Independent Media Centre Ireland

Interview: Unmaking Myth

category international | anti-war / imperialism | feature author Friday March 21, 2008 11:27author by James R

David Zeiger on The Vietnam Era GI Revolt

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G.I. dissenters in David Zeiger's documentary "Sir! No Sir!"

Some weeks ago, with last weekend's Winter Soldier event on the horizon, I talked to David Zeiger, through the freebie magic of Skype. He's the directer of the documentary Sir, No Sir. It's a Displaced Films and BBC production that came out about two years ago, and focused on the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam.

It consists in part, of interviews with veterans explaining why they resisted the war, and in some cases went as far as to defect. Hundreds went to prison and thousands into exile, by 1971 it was a movement that in the words of one colonel had “infested the entire armed services” - yet few people today are aware of this soldiers movement against the war in Vietnam.

The film was completed in 2005 winning both the audience award at the LA Film Festival and the Starfish award for best documentary. I interviewed David for some context on the current movement of war resisters, he also spoke about unmaking Hollywood legends around Vietnam and the process of radical news making. Here you can read the transcript of our talk or listen to the full audio, vocal ticks and clicks galore at the link below.

How did you get in touch with that older generation of dissident troops that you talked to in the movie?

Well I was involved with a lot of them back during the Vietnam war. I wasn't a Veteran but I was a civilian supporter of the GI movement. I worked for about three years in a little town in Texas, just outside of Fort Hood, in a coffee house. That was part of a network of coffee houses that helped support soldiers who were organizing against the Vietnam war. To give them legal advice and to help with printing and that sort of stuff. So I knew a lot of these guys and when I decided to make the film I started with the people I knew and just kept going deeper and deeper - just trying to track down a lot of people I knew existed, but didn't know exactly where they were.

So you were involved in running a cafe called the Oleo Strut?

Yeah, we profile it in the film, yes this was part of a network of coffee houses that were set up in the US and actually overseas a lot in Germany and in Asia. These were staffed by Veterans and civilians who were supporting the soldiers who were organising against war and against racism in the military and that kind of stuff. So this was a story that I was very familiar with but over the last 30 or 35 years the story of what had happened in the military really got sort of buried and a lot of the guys had just gone back into their lives.

You do describe on the film posters by-line, that this is the “suppressed story of the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam.” Can you give me some sort of idea of just how far off mainstream agendas this movement has been and I guess how the documentary has placed it back into the centre of how we can imagine an anti-war movement? Where does this conservative revisionism around Vietnam come from? Do you think the contemporary anti-war movement has lost a sense of the role of soldiers as participants in such movements?

Well absolutely. This story was deeply buried after the war, for a variety of reasons. I mean, first of all, just to give you some sort of perspective, the movement inside the military against the war had become so widespread that the military, essentially not that they had given into it, but they had no real choice but to pull troops out of Vietnam and to try and make real changes. They did a survey in 1971 that showed that over half the soldiers in the military had engaged in some sort of protesting against the war. And it was very public, it was very out there and it was covered in the media. There were huge events and there were mutinies.

And after the war, for one thing and for the people who had been involved in it and for the anti-war movement and everything there was kind of several years of people just wanting to move on. So it opened up the field to a lot of revisionism about what had happened. Starting in particular under the Reagan administration, the reality of what had gone on in the military was replaced with a string of films from Hollywood that presented the war as being loyal soldiers who came home and were betrayed by the American people who had opposed the war, who had turned their backs on the soldiers. And turning your back on the war and opposing the war, got turned into turning your back on and betraying the soldiers.

There were over 200 films made since Vietnam about the war and none of them, until my film ever said a word...except for another one that was suppressed at the time...ever said a word about opposition inside the military. There was some stuff about veterans, but nothing about the organizing inside the military. So this thing was... and you know the idea that replaced it was the myth that was so wide spread in this country the past ten years, that soldiers came home and anti-war activists and hippies were waiting at the airport and spat at them and you know, threw stuff at them. The fact is that none of this is true. There was never a verifiable incident of something like that actually happening.

