May 20, 2009
Joe Cushnan says that three essential films about the Vietnam War,
now issued on DVD, show how it was opposed by many of those who fought it
AFTER four decades, the Vietnam War still provokes controversy and
debate. Now three documentaries, newly re-released on DVD by Stony
Road Films, show that a even a supposedly civilised nation like the
United States can produce evil, malicious political and military
individuals on a par with so-called enemies of freedom across the world.
At the core of all of these films is testimony from soldiers who were
present in Vietnam, either participating in or observing many
incidents of torture and barbarism, and who decided to tell their
first-hand accounts, most of which were suppressed or denied by the
It is difficult, but not impossible, to watch a fired-up Jane Fonda
and a feisty Donald Sutherland in FTA, the rediscovered 1972
anti-Vietnam War documentary, because nowadays we see Sutherland as a
veteran, much-respected, calm character actor, while Fonda the
former "Hanoi Jane" to her detractors among other things, we also
know as an advertiser of face cream. But all those years ago they
were using their fame and talent as the mainstays of a travelling
troupe of performers "the show the Pentagon couldn't stop") to
disseminate their fierce opinions on aggressive US foreign policy to
groups of disgruntled American soldiers stationed in locations in and
around the Pacific Rim.
This was Fonda and Sutherland in their Oscar-winning Klute era she
fresh from her Barbarella phase and he from his triumphs in MASH and
Kelly's Heroes. They were both in their 30s, but seemed to relish
being involved in a surge of younger generation energy and passion
The movie pieces together episodes from their travelling revue of
jokes, skits, protest songs and sermons, with strong contributions
from ordinary soldiers. In a way, the documentary succeeds in showing
a rather civilised and entertaining method of performing and getting
across objections to the conflict. It also is easy to see how such a
film, with its star participants, could have irritated then President
Richard Nixon and his political and military elite with its attitude
of "Fuck the army" and exposure of discontentment among the troops.
FTA disappeared after just a week in cinemas in a sinister vanishing
act. This reissue has curiosity value because of its Hollywood
ingredients, of course, but it deserves its place in the archives as
a quirky record of the edginess of Americans at home and abroad about
a nasty, unwinnable war.
Sir! No Sir! is subtitled "The suppressed story of the GI movement to
end the war in Vietnam". It highlights the strength of anti-war
feeling that existed among serving soldiers. There is stark contrast
between accounts of personal pride, integrity and hope as they began
their military careers, with genuine allegiance to the American flag
and a sincere passion when it comes to defending the honour of their
country, and the reality of their war experiences. As one disgruntled
marine memorably puts it in the film: "I was doing the job right, but
I wasn't doing right."
According to Sir! No Sir! there was growing discontentment with what
was increasingly being seen as an unethical, repulsive overseas
conflict. There was horror at stories of US troops engaging in
torture and other atrocities in the battle zone. From a base in San
Francisco, the protest movement took root and produced propaganda
directly dropped from aeroplanes onto army bases to attract more
To give the story some scale, in 1968, there were more than 500,000
American service personnel in Vietnam. This was a staggering number
of people, to which must be added the South Vietnamese on the
American side and the Viet Cong who opposed them. This was war on an
epic scale. As a further illustration of this the Pentagon registered
more than half a million desertions of US soldiers during the course
conflict. Dissent was real and rife.
The bloody and bizarre scenario included the US government's
preferred measurement of success namely, the scale of the Viet Cong
body count. It looked like a strange mathematical measurement, devoid
of humanity, but it seemed to be politically advantageous at home,
especially as the "kill" statistics were manipulated upwards.
The GI movement against the war thrived and rallied considerable
support through its "coffee house" venues across US. There were
strong feelings that, on every level, the US government deliberately
designed plans to pursue the destruction of the Vietnamese people.
The film emphasises the alleged criminality of the US government. The
fact that these accusations came from frontline soldiers makes this
documentary all the more powerful. As the world's most powerful
nation, America yearns for global respect. However, if the accounts
in this film are to be believed, it should hang its head in shame.
Winter Soldier is the most powerful of the three DVDs because it
concentrates entirely on soldiers' recollections of the war. The
consensus from their stories is that US Army recruits were trained,
drilled, bullied, humiliated and frightened into becoming cold robots
of war killing machines with nothing else on their minds but the
desire to "wipe out" anything that moved in Vietnam. If that meant
innocent civilians, too, including children, then so be it.
In the film, One former soldier recalls the final briefing before he
left for the war when his unit leader brought a rabbit into the hall
and, just as the room full of soldiers were laughing at the fluffy
bunny, the leader broke its neck, skinned it and threw its innards
all over the audience. As the ex-soldier put its, this was an
unambiguous message to go and do the same thing to the Vietnamese people.
The testimonies here show that, regardless of what they were before
they were killed, all Vietnamese corpses were counted as Viet Cong.
In some instances, killing was a game with soldiers told to bring
back proof that they had eliminated "the enemy". Trading cut-off ears
for base-camp beers was not an unusual practice.
Winter Soldier recounts the 1971 public inquiry into war crimes
committed by US forces in Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Against the
War group had organised the Winter Soldier Investigation, where more
than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and
committed. The accounts here are graphic and emotional, delivered
with matter-of-fact honesty and humility, both chilling and real in
equal measure. Although the media attended the event, almost nothing
was reported in the American press. This was probably because the
truth was not wanted at that time.
Today, anyone interested in how the lessons of war were not learned
should watch and absorb the eloquent and dignified way these soldiers
tell their stories. While this is an unsettling and unforgettable
experience, it is, of course, nothing compared to what they
themselves saw and did.