Saturday, April 01, 2006

Sir! No Sir!—The Evening Class interview with David Zeiger

I met David Zeiger midmorning at San Francisco's Ninth Street Independent Film Center after he'd already done a Quake radio interview and had a little breakfast afterwards. Eager for the opportunity to interview him in the midafternoon while he was visiting S.F., I negotiated a pick up of a screener dvd of his new documentary Sir! No Sir! and caught BART home to watch it.

Riding MUNI on my way back to the Center to conduct the interview, I was disappointed I didn't get to at least watch Sir! No Sir! twice. I would have liked to have had more time to appreciate it fully. As an incisive historical document, it deserved at least that much respect. David Zeiger immediately put me at ease, said not to worry, the guy who was interviewing him on the radio hadn't even seen the film and thought it was a feature. So I relaxed and decided to just have a casual conversation.

On the bus getting there I had reviewed Jonathan Stein's Mother Jones interview with Zeiger, which I felt more-than-adequately covered the background of the film so I didn't feel any need to ask any of those questions, but I was intrigued by some of Zeiger's comments in that interview and he agreed discussing those would be a perfect start.

Sir! No Sir! tells many different stories of resistance from within the military, but one of its most intriguing is that of "The Worms", Air Force interpreters trained in Vietnamese whose job it was to fly over North Vietnam intercepting radio communications. Seeing the difference between what they knew was going on and what the American people were being told, these interpreters formed the WORMS ("We Openly Resist Military Stupidity"). During the infamous 1972 Christmas bombings of North Vietnam, many of them went on strike. In Sir! No Sir! they bravely attest to "…The bombing of populated areas, civilian areas; the bombing of hospitals—things that the US denied over and over again that we were engaged in. Those are things that we were engaged in and we had access to that information. And the lies were so stark, it challenged your own dignity, it challenged your own loyalty, it challenged your own humanity."

These men who came out after 35 years to reveal their participation in The Worms had basically been hiding their story all this time for fear of legal repercussion. In the Mother Jones interview Zeiger stated he didn't know what would happen to these men when the film was released. I had to know if anything had happened? Had they been placed in any kind of jeopardy? Had there been repercussions?

"Not as far as we know at this point," Zeiger advised, noting that it had been a very difficult choice for them. They had all talked a lot about the issue of potential ramifications for coming forth at this time. "They came to me, they contacted me, when they heard about the film!" Zeiger stressed, emphasizing their voluntary bravery.

Zeiger explained they all felt—for one thing—that principally what was being talked about in the film and the aspect of their work that was being revealed was essentially the politics of what they were doing and their reaction to it. It wasn't as if anything they would be discussing would harbor information that would threaten national security. The technology has since gone way past what it was at that time.

"We have new ways to wage a war," I suggested and Zeiger laughed, agreed. "Exactly", he said, "and I think they've all been—on some level—waiting for the opportunity to tell their story and this was really the time when it was important to tell it."

"On one level I would say I don't really expect any legal ramifications," Zeiger offered but then suggested that on the other hand there have been recent cases of former servicemen who have been arrested for their anti-war activities in the 60s and 70s. One case in particular sprang to his mind of a guy who was living in Canada who had crossed the border dozens of time to visit friends and family. A few weeks ago for the first time he crossed the border and his name showed up on a wanted list and—wham!—he was arrested, taken to Camp Pendleton and held incommunicado. Zeiger wasn't sure about the guy's current status; whether or not he will be belatedly court martialed, but said the situation serves as a reminder that it's not like people's actions during the Vietnam war were irrelevant; they remain relevant today.

I expressed my hope that nothing happens to The Worms in his documentary. "I do too!" Zeiger emphasized and added that he and his company were prepared to get something done for them if need be. "But the more out there the film is, the more public the story is," Zeiger believes, it will serve to protect them from recrimination.

