David Zeiger, filmmaker
His focus: soldiers who dared to speak out
LOS ANGELES — David Zeiger is eating his high-protein breakfast at a small, casually funky cafe along Sunset Boulevard near his home in the arts-oriented Silver Lake neighborhood.
Sitting in a far corner, the 56-year-old director of the new documentary “Sir! No Sir!,” which is about anti-Vietnam War protest within the military, has a commanding view of the small rooms that make up the storefront restaurant. He says it reminds him of the Oleo Strut coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, where he was a civilian activist working with soldiers during the Vietnam War. (The film opened Friday at the Brattle Theatre and runs through Thursday .)
Named after a shock absorber for helicopters, the Oleo Strut was a meeting place and safe haven for soldiers from the nearby Fort Hood Army base to express their opinions about the war. They also could experience a bit of the rebellious counterculture then enchanting young people throughout America. On the wall were posters of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, David McCallum of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” and others.
In 1971, Jane Fonda visited Oleo Strut with her touring F.T.A. revue. The initials stood alternately for “Fun, Travel, and Adventure, “Free the Army,” or another, less-than-polite directive.
“It was about the size of this restaurant,” recalls Zeiger, who looks a bit like Jerry Springer with his curly brown hair (popping up from under a porkpie hat), glasses, and a slightly creased but still-youngish face.
“And they did four shows. It was her, Donald Sutherland, Peter Boyle, [singer] Len Chandler, Country Joe McDonald. She put together this show that toured all over the world in this wild anti-war revue just for GIs.”
Today, all this sounds suspiciously like a tall tale — active-duty soldiers cheering Fonda for her opposition to the Vietnam War. There has been so much subsequent controversy about her 1972 trip to North Vietnam that it has obscured the support she once commanded.
Yet the proof is in “Sir! No Sir!” The film uses footage from a 1972 documentary called “F.T.A.” — only briefly in distribution before it was withdrawn — that shows Fonda and her troupe before excited crowds of soldiers during shows near Asian military bases. There’s a joke, for instance, about President Nixon calling for Marines to stop protesters from surging into the White House. Those protesters are the Marines, Nixon is told, and the soldiers laugh heartily.
But that’s just part of what “Sir! No Sir!” is about. It attempts to show that there was a widespread antiwar movement and a general spirit of political/cultural protest within the military during Vietnam, and not just among those fearful of being drafted. Zeiger wants nothing less than to reclaim a history he believes has been hijacked by conservative revisionists.
The film asserts that ground troops in large numbers began questioning the war after the 1968 Tet Offensive, which brought into question the United States’s ability to ever win the war . And when the United States later started to rely on the South Vietnamese to do the brunt of the fighting on the ground — a process called “Vietnamization” — many soldiers didn’t want to die for what was starting to be seen as a lost cause. Others had long objected to the war for moral reasons.
“Right around 1970, when Vietnamization became the main thing, you see open bemoaning of the total loss of ground-troop support for the war,” Zeiger says. “You see national-news reports about guys going out for `search and evade’ instead of `search and destroy’ missions, and stuff about `fragging.’ Those years saw the height of what we call the GI underground press with over 300 newspapers, riots in stockades, and almost a complete loss of black troops in terms of loyalty.
“While in official histories this is referred to as lack of morale, they always put it as caused by the troops knowing the war wasn’t popular at home, not that the troops themselves opposed the war.”
Much of Zeiger’s life has turned on the decisions this middle-class Los Angeles native made in the 1960s and 1970s. Searching for his place within that era’s tumult, he traveled Europe as a poet and songwriter, went to Cuba as part of the Venceremos Brigade, attended and dropped out of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and then joined the movement supporting and encouraging antiwar protest within the military.
“For me, it became the obvious choice because it was a working-class movement, the heart and soul of America, in the belly of the beast, where it mattered,” he says.
After the war ended and that time passed, he worked in factories in the South, went through one marriage and the death of a son, got remarried and eventually became a still photographer in Atlanta. In the 1990s, at the age of 43, he began making documentaries. (He also started a new family and today has two daughters, ages 9 and 7, as well as a 27-year-old son, Danny, from his first marriage.)
For “Sir! No Sir!” Zeiger found a variety of forgotten material from the Vietnam period. It includes, for instance, footage of San Francisco’s Presidio 27, tried for mutiny after a sit-down strike at the base stockade. It also documents an “Armed Farces Day” parade by a thousand soldiers in Killeen in 1970.
The film features new interviews with those in uniform who protested the war at the time. Some became well known back then — Donald Duncan, a member of the Green Berets who resigned from the military in protest in 1966, and Howard Levy, a dermatologist who was drafted and, after refusing to train Green Beret medics, was court-martialed and sent to prison. There also is a new interview with Fonda, who remains proud of the work she did during that era.
The existence of a widespread antiwar movement within the military isn’t unknown to Vietnam authors and researchers, even if overlooked today by the public at large.
“GI opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam was truly unprecedented in scale,” said Christian Appy, a University of Massachusetts history professor and author of the oral history “Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides,” in an e-mail. “It didn’t stop the war in its tracks, but along with the larger antiwar movement, the protests of soldiers and veterans surely acted as a brake on military escalations Nixon was contemplating.”
Zeiger’s film, being distributed by Amherst-based Balcony Releasing, is part of a renewed interest in Vietnam documentaries. It was also the centerpiece of the ongoing “At Home and Abroad: The Vietnam War on Film” series at Harvard Film Archive, which began June 2 and runs through Saturday. (For more information, visit harvardfilmarchive.org.) The opening film of that series, 1972’s “Winter Soldier” documentary about a 1971 Detroit conference at which Vietnam veterans recalled atrocities, was just released on DVD on May 30.
One person not in “Sir! No Sir!” is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who began his political career with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and in 2004 was the Democratic candidate for president.
Zeiger said he briefly considered including Kerry in the film. “Had he been involved in the actual GI movement, I would have done everything I could to get him in,” he says. “But when I was making this film and he was running for president, the signals we were getting were this was the last film John Kerry would want to be part of. And it would have ultimately been a distraction if we had.” (Kerry declined comment for this story.)
“Sir! No Sir!” is about Vietnam, not Iraq, but Zeiger says parallels can be drawn — especially as an active civilian and veteran antiwar movement develops. “That wasn’t something I was making any kind of reference to,” he says. “I’m trying to tell a story as clearly as I can about a dynamic movement. But it’s impossible to tell the story today without it being seen as a metaphor for Iraq.”