How GI Resistance Changed History
When 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."Archival footage of the Fonda tour appears in David Zeiger's new film, Sir, No Sir, which opens in select theaters throughout the U.S. this month.
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!"
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 enter battle.
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 counterculture 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 and communication. 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 resistance.
Like Pablo Paredes, 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 backÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ 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, 40 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 book 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 happening."
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; 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.
[Editor's Note: "Sir, No Sir" opens this week. The first screening is Thursday, April 6 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, Calif. Visit the Sir, No Sir website for screening details.]