Sir! No Sir!

by Bruce Patterson, March 1, 2006

I went down to Mill Valley last Wednesday. A friend of mine had gotten me invited to a benefit at the Throckmorton Theater. For a $100 donation to help fund distribution of David Zeigler's new documentary movie about the Vietnam era's GI anti-war movement, SIR! NO SIR! I'd get to sip wine and nibble on hors d'oeuvres with Mr. Ziegler and our hostess, Jane Fonda. Lots of other Bay Area celebrities and movement heavies would also be in attendance, as well a number of other two-way vets. Maria Muldaur and Holly Near would belt out some tunes, Cindy Sheehan would get a little pep-talk and, of course, as the main event the movie would be screened.

SIR! NO SIR! deals with the origins and growth of the GI anti-war movement and how it became a crucial aspect of that time that, along with much else, has been totally erased from the popular memory. In fact, the current slaughter in Iraq was made possible only because the current crop of American voters are so profoundly ignorant of their own recent history. It is a deliberately manufactured ignorance, of course, a house of cards built of established lies, but nevertheless it is the main prop holding up the current, blood-splattered junta and the main engine driving the ongoing insanity.

Two-way vets are those of us who, upon our return from Vietnam and from within the military ranks and in the name of the brothers we'd left behind, began exercising the Constitutional Rights we had taken a blood oath to uphold. Since the Brass did not wish to tolerate such rank insubordination from us expendables, it was like we had come home to a new war, this one against The Beast. The Brass, the lifers, Military Intelligence, the Criminal Investigation Department and the MPs all came after us when we were exercising our rights on post. Off base and in town, it was the MPs, the city police, the FBI, the KKK and the county sheriffs that came after us.

It took a tremendous amount of courage to survive in combat. Though it should be pointed out that such courage in such circumstances isn't worth a fraction of what it is cracked up to be. Also, in combat, it's worth remembering that all but the very bravest soldier at least once during his hitch wishes he could curl up into a fetal position, cry like a baby for his mommy and, opening his teary eyes, see her sweet face smiling down upon him.

It took a different kind of courage to fight, not with rifles and machine guns, but with words and ideas, peaceful acts and moral witness. All that protects you is the Bill of Rights that is a dead sheet of paper to most of your countrymen and to your government; a Bill of Rights that exists only because you make it exist, prove it exists by breathing life into it, exercising it and calling it from the mountain.

Of course both sorts of courage could occasionally come in handy. Once I was leaning on the railing of a troopship cruising off the coast of Cuba. I'd been passing an anti-war petition and I was holding in my hand a clipboard with a large number of signed petitions. I also had been bad-mouthing the war to anybody who would listen and, since my two partners and I were the only soldiers aboard ship sporting Combat Infantryman's Badges — the most revered of all military emblems — I thought I was safe.

So I was on deck admiring the darkening twilight when these four burly cracker lifers cornered me. The biggest of them told me that either my petitions or my ass was getting thrown overboard right there and right now. So I carelessly tossed my clipboard into the ocean, planted my feet and told the big one with my posture that, if I was going overboard, so was he.

It was only after they turned away and left me alone that my knees started knocking. After that, for the rest of the voyage, I kept my mouth shut, only went up on deck with my partners and never again went up top at night.

Whether I was organizing with GIs United Against the War, or the United States Serviceman's Fund, Veterans for Peace, California Veteran's Movement, or Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a huge percentage of my allies had been boys like me: volunteers. We had volunteered to fight in Vietnam in what we thought was the defense of the American Constitution, and back home we volunteered to fight again to, using different means, accomplish the same thing. We didn't fight for "Flag," "Country" or "God" — much less for Nixon, Kissinger and the chickenhawks. We fought for our Constitutional Rights, strictly constructed and interpreted according to American tradition.

We were patriots, you see. Without a living and breathing Bill of Rights, America sinks into just another cesspool of tyranny, deception and corruption. Without the Bill of Rights, liberty dies and the people are returned to serfdom. That was the gospel of America's revolutionary founders, and that was the gospel to us anti-war GIs and veterans.

In the spring of 1969, when four of us founded the GI anti-war newspaper called Bragg Briefs and began distributing it on post in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, we added our voices to what was becoming a nationwide and worldwide network of such rags. But, unlike our predecessors, our rag wasn't published "underground" (as if M.I. and C.I.D didn't already have all of us GI malcontents pegged and tailed). With Bragg Briefs, we published our names right above the masthead. We wrote them like we were prisoners of war acting according to the Geneva Conventions. We gave our names, ranks and serial numbers.

By doing that — forgive me for cussing in print — we announced, "Fuck the war. Fuck the Army and fuck you!"

It was an attitude of rebellion that was spreading in the ranks and, within a couple of years, it would become the crucial factor in the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Having gotten a bellyful of the endless and senseless killing, misery and futility, and sick to death of lies and more lies getting plastered over the truth like a jungle-tattered fatigue jacket laid out over the blown-apart face of a dead hole-mate, the grunts in the bush rebelled.

If you wish to know what has happened to your history and your heritage and how it is that, right now, a new Vietnam War is destroying America's new Army, a new overseas people and a new generation of American youths, read George Orwell's 1984. But if you want to get an idea about how and why the Vietnam War ended, and what sort of people ended it and some of the prices they paid, and how this new Vietnam War is going to end (unless the folks back home get patriotic and start supporting the troops), check out SIR! NO SIR! Check it out if you get the chance.

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