Zeiger further commented in the Mother Jones interview: "A big strength of the film, and what I think is going to bring it into the mainstream, is that this is a historical metaphor. We don't have to say a word about Iraq in the film for it to be clearly identified with Iraq for people. But [because it doesn't mention Iraq], the film can't be shoved into the category of a propaganda film." This distinction of the film being a "historical metaphor" rather than propaganda intrigued me. Because clearly not everyone is thinking that. On the film's website Zeiger graciously provides space for dissenting reviews, in particular one from the Marooned in Marin blog, which accused the movie—as well as Beth Ashley's Marin Independent Journal article promoting the February 2006 appearance of Jane Fonda for a benefit screening of Sir! No Sir! at Mill Valley's Throckmorton Theatre—as "simply another forum for her and aging 1960's leftists to spread their lies about Vietnam and claim parallels to Iraq."

It's only natural that with increased visibility comes a higher number of yays and nays. "You make a film and put it out there," Zeiger says matter-of-factly, and there's really no way to know how it's going to affect people. Certainly he wants the film to do good, to make some kind of change, but the best way for a film to do that is by telling a story and not by pounding someone over the head with propaganda. The story the film is telling is convincing in its own right, speaks for itself, and Zeiger wants people to take it that way, to use it that way. If this historical metaphor informs public perception of the war in Iraq, that's valid, even if it is not specifically addressed in the documentary itself. The important thing is for as many people to see it as possible so they can make up their own minds and draw their own connections. That was one of the reasons Zeiger decided the documentary should open in theaters rather than be immediately released on dvd, to get it out as broadly as possible to audiences.

Whether or not Sir! No Sir! specifically talks about armed ground forces in Iraq, it is being screened at several benefits for Iraq Vets Against the War, including one on Thursday, April 6th at 7:00pm, at the Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Avenue in Oakland. Advance tickets $8, $10 at the door; for tickets call 415-255-7296, ext. 244.

"That aspect of the film is very real," Zeiger concedes, "I'm glad that people are, y'know, taking it that way." But he insists his film is not propaganda.

Part of my training as a young man was as a Mayanist. I studied Maya history and epigraphy. I was taught then to take all historical information gleaned from elite hieroglyphic texts with a certain grain of salt because, as everyone knows, the winners write history. One of the things I liked most about Sir! No Sir! was that it questioned that premise, especially in terms of defining who "the winners" truly are, and the process of rewriting history. What I came away with from my first viewing of Zeiger's documentary was this uncomfortable sense that one of the most insidious thing done in the rewriting of the history of the Vietnam War was the systematic erasure from the public record of this G.I. anti-war movement. "Absolutely," Zeiger agreed, that's part of why it was important to make this film.

"The process of erasing this from history is a very complex one," Zeiger explained, pointing out that shortly after the Vietnam War was declared over, there was a great emphasis on reconciliation, putting the war behind us, wanting to forget. Focus was shifted to the returning veteran, hailed as a hero for defending his country, and shame was placed on those Americans who protested the war. Their protest was configured as being unpatriotic, tarnishing the efforts of these young men who had risked their lives in the name of their country. The image of the protesting veteran became subsumed in a cultural project of revisionist history engineered by the government and the complicit media. There was some vigilance, of course. A few books were written about the GI movement in the 70s, and since then there have been other books written, some work-up, but for the main part mainstream culture, including the more progressive, have all but forgotten the G.I. anti-war movement. For various reasons the idea of resistance within the military was simply unacceptable. Such an option meant the Vietnam war—in fact the concept of war—wasn't honored. It was not principally a question of the American people being opposed to war. They were opposed to further war, or more wars like Vietnam.

The last thing that would be included in the rewritten history of the Vietnam War would be the fact that the soldiers themselves were opposed to it. That would be the thing that would have to be edited out. To think otherwise would be treasonous and conspiratorial. It just made sense for the whole rewriting of the war to forget such a resistance ever happened and to focus on the heroic returning veteran. Even Hollywood got on the bandwagon. There had never been a Hollywood film about the Vietnam war that even hinted of the GI resistance movement. Sure, there were films about the veterans coming home and the difficulties they faced in readjusting to civilian life, and films about the veterans protesting the war once they were released from duty, but none of the on-duty soldiers who worked against the war. Hollywood gave us Rambo. "Which taught us that women could spit," I grinned. Zeiger laughed. "Exactly." He caught my deferential reference to the urban myth that returning veterans were spat upon by female hippie anti-war protestors.

"Because it's not a matter of something simply disappearing," Zeiger continued. "You can't have those two things side by side; having GIs protesting the war being spat on by antiwar activists. Doesn't make sense, right?"

