David Zeiger on The Vietnam Era GI Revolt
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.