Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Erased from the Public's Memory

At Feral Scholar, DeAnander has posted an excellent review of David Zeiger's great documentary, Sir! No Sir!. She opens her review asking what we think of when we think of the movement against the Vietnam War and sketches a stereotype of what that likely is: singing, marching, civilian hippies, basically. "In other words", she says,
you’ll most likely think of a movement of young people in civilian society — students and draft resisters — mostly on college campuses, mostly white middle/upper class kids, in direct and hostile opposition to the armed forces as well as the government.

What you most likely won’t think of — unless you remember it personally — is the veterans’ and soldiers’ anti-war movement. You won’t think of the song “Soldier We Love You,” and you won’t remember that the FTA Show in which Jane Fonda starred draw cheering crowds of US soldiers throughout its tour of Pacific Asia. You won’t remember soldiers in Viet Nam wearing peace signs in place of their dog tags, or going to jail for refusing combat duty. You probably won’t remember radical Black soldiers making a direct connection between US policy in Viet Nam and US policy in the inner cities. Memory of the pivotal social moment of the Sixties has been selectively edited (especially through the sugar-coated amnesia pills cranked out by the Hollywood vending machine). The soldiers’ and veterans’ antiwar movement has been erased from the public’s memory.
We happened to see this film a few weeks ago at an Iraq Veterans Against the War speaking engagement held in here Baltimore at 2640, a "cooperative events venue" run, in part, by the excellent local radical bookstore and coffeehouse collective, Red Emma's. The veterans of the Iraq War who spoke were for the most part stirring and inspiring--they talked about their experiences both in the war itself and in raising awareness inside and outside the military.

Seeing Sir! No Sir! in this context was perhaps even more instructive than it would have been on its own. It reminds us that the purpose of learning about history is not for positioning (taking an irrelevantly correct stance towards some distant historical event), but that we can and must learn from past successes and failures.

I've written a little about the concerted effort taken by the U.S. government and its willing accomplices in the press and the intelligentsia to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War as it was still happening, and I've read a lot about the nature and makeup of the opposition to the war. So I should know better. But I still have a tendency to imagine the antiwar movement as having been along the lines of the hippie stereotype DeAnander describes. It's hard to imagine earlier times, even times as relentlessly over-documented and seemingly shoved down our throats as the 1960s. Read DeAnander's review to get a fuller flavor of what the film depicts, but I can say that I found it revelatory, even though I already supposedly "knew" the basic story it tells. This documentary is essential viewing.

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