a deep
conviction in the peace and radical movements of the time that American
society had to live up to the democratic ideals that supposedly were being
defended in Indochina.
Zeiger also interviews some relatively figures that most of us, including
someone like myself who was very much involved with the antiwar movement,
would ostensibly be finding out about for the first time. He is to be
commended for allowing them to tell their stories as well.
One of them is Terry Whitmore, a Black Marine who received a medal from
Lyndon Johnson when he was recuperating in a hospital from severe wounds
suffered in Vietnam. Weeks later, when he was scheduled to be shipped out
once again to Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
When Whitmore saw American soldiers clubbing or firing on Black people, he
made the connection between racism at home and abroad. As Mohammed Ali
would put it, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger." (The film shows a sign
painted by the NLF urging Black soldiers to avoid combat.) Whitmore decided
to desert to Sweden.
But the most fascinating revelation in Zeiger's film comes out of
interviews with the men who were involved with WORMS (We Openly Resist
Military Stupidity), a group of Air Force interpreters whose job it was to
fly over North Vietnam intercepting radio communications. During the
Christmas 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, many of them went on strike. What
is interesting about this is that although these men did not face the same
degree of danger as the foot soldier, they still took action. The same mood
of resistance from relatively safe quarters was reflected on the aircraft
carrier Coral Sea, where 1200 sailors signed a petition against the war.
The film had special resonances for me as a former member of the Socialist
Workers Party. PFC Howard Petrick, one of the early antiwar GI's, came from
our ranks. He was threatened with a stiff prison sentence for speaking
against the war in 1967. After the party mounted a powerful defense
campaign, he received a dishonorable discharge about a year later. After
party members Joe Cole and Joe Miles (an African-American) were drafted,
they found themselves at Fort Jackson where they launched something called
GI's United Against the War. They had "rap sessions" in the barracks where
antiwar literature and the speeches of Malcolm X were discussed. Eventually
they were thrown in the stockade, but released after the SWP mounted an
effective defense campaign. One of the GI's who was drawn to their meetings
was Andrew Pulley, an African-American who was given the choice of going
into the army or prison when he was 17. Pulley eventually joined the SWP
and became a key leader, running as the Vice Presidential candidate in 1972.
Except for Marxist groups like the SWP, the CP and the WWP (all of whom had
members or supporters in the military at one point or another victimized
for their antiwar stance), the radical movement did not exactly have the
perspective of winning the GI's to an antiwar perspective at the outset.
From 1965 to 1967, there was a widespread belief--especially in SDS--that
soldiers were vicious killers who could not be reached. This led to
moralistic posturing that would alienate GI's from the movement.
Based on the experience of the Russian Revolution, the SWP always had the
perspective that the army was subject to the same class differentiations
that existed in society as a whole. The men and women at the lower levels,
especially the draftees, tended to reflect the working class while the
officers, especially from the rank of Captain and above, tended to reflect
the interests of the ruling class.
Nobody understood these issues better than Fred Halstead, the SWP'er who
led our antiwar work. As a young sailor stationed in East Asia in 1945,
Halstead participated in the "Bring us home" movement. This consisted of
enlisted men who demanded to be sent back home rather than be used as
cannon fodder in the Chinese civil war that was taking shape at the time.
Many of the leaders of this movement had been veterans of the CIO
organizing drives, including Emil Mazey. Freedom Road Magazine of Summer
>>"A 156 man Soldier's Committee was elected in Manila to speak for
139,000 soldiers there, "all interested in going home." It issued leaflets
which declared, "The State Department wants the army to back up its
imperialism." The Soldier's Committee elected an eight man central
committee which included Emil Mazey, who had been an auto union local
president and played a leading role in the battle to unionize auto in the
Just as occurred during Vietnam, a new GI antiwar movement has emerged. At
the 2006 Leftforum Conference in NYC, there was a panel discussion on "A
Soldier's Movement Against the Iraq War: Prospects and Challenges" It was
chaired by Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier, a group that has been involved
with such issues since the Vietnam era. Speakers included José Vásquez, an
Army Reserve conscientious objector.
Also very much worth mentioning is the March 14-19 Walkin To New Orleans
action that combines concerns about racism at home and the war in Iraq,
just as Terry Whitmore made connections between Memphis and Vietnam in the
1960s.. You can read about it on Stan Goff's "Feral Scholar" website:
<http://stangoff.com/?p=258>http://stangoff.com/?p=258. Goff, like Green
Beret veteran Donald Duncan who was featured in Zeiger's film, was a highly
trained Special Forces soldier who turned against his profession during a
tour of duty in Haiti.
What exists today that did not exist in during Vietnam is the phenomenon of
military families speaking out against the war. For millions of Americans,
this has become personalized in the figure of Cindy Sheehan but she is not
alone. Groups such as Military Families Speak Out in the USA and Military
Families Against the War in Great Britain are growing proof of the same
kind of disaffection that undermined the war in Vietnam. When a group that
has traditionally flew the flag or put yellow ribbons on the front lawn
begins to speak out against the war, the warmongers have a tough job
maintaining the status quo.
Finally, there is a kind of demonstration that will have an impact on the
shape the outcome of the current war even if it does not come wrapped in
conventional antiwar garbs. I speak of the recent Zogby poll in Iraq taken
among the troops themselves. It found that 29% of the respondents said the
U.S. should leave Iraq immediately, while another 22% said they should
leave in the next six months. Another 21% said troops should be out between
six and 12 months, while 23% said they should stay as long as they are
needed. So in other words, only a little more than 1 in 5 soldiers agree
with the White House's perspective. Although it would be obviously
difficult to prove such a thing, favoring withdrawal in such a poll might
amount to a surreptitious version of wearing a peace sign. With the
mounting disillusionment in the war in Iraq in society as a whole, the day
of making such signs visible might not be far off.
"Sir! No Sir!" opens in NYC at the IFC Center on April 19, at the Red Vic
Movie House in San Francisco on April 7 and at Los Angeles's Laemmle's
Monica 4 theater on May 5. Unfortunately, the IFC Center in NYC has fired
its unionized projectionists so I would urge people to think long and hard
about whether they should patronize this theater or not. It is really too
bad that the IFC tends to feature films that are of interest to the left
under these circumstances.
Military Families Against the War in Great Britain:
Military Families Speak Out: <http://www.mfso.org/>http://www.mfso.org/
"Sir! No Sir!" website: <http://www.sirnosir.com/>http://www.sirnosir.com/
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