Donald Duncan is a familiar kind of man, his face lined and weathered, his husky voice flavored by a regional American accent. His eyes are thoughtful as he tells a familiar American story, of how he dreamed of being a war hero, until the brutality he witnessed in Vietnam destroyed the convictions that made him willing to fight and die.
“Everything I grew up with,” the former Green Beret begins haltingly, as if he still can’t believe it. “This is just not the way you treat human beings.”
Anyone waging war with American troops might want to listen carefully to the largely untold story of David Zeiger’s new documentary, “Sir! No Sir!,” of how some of the most dedicated troops became some of the most damaging supporters of the movement to end the war in Vietnam. The documentary, which examines a small piece of the complex puzzle that was Vietnam, is in competition during the Los Angeles Film Festival, with screenings on Saturday and Sunday.
The doubts of men like Duncan would eventually evolve into outright rebellion, with active-duty American troops refusing Vietnam duty, inciting stockade riots, joining off-base protests and going AWOL. In Vietnam, the film links this opposition to the hundreds of battlefield shootings by American troops of their own commanders in a notorious practice that became known as “fragging.”
“There is nothing you can do that requires you to answer the question – ‘Is this right or is this wrong?’ – than war,” said Zeiger, 55, who left UC Santa Cruz in 1970 to work with antiwar GIs stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas. “Vietnam was the first war in the history of this country in which the soldiers themselves not only debated that question, but large numbers of soldiers concluded that the war was wrong, and played a big role in ultimately ending it.”
Opposition to the war within the military began to surface publicly in 1965. A West Point-educated special forces officer refused a combat assignment in Vietnam. Two GIs released as Viet Cong prisoners of war announced they would “quit the Army and get the United States out of Vietnam.” Punishment was usually swift and severe – an Army lieutenant who marched in an El Paso antiwar protest was sentenced to five years hard labor with a dishonorable discharge.
The documentary traces how opposition within the military grew as the war deepened the social and racial tensions building in the barracks and American society at large. Many troops were disturbed at the use of American troops to quell domestic riots and protests. Countless unwilling troops were forced into the war by the draft, while more fortunate sons found their way into the National Guard. Black troops were disturbed by Confederate flags in barracks and a racial slur commonly used to refer to Vietnamese. Terry Whitmore, an African American Marine from Memphis, Tenn., who is interviewed in the film, still has the smooth-faced looks of the day he was awarded a Purple Heart by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. But he has an old man’s eyes as he describes the doubts that grew in his mind as he lay in a hospital bed in Japan in April 1968, with multiple gunshot and shrapnel wounds he sustained in combat in the “demilitarized zone” between North and South Vietnam.
“When you’re laying on your back and you can’t move, day in and day out, you had a lot of time to think about the things that you had done, the people that you killed and the people who died,” Whitmore recalls in the documentary.
On April 4, the television in his hospital room aired the news of the assassination of Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. Riots and disturbances broke out across America.
“I saw more tanks on the streets of Memphis than I saw in Vietnam,” Whitmore said. “All of a sudden, men with the same uniforms I wore had dogs and tanks in my own neighborhood, where I had a baby daughter I’d never seen. Seeing dogs and troops chasing black people up and down the streets of Memphis, I knew something was wrong. Suddenly, nothing made sense anymore.”
Instead of going back to his base, where he was scheduled to receive another medal and a new tour in Vietnam, he went AWOL and made his way to Sweden. There, he felt uncomfortable when he was greeted as an icon by other American troops who had become antiwar activists.
“I was still patriotic,” Whitmore said. “As a matter of fact, I still am.” Other troops like him remained in the military, but gravitated to cafes near the bases where Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland staged antiwar alternatives to the standard Bing Crosby-serenading- the-troops revue. The numbers of troops at antiwar protests near their bases grew with the revelation of the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese villagers by U.S. troops, and news of the shootings of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University.
American society is still deeply divided over the choices these Americans made. In the 2004 presidential election, as American troops fought in Iraq, Democratic candidate John F. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, was grilled over his subsequent antiwar activism. President Bush, who did not go to Vietnam, weathered scrutiny over his service in the National Guard, and was reelected.
In “Sir! No Sir!,” military men from their generation reveal the difficult path to their decision to oppose the war – and why many of them still consider themselves patriots. “They went into the military believing they were doing the right thing,” director Zeiger said. “They were gung-ho. There’s a high price to pay for doing what these people did. It changed everyone’s life. It kind of forced you to come to terms with your conscience.”