Judge Russell Engebretson has won only a single lottery. On December the first of 1969 he drew the number 283.
No, Virginia, hippies did not spit on homeward bound Vietnam vets.
David Zeiger has created a film that demolishes the present-day revisionist history of the Vietnam War. Specifically, he documents the revolt of thousands of enlisted men and women who felt increasingly alienated from their own government and its purported reasons for waging war in a third world country. Zeiger's thesis is that the Vietnam War was ended not by protest marches, college student agitation, or anti-war demonstrations, but by the resistance of soldiers—both draftees and volunteers—from inside the military machine.
The documentary begins with a scene familiar to anyone who grew up watching the ongoing horror story of the Vietnam War as it unreeled on network television: the daytime aerial bombardment of an unnamed Vietnamese village as filmed from the tail of the bomber. It proceeds with a series of stories told by vets who were involved in anti-war actions. A few of the interviewees include Donald Duncan (U.S. Army Special Forces), Dr. Howard Levy (Dermatologist, U.S. Army), Oliver Hirsch (U.S. Air Force), Susan Schnall (U.S. Navy Nurse), and David Cline (U.S. Army). Each interview casts a light onto one aspect or another of the hidden history of the G.I. opposition to the war.
The cost of G.I. protest was high. Susan Schnall, who spoke out against the war at a protest rally, was court-martialed for making a political statement while in uniform. The dermatologist Howard Levy refused to train Green Berets to treat Vietnamese for minor skin problems in what he realized early on was a crude PR campaign to "win hearts and minds while they were bombing the Hell out of the villagers." Levy was court-martialed and spent three years in federal prison. Destroyed careers and imprisonment in military stockades or federal penitentiaries were common. One private was shot dead by a guard at the San Francisco Presidio Stockade for trying to escape a work detail. The subsequent riot and protest at the stockade are described by two former prisoners, Keith Mather and Randy Rowland. The protestors, many of whom were there for going AWOL, suddenly found themselves facing death penalty charges. As Randy Rowland put it, the government was terrified of a possible revolution in the making, and decided to use the Presidio prisoners to set an example.
Each chapter explores a different aspect of the G.I. anti-war movement. One chapter recounts a bit of the history of a G.I. coffee house outside of Fort Hood, Texas known as the Oleo Strut. It was one of dozens of similar establishments all over the country that catered to disillusioned soldiers seeking the camaraderie of like-minded enlisted men and women. Other chapters cover Mi Lai, the G.I. underground press, and the black power movement as it related to the war.
The segment on Jane Fonda is a particularly fascinating exploration of how right-wing propaganda has turned the true history of the era on its head. In complete contrast to the present day depiction of the starlet as the traitorous "Hanoi Jane," her FTA shows were wildly popular with the U.S. troops. Fonda was admired by the anti-war soldiers for her stand against the war. To quote Joe Urgo (U.S. Air Force), "She stands on the side of the people…She stands with the G.I.s, and she stands with the G.I. movement." Rather than Fonda, it was the pro-war Bob Hope who was jeered off stage by angry crowds of American troops.
Another hawkish fantasy is the endlessly repeated story of a hippie chick spitting in the face of a returning Vietnam veteran when he deplanes at the San Francisco airport. John Lembcke (U.S. Army/Sociology Professor), who was fascinated by the tale, examined newspapers from the late 1960s and early 1970s and could not find any published story of such an incident. He looked at the National Lawyers Guild observation projects on demonstrations and found no records of the incident. He interviewed numerous vets and pro-war people to ask if they were claiming to have been spat on by anti-war protestors. The responses were uniformly negative. Lembcke says, "A lot of the stories begin with, 'well, we arrived at the San Francisco airport.' No…you arrived at the Travis airbase near San Francisco and were discharged or processed out from there to the San Francisco airport. Also, if it had been on a military base there couldn't have been protestors on the base, much less on the tarmac or at gate side to meet people. There are many stories of wounded soldiers being carried on stretchers from the plane and they are spat on by protestors who are lining the walkway. Some of those stories just defy common sense, but they are picked up and used very authoritatively." By the end of his talk, Lembcke has thoroughly debunked the spitting tales.
My only complaint about the film is that Zeiger often stresses the importance of anti-war soldiers to the exclusion of movements outside of the military. I was bothered by his sometimes easy dismissal of the anti-war efforts of the American citizenry. A large majority was weary of the Vietnam War by the end of the 1960s. Peaceful protests and civil disobedience were common. Many Americans were actively against the war and proved it in the streets and at the barricades. Nonetheless, Zeiger makes a strong case for his views. In the process he illuminates the lost—or more accurately, suppressed—history of the G.I. anti-war movement.
As for the DVD transfer, it is more than acceptable for a documentary. The audio is clear and the dialogue is understandable. Some of the old footage suffers from clipping distortion, which is to be expected from 30-year-old newsreels. The extensive DVD extras, with their extended interviews and other material, are an excellent supplement to the main film.
Near the end of the documentary the narrator says, "The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975…and even as the last remaining Americans were returning home, the memory and reality of the G.I. anti-war movement was being rewritten." John Lembcke summed it up well at the end of his interview when he said, "If you went back and looked at the front pages of newspapers in 1969-1970…what did you see about Vietnam vets? They're in the streets. They're political activists. They're on the Capitol Mall giving the Nixon administration fits. This stuff was in living rooms all over America, so people knew this. It's important (to understand) how memory of the war has been rewritten, how it has been reconstructed. This is gone. This has been erased. You mention the war in Vietnam to a lot of people and they'll say 'Yeah, what happened to those guys when they came home was sure a shame.' You ask them about any of the major events of the war and its like people have no clue." Sir! No Sir! is an antidote for the clueless, and a jolting reminder for Americans who lived through that time in history.
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