But it became so widespread, that I think its safe to say that most people in the anti-war movement today in this country, believe that during Vietnam the soldiers were betrayed by the anti-war movement. It has a big chilling effect. It gives the idea that if you are too active against the war, or if you accuse the war of being genocidal or targeting civilians you are by definition, targeting or vilifying the soldiers. None of that is true and bringing out that, in fact, this is not what happened during Vietnam has a big impact on how soldiers look at what is going on and how a lot of civilians see it.”

So you've talked about the Rambo effect, the troop returns home and gets rejected by civilian society – have you seen any of the recent Hollywood films on Iraq and are they dealing with it in a manner different to how film dealt with the Vietnam conflict?

I've seen a lot of the films that have come out. I think in the documentary world there's been more of an attempt to honestly get at the reality of what is happening on the ground. There's From the Ground Truth and some other films that are trying to get at the opposition that is growing inside the military. One film, of the ones that's started coming out of Hollywood...I've not seen Redacto, but I've heard its a very powerful movie that does portray how American troops have just essentially been unleashed on the people and the kind of atrocities that it can create.

The tendency in Hollywood and just in general is still, that in this country the focus is so deeply on American service men. The issue everyone wants to deal with is “what effect is this war having on our troops?” So much of the horrendous nature of the war, in terms of the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, the occupation, the brutality – all of that, gets buried under the question that keeps getting put on the agenda here, which is: “is this hurting American troops?” Which I think again is a result of the pretty successful propaganda campaign that went on about Vietnam in the eighties and the nineties.

Several people in my film point out the Vietnam war was not about the American troops, it was about what was going on in Vietnam and what the US was doing in Vietnam. I think that's true of Iraq. The Iraq war is not about the American troops, it is about the US invading and occupying a country and it's interesting how things get kind of twisted around here.”

The GI movement against the Vietnam war probably gets more recognition within the military than outside of it, in the sense that people speak of the Powell doctrine and the creation of an all volunteer army as a consequence of the belief that the draft allowed a series mutinous movement to cohere within the military. But is it possible to speak of an economic draft today and how do you think the GI movement may have revolutionized the military itself?

Well I think the interesting thing is that, in a lot of ways eliminating the draft more spoke to the civilian movement than the GI movement because you know the draft became a real focus of the student movement and it sparked a lot more widespread protest I think than they wanted. Inside the military, although the draft had a big role in the movement, really the what sparked it and drove it was volunteers. People who had gone into the military, thinking they were doing the right thing, going to defend America just as their uncle did in Korea and their father did in World War Two, and their grand-father did in World War One. How much of that is a mythology is another question.

But there was a sense of betrayal among the troops, and really the troops that felt most betrayed were the ones that had volunteered. In many ways that kind of speaks to today and the fact that there is an all volunteer army, and a lot of it is an economic draft – there is a very high level of desertion going on right now, which is both political and an expression of “this is not what I joined the military for.” The politics of soldiers seeing that they've been lied to, that they were told that we are going over there to defend democracy, going over there to help the people of Iraq, just as they said about Vietnam, and seeing that this is not at all what is going on. That betrayal is what causes the turmoil in the military rather than people being press ganged into it.

So I think there are a lot of changes. The military did a lot to defuse the potential for a GI movement again, they've been doing that for a long time, and its not just the draft. They try and make the military more appealing. They put McDonald's at the bases and do little stuff, to make it feel more like home weirdly enough. They also try to create a stronger sense of unity among the troops, that you are there fighting for your buddies, you may not be fighting for America, but you are fighting for your buddies to try undercut the opposition inside But the reality is the reality and I think that is what is driving a lot of soldiers to deeply question and oppose the war today.”

In the movie you highlight that there were 300 underground newspapers, and that really testifies to what a remarkable network the antiwar GI movement was. How was this done under the very nose of the command structure, there must have been an awful lot of work involved? Do you think the internet could be put to a similar use today? I mean producing a newspaper is a lot harder than producing a website say. Do you see any echoes of that?