It interested me how this urban myth had been created. Zeiger intimated that initially its creation wasn't purposeful, it was generated out of the popular culture, through movies. But during the (first) Bush administration, it became very purposeful. That was when ground troops were first being sent over to Iraq and the Bush administration made it a point of debate, actually put it out there, that the worst thing you could do was what they did back in the 60s when they spat upon the troops. This was one of their ways of rallying support for their current endeavors.

The images that were coming through the American media at that time, I remember, was of all the bombing visualized as a video game. The detachment and the distancing dehumanized the enemy. As Zeiger's film testified, aerial bombing had long become the alleged lesson learned in Vietnam. Never sending ground forces into a war that would last too long became the wisdom of experience. Air strikes were the way to go!! More could be damaged and more could be killed at less cost to our own. This strategic style of warfare and its application in Vietnam was never as clear to me as presented in Sir! No Sir! And it further served to clarify how there is dissent, even at top levels, regarding the ground troops that have been sent into Iraq to occupy the country and protect our assets. The military lesson that was allegedly learned in Vietnam is being purposely ignored and at what cost?

Zeiger and I also discussed the depiction of the black soldiers' resistance to the Vietnam war, especially those in the Army who were asked to return home to war against protestors outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They did not want to fire upon their own people. They could not reconcile being sent to another country to kill for their country only to be asked to return to kill their own. It made no sense. And gave voice to an unstated racism.

Though I know it's not quite the same thing, this sequence in Sir! No Sir! reminded me of the presidential response to the aftermath of Katrina and how accusations of racism once again resurfaced. Only this time instead of sending the National Guard in as they had at Chicago, at Kent State, the National Guard—which was so desperately needed at home—was pulled out to defend governmental interests elsewhere.

Another aspect of Sir! No Sir! that I liked was what I felt was its respectful attempt at gender parity. "Hanoi Jane" was great, possibly the best on-film performance I've seen out of Jane Fonda in many a year, but I was particularly intrigued with the voice of naval nurse Susan Schnall who was arrested for flying a small plane over several military bases here in the San Francisco Bay Area, dropping leaflets for the first demonstration of GIs and veterans against the war. "I remembered hearing about the B-52 bombers that were dropping leaflets on Vietnam urging the Vietnamese to defect," Schnall relates in the film, "And I thought well, if they can do it overseas…."

"Susan was great," Zeiger beamed, conceding that there were a lot fewer women in the service then than there are now. But Susan was bold and brave, wearing her uniform to a protest rally, for which she came under much fire. Like many others at the time, there was nothing that could stop her. Just as Keith Mather described: "I had nothing to lose, and I had no idea what was going to come. That's a free place. It's a really free place, you know? You don't know what's going to happen, you don't know where you're going, but you know what you're doing."

I teased Zeiger about the digitalized reconstruction of Schnall's leaflet drop. "No, no," he grinned, "they had a camera up there . . . " Actually, they had a lot of fun filming that sequence, using the sky as a blue screen, and dropping leaflets from the top of his bunker garage.

Zeiger paid strong attention to the underground press of the GI anti-war movement. I asked him if anything comparable was going on among servicemen in the current war. "The obvious answer is blogs," he answered, "and the Internet in Iraq." Only one of the many reasons why the Government wants to censor the Internet. Notwithstanding these modern marvels of communication, Zeiger waxes a bit nostaligic for the old methods, the mimeographed newsletters that were passed hand to hand around military bases. You would walk into your barracks and find them on your bed, in your locker. There is something visceral about that, which he misses, even as individuals he knew then that were cranking out newsletters, now do the same with daily weblasts. Certain political choices conjure aesthetic choices, I guess. "One must accomodate the times as one lives them," Stephen Sondheim has penned.

But I knew what Zeiger was saying. It's as if information has become entertainment and not the social call to action that it once was. I was struck by a comment Jane Fonda made in the documentary when she was remembering the soldiers at the FTA concerts. FTA was originally an acronym for Fun Travel and Adventure, the military's recruiting slogan for enlisting young men. Over time this morphed into Foxtrot Tango and Alpha or, decoded, Fuck the Army! Fonda was recalling looking out at the concert audience with those tens of thousands of GIs raising their fists and tossing the peace sign in solidarity with the anti-war cause. She wondered if it could even happen today. Zeiger chuckled pensively.

