How GI Resistance Altered the Course of History

By Paul Rockwell
In Motion Magazine

“Sir, No Sir,” A timely film, premiers week of 4/3/2006.

“General, your tank is a mighty vehicle.
It shatters the forest and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs drivers.

General, a man is quite expendable.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.”
— Bertolt Brecht

When award-winning actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland organized an anti-war review, touring US military bases and towns around the world, the GI rebellion against the war in Vietnam was already in full force.

In one theatrical episode, evoking laughter and applause from thousands of soldiers and Marines, Fonda played the part of an aide to President Richard Nixon.

“Richard,” she exclaims. “There’s a terrible demonstration going on outside.”
Nixon replies: “Oh, there’s always a demonstration going on outside.”
Fonda: “But Richard. This one is completely out of control. They’re storming the White House.”
“Oh, I think I better call out the 3rd Marines.” Nixon exclaims.
“You, can’t, Richard,” says Fonda.
“Why not?” says Nixon.
She answers: “Because they ARE the 3rd Marines!”

Archival footage of the Fonda tour appears in David Zeiger’s exciting new film, “Sir, No Sir,” which opens in select theatres throughout the US this month. (See for schedule.)

“Sir, No Sir,” the untold story of the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam, is a documentary. It’s not a work of nostalgia. It’s an activist film, and it comes at a time when GI resistance to the current war is spreading throughout the United States.

There are more than 100 films – fiction and nonfiction – about the war in Vietnam. Not one deals seriously with the most pivotal events of the time – the anti-war actions of GIs within the military.

The three-decade blackout of GI resistance is not due to any lack of evidence. Information about the resistance has always been available. According to the Pentagon, over 500,000 incidents of desertion took place between 1966 and 1977. Officers were fragged. Entire units refused to enter battle.

Large social movements create their own “committees of correspondence” – communication systems beyond the control of power-holders and police authority. Despite prison sentences, police spies, agent provocateurs, vigilante bombing of their offices, coffeehouses and underground papers sprung up in the dusty, often remote towns that surrounded US military bases throughout the world. “Just about every base in the world had an underground paper,” Director Zeiger tells us in Mother Jones.

When the first coffeehouse opened in Columbia, South Carolina, near Fort Jackson, an average of six hundred GIs visited each week. Moved by the courage and audacity of soldiers for peace, civilians raised funds to help operate the coffeehouses and to provide legal defense.

When local proprietors, like Tyrell Jewelers near Fort Hood, fleeced GIs, GI boycotts were common. At one point, the Department of Defense tripled its purchase of non-union produce in order to break the United Farm Workers boycott. American GIs, many from the fields and barrios of California, immediately joined the Farm Worker pickets. Mocking signs appeared on military bases saying “Officers Buy Lettuce.” The GI movement was a profoundly class-conscious movement.

A counter-culture blossomed inside the military. Affinity groups, like “The Buddies” and “The Freaks” were formed. Afros, rock and soul music, bracelets and beads, the use of peace signs and clenched fists – a culture antithetical to the totalitarian culture of military life – proliferated. Prison riots in the stockades, from Fort Dix to the Marine brig in Da Nang, were common by 1970.

In response to a detested recruitment slogan – “Fun, Travel, Adventure” – GIs named one periodical “FTA,” which meant “Fuck The Army.” When GIs ceased to cooperate with superiors, the military lost control of culture and communication.

Military attacks on GI rights – the right to hold meetings, to read papers, to think for themselves, to resist illegal orders – did not subdue the growing anti-military movement. Repression actually widened the resistance.

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