Well its interesting. The underground newspapers in the military were a fascinating and interesting kind of thing. They were considered to be illegal by the military. Especially when they first started coming out in '68 and '69. There were all kinds of attempts by the military to court martial people who were putting them out, to court martial people who were distributing them. Both for the actual charge of subverting the military and for trumped up charges, drugs and that sort of thing.

But it became so wide spread and people were so creative in how they were getting them out and getting them on bases, that eventually the military really couldn't do anything about it. I think it was around 1970 or 1971, there was a memo sent out by the Pentagon outlining what was acceptable and what wasn't acceptable – essentially accepting the existence of these papers and trying to control them without outright suppressing them as they had been doing in the early part of the war.

And the difference, its a funny thing the Internet. The GI newspapers created a lot of a sense of a community of opposition and it was great. And that was this physical, tactile kind of thing. Centering around this newspaper, guys would get together and you'd have to write the articles, you'd have to figure out how to paste it up, how to get it printed and fhow to get it distributed, and all that kind of thing.

The Internet on one hand eliminates the need for all that stuff because you can create your blogs and do whatever you can to get your stuff up there, and you are instantly in contact with the world. But on the other hand there's this isolation to it because everyone is sitting at their terminal doing this. So far it hasn't at least helped build that sense of an actual community of opposition. I think it is in a certain sense, but not in the sense of the physical opposition that it is going to take to really do something about the war. So I don't know, it's both a boon and a curse in some ways.

I guess thats' an interesting question to end an interview for a website like Indymedia, so thanks for that.

audio An Interview With David Zeiger 6.92 Mb

Comments (8 of 8)

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author by Jimbobpublication date Fri Mar 21, 2008 13:31author address author phone

one of your links doesn't go where it says

By the way, I just visitied www. is a site dedicated to discrediting the claims of the Vietnam Veterans Against The War.

and by the way, how about a link to the IVAW (Iraw Veterans Against War) who have just held Winter Soldier 2.
There's blogs and videos on their website, but due to the amount of traffic, the video might not work for you. Some of it's on YouTube. I've watched some of the vids, and some of the vets featured have been here in Ireland doing talks. It's pretty valuable stuff, uncoated, unglossed honest account of what it's like to be dropped in Iraq, where the people don't want you, and the armed resistance is hard to identify, and the fairly understandable descent into overkill.
I think most of us, dropped into that crazy situation would do things we'd be ashamed of later, and it takes guts for these guys to admit what they did.
What's clear is that the leaders don't care what happens to Iraq, Iraqis or the troops, so long as US losses are not high enough to provoke an outcry. And they will cover up scandals, and scapegoat the 'few rotten apples' in the barrell.
As these guys show, and as the film Sir! No Sir! showed, these guys got put in a rotten barrell to start with. Now they're trying to warn others not to go to Iraq, to buy the lies, and not to end up killing or dying for the benefit of a few powerful groups.
Check it out at

Related Link:
author by Jimbobpublication date Fri Mar 21, 2008 13:33author address author phone

Big thank you for posting the interview in the first place.

author by DNpublication date Fri Mar 21, 2008 14:15author address author phone

You can read more about what returning vets are saying about Iraq on DemocracyNow!

and more here,

and check out YouTube, they're starting to put the vids up.

The corporate Media for the most part has ignored this event, despite the fact that the historical resonance and the link to the orginal Winter Soldier hearings is very newsworthy, but I guess the government learned a lot from the Vietnam era about keeping a lid on dissent.

author by GIpublication date Fri Mar 21, 2008 17:22author address author phone

An article from on the resistance by GIs to the Vietnam war.

History of the widespread mutiny of US troops in Vietnam that brought the world's most powerful military machine to its knees.

The GI anti-war movement within the army was one of the decisive factors in ending the war.

An American soldier in a hospital explained how he was wounded: He said
“I was told that the way to tell a hostile Vietnamese from a friendly Vietnamese was to shout ‘To hell with Ho Chi Minh!’ If he shoots, he’s unfriendly. So I saw this dude and yelled ‘To hell with Ho Chi Minh!’ and he yelled back, ‘To hell with President Johnson!’ We were shaking hands when a truck hit us.”
- from 1,001 Ways to Beat the Draft, by Tuli Kupferburg.

