These two films, separated by 33 years (Winter Soldier was originally released in 1972; Sir, No Sir! in 2005), show how resistance to the war in Vietnam was alive and active among thousands of military personnel from the mid-1960s to the end of the war in 1975.
Both films chart the journey of over 30 young people from total acceptance of the cause of freeing Vietnam from communism, to defiant resistance and refusal to fight. They are interesting historically but their importance for today goes much deeper than that.
Sir! No Sir! begins with the stories of two lone resisters, Donald Duncan and Howard Levy, who refused to continue serving in Indochina. The film contains many interviews with veterans who tell their own stories of resistance. These are interspersed with footage of the war which vividly illustrates the commentary.
The men, and one woman, tell of refusal to serve, participation in demonstrations, courts martial, incarceration and persecution, but most of all the unstoppable growth of the anti-war movement in the military. GI coffee houses, an underground press and the FTA [“Fuck The Army”] shows were part of this growth.
Half-way through the film, one veteran is shown as a young man giving testimony at the Winter Soldier Investigations in Detroit in 1971.
The film Winter Soldier is the record of these investigations and this reviewer found it almost unbearable to watch. The film shows over 30 young men, raw from their experiences in Vietnam, testifying to their participation in atrocities committed on enemy combatants, prisoners, and innocent civilians including the elderly, women and children.
The witnesses testify even more disturbingly to the dehumanising nature of their training and the lies they were told about the justice of the US presence in Vietnam. Winter Soldier throws a harsh and uncompromising light on the reflections of the older veterans shown in Sir! No Sir! and the films are complementary and necessary, each to the other.
The second part of Sir! No Sir! traces the spread of resistance from the army to the air force and the navy. The film also illustrates how the stories of resistance were “rewritten” after the war in order to discredit and diminish its influence and scope.
These films have a message for those of us today who want to support the resistance in the military to the war in Afghanistan and who want to keep calling into question the assumption that the idea of a “just” war is viable.