A Letter from David Zeiger

It's a unique experience to feel that you are part of making history.

So says Dr. Howard Levy who, as an army doctor in 1966, spent 3 years in federal prison for refusing to train Green Beret troops heading to Vietnam. His comments come at the end of my film about the GI Movement against the Vietnam War, Sir! No Sir!

In a sadly ironic twist, 40 years later Dr. Levy and the thousands of active duty soldiers who openly organized against the Vietnam War while in the military are once again part of making history-because their story is sparking a new and significant movement in the military today.

Sir! No Sir! tells a story that has literally been erased from history. Hundreds of films, both fiction and non-fiction, have been made about Vietnam. But this story-the rebellion of thousands of American soldiers-has never been told in film. This is certainly not for lack of evidence. By the Pentagon's own figures, 503,926 "incidents of desertion" occurred between 1966 and 1971; officers were being "fragged"(killed with fragmentation grenades by their own troops) at an alarming rate; and by 1971 entire units were refusing to go into battle in unprecedented numbers. In the course of a few short years, over 200 antiwar underground newspapers were published by soldiers around the world; local and national antiwar GI organizations were joined by thousands; thousands more demonstrated against the war at every major base in the world in 1970 and 1971, including in Vietnam itself; and stockades and federal prisons were filling up with soldiers jailed for their opposition to the war and the military. Colonel Robert Heinl, the Marine Corp's official historian, wrote strikingly in 1971 that rebellion in the ranks had "permeated every branch of the service." His article in the Armed Forces Journal was titled "The Collapse of the Armed Forces."

Sir! No Sir! opened in theaters last Spring and got a good deal of attention. L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan called it "A powerful documentary that uncovers half-forgotten history, history that is still relevant but not in ways you might be expecting," and another critic only half-jokingly called it "A film that threatens the war movement with every showing, the Bush administration should outlaw it from all theatres within fifty miles of an armed forces recruiting station."

It turns out he had a point. Since its release last spring, my little film about events that happened 40 years ago has had quite an impact inside the military. Kind of like giving a motorboat to prisoners abandoned on a remote Island. The organization Iraq Veterans Against the War has distributed hundreds of DVDs soldiers for free, and the film has been cited by several who have publicly refused deployment to Iraq on the grounds that the war is immoral and a clear violation of international law.

Navy Seaman Jonathan Hutto and Marine Sergeant Liam Madden met at a screening in Norfolk last fall and, inspired by the film and David Cortright's seminal book on the GI Movement, Soldiers in Revolt, decided to start the Appeal for Redress. Cleverly using the military's own whistleblower protection policy, the Appeal is a petition to congress calling for an immediate end to the war. Almost instantly they had 1,600 signatures (it has since risen to over 2,000). If the number seems small, consider this: There are currently about 140,00 troops in Iraq. In November 1969, with over 3.5 million GIs in Vietnam, 1,366 signed a New York Times ad calling for an end to the war-and the effect was electrifying. Numbers only take on their true meaning when understood in context.

True, Iraq is not Vietnam, and 2007 is not 1969. But something very profound is happening here. The world is full of moments when history intertwines with the present in dynamic and unexpected ways. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was fueled by the hundred-year-old stories of Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and the slave rebellions we never learned about in school. This is another one of those moments.

My film doesn't tell anyone what to do. But it does tell an incendiary story of thousands of soldiers who helped end a war 40 years ago. As the Bush administration plans only escalation of this horrendous war, the 200-pound gorilla blocking his way may well be the troops themselves.

David Zeiger

[ed. note: the Appeal is not a petition, and is never presented as such to elected officials. As promised to those who sign, each official only receives the names of persons in his or her district in a personal letter to the official.]