The lesson Zeiger tries to take from that is that movements of resistance seemingly come out of nowhere, they come out of an element of "total surprise" and that's where he gleans his optimism. You just never know. Maybe it could happen again. Maybe it is just as Faulkner wrote, "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past."

Coincidentally enough, the day before the interview I had gone out to the Balboa to catch a doublebill of Joyeux Noel and Sophie Scholl and the dirty word that came up out of those two films was conscience. I've long joked that if you ever want to get out of jury duty, and you've been chosen and are sitting in the box, wait until the judge asks if you can follow his or her instructions on the law, and then calmly respond, "That depends." When they ask what you mean, tell them you would have to follow your conscience first and foremost and—bingo!—you're out of there until next jury call. Why should it be that law, and the order it promises, seem so antithetical to conscience? Bertolt Brecht wrote in a poem:

General, man is very useful. He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect: He can think.

The structure of Zeiger's documentary begins with brave and individual voices who by the nature of their conscience are driven to act without any kind of support network. They were the tip of an oncoming wave.

Sir! No Sir! is equally engaging for its San Franciscan history. I was almost ashamed to admit I knew nothing about the "Nine for Peace" and the Presidio 27. The "Nine for Peace" were soldiers who refused their orders to Vietnam and took sanctuary in a San Franciscan church, chaining themselves to priests in support of their cause. The Presidio 27—which included the soldiers arrested from the "Nine for Peace"—were the prisoners in the Presidio stockade that staged a sitdown strike in protest of a guard's murder of a mentally-ill prisoner. "That was just like electrifying for the whole country!" Zeiger said and praised the local San Francisco television stations who have kept their coverage tapes of that time when most other stations long ago had either erased them or thrown them away. "That was a moment when there was a coming together of the San Francisco scene and the GIs," Zeiger summarizes.

I wondered if that had anything to do with the instigation of the urban myth about soldiers returning to the San Francisco airport and being spit upon by hippie anti-war protestors? Were they somehow trying to get back at San Francisco?

Zeiger was amused with the idea. He hadn't thought of it from that angle but, sure, absolutely. San Francisco—because it symbolized the counterculture—was a magnet for that kind of character assassination.

Finally, I commended Zieger on the documentary's music. Especially how he bookended the two pieces: the Shirelles innocently singing "Soldier Boy" and Rita Martinson soulfully singing her antiwar song at the FTA concerts. "Actually there's a third song that comes after her's," Zeiger corrected, one written specifically for the film bringing it up to current events. I'm always interested in music rights so I asked him if he'd had any problems securing "Soldier Boy" and he said no, that it had surprised him since he had been a little concerned about it, but he was granted license. It cost a pretty penny though. I didn't ask how much.

None of the music inbetween those bookend pieces is from the 60s, however, as most folks assume. A lot of people actually thought he had found all this instrumental music from the 60s but, no, it's all original music, meant to create the atmosphere of the time without pulling the viewer back into the time. At one point they had included "Maggie's Farm", a song that became almost an anthem for the Presidio 27, they sang it all the time; but—after trying it in the film—Zeiger realized suddenly that it pulled people out of the film into their own head and their own memories of that time. That's how strong music and some memories are so it became a challenge for Zeiger's composer to elicit the music of the time to position the filmgoer in a historical moment without having to depend explicitly upon any specific song.

I wrapped our conversation up by thanking Zeiger for rewriting history correctly. He laughed again and said, "Thank you!"

Sir! No Sir!, as mentioned above, will be part of a benefit screening next Thursday at the Grand Lake. But then opens for its official San Franciscan premiere at the Red Victorian April 7-13. I highly recommend it. It's an important reminder at a time when history is perilously repeating itself.


Michael Guillen said...

My thanks to Dave Hudson and the Greencine Daily for picking up this entry!

Michael Guillen said...

My thanks to David Zeiger for linking this entry to the film's website!

steve said...

Si! No Sir! will start playing at the roxie on Friday, April 14th for anyone who missed it at the red vic.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Steve; I appreciate it!