Related Link:
author by Scepticpublication date Fri Mar 21, 2008 20:20author address author phone

Those who are trying to make the Vietnam Iraq parallel are on a hiding to nothing. With Vietnam the very emotive factors that don’t apply to Iraq were the draft and the scale of causalities. Colour TV war coverage was new and very disturbing as were things like the Mai Lai massacre. People are used to these things now – they know they come with the territory and that wars are bloody and difficult. Before only those who had actually been to war knew of its full horror. There was also the Jane Fonda factor – many could view Uncle Ho as a kindly old nationalist forced into war but nobody in America except the very far fringe people could view Saddam as anything other than a very malevolent enemy (George Galloway excepted who had a personal financial reasons for his fawning over Saddam). Ditto for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The campuses were stridently antiwar in the 1960s – it is not so fashionable now – views are more nuanced. Figures from rock music were antiwar in the 1960s almost to a person. This is not the case now thought the majority may still be. In the 1960s to be young was almost to be antiwar in itself. Now there is less of a firm intergenerational divide. These things preclude too many parallels. People are likely to turn against the Iraqi war decisively only if it is clearly seen that the cost is too high or success is elusive. Not as a matter of principle or because they are persuaded by the likes of Cindy Sheehan.

author by karl roenfanz ( rosey )publication date Fri Mar 21, 2008 21:24author email k_rosey48 at hotmail dot comauthor address author phone

we were in nam from the mid '50s to the mid '70s. the eisenhower-nixon team got us in. so for time of involvement the death rate is akin, the wounded rate is higher (improved medical treatment). the financial cost is about $2,000 per person in the u.s. (man,woman+child), and rising. not including the long term medical and family burdens. not including the homeless problem, veterans are only about 11% of the ADULT population, but, 25% of TOTAL homeless population! and the white-house (bush team) is trying to hide how the v.a. is treating the vets. the vets are getting screwed. can you imagine having a job where your on call 24 hours a day to get shot or killed? if your one of the lower flunkies and goof you get a federal conviction? but if your boss does, he gets told he might want to find employment elsewhere, but the record is secrete!

author by Seán Ryanpublication date Sat Mar 22, 2008 00:07author address author phone

Excellent article and interview.

There are many similarities between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan.

The US went into all of them under false pretences.

The US assumed that superior firepower and technology would guarantee success, wrongly.

The US got mired in guerilla warfare in each case.

There was no exit strategy that could be called coherent in any of the cases.

The vets got shafted in all cases.

Civilian casulaties were extreme in all cases.

Despite being the agressive party in each conflict, the US played and continues to play the injured party in each case.

The US has used chemical weapons in all cases.

The US through its propaganda has claimed victory in each case until it had to admit defeat - it hasn't admitted defeat in either Iraq or Afghanistan yet, but the goal of victory has mutated into the goal of success, so victory is off the books. The parameters of success have yet to be defined.

In all cases the poor of America have been sent to kill the poor of another country, in order to liberate them.

In all cases pet journalists have pretended that things were going well when they weren't and aren't.

Surges were used to pretend that victory was on the way in all cases despite the fact that they had little or no effect.

In all cases the civilian population of the US were lulled into believing that the wars were legitimate - in all cases time has put a stop to that myth.

There's loads more similarities. I reckon however, most folks know this already.

The important similarity is that many troops tried to tell the real story in each case and have been shut down by the system. Even now the Winter Soldiers are all but unknown in the US. That's the shame, because if the truth were allowed to be shown, the US would learn.

author by d'other's otherpublication date Thu Mar 27, 2008 18:59author address author phone

Jeff Cohen -- full disclosure: he used to be my boss and is a friend -- makes some very valid and important points in "Iraq Winter Soldier Hearings: Victory for Independent Media."

But there is another way of looking at this.

The fact that the mainstream paid so little attention to Winter Soldier -- as well countless other worthy stories -- is itself a failure of independent media to propel those stories into the mainstream.

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