Q: What do we ask of our soldiers?
A: It’s complicated.
At least six different answers to that question will be offered this semester at the International Film Series (IFS). This weekend, the semester kicks off with three new documentaries that tackle the issue.
The most local of the three movies will show on Saturday at 7:00. Sir, No Sir! is a documentary about soldiers and sailors who opposed the Vietnam war from within the military.
Two Boulderites and former Navy officers, John Huyler and Ron McMahan, are featured in the film. Their unique protest took the form of democracy.
“At the end, the war was being aerialized,” explains Huyler, who understood the implications of an air war. “I am a former Navy pilot. I can tell you that bombing villages is indiscriminate. You can’t differentiate between so-called bad guys that you want to kill and everybody else that happens to be there.”
A conscientious objector, Huyler joined with McMahan to take action against such wanton killing. “This carrier was going back [to Vietnam] for the 6th time. We chose it as a symbol, quite intentionally, and decided to have a vote, which we called the Constellation vote. We decided to go out into the street and ask anybody if they thought the carrier Constellation should stay home or deploy.
“We had three different categories of ballots. We had active-duty military, military dependents, and civilians. We got, if memory serves, 54,000 people in the city of San Diego to vote on this. And overwhelmingly, across all 3 categories, they said the Constellation should stay home.”
Of course the military is not a democracy, but that doesn’t mean the Constellation vote was futile. Huyler continues, “of course the Constellation didn’t stay home, but all three networks carried it. In those days — 1971 this was — [if] you got on all three networks, you just put it in the national consciousness. You just changed the fact that on deployment number five, this carrier snuck out of the harbor and nobody thought about it, and on deployment number six, everybody was asking ‘Should this carrier go back or not?’”
The carrier went back to Vietnam, and elsewhere, American soldiers did do horrible things to civilians. Released in 1972, Winter Soldier chronicles the 1971 testimony of a hundred U.S. soldiers who recount the atrocities they witnessed or, in some cases, committed themselves, in Vietnam. Film critics use adjectives like”chilling,” “horrific,” and “difficult to watch” when describing Winter Soldier. While not technically a “new” documentary, Winter Soldier has been largely unavailable until recently. Perhaps it takes forty years before a nation is ready to hear about its shameful past. You can see for yourself on Sunday night.
But a lot has changed in the military in the last forty years. As Huyler puts it, “the overwhelming phenomenon that is different is that there was a draft back then. Now we have an ‘all-volunteer military,’ and that is a profound difference. The socioeconomic background of people in the military today is a lot more homogeneous than it was during Vietnam. The implications for an ongoing war are vastly different for most of the population.”
By way of illustration, Huyler compares the number of soldiers in Iraq from Boulder, with the number from less affluent communities. Those who enlist are either gung-ho about the military, or they have their backs against the wall. “It’s called the poverty draft,” says Huyler.
That raises the question: forty years from now, will the IFS be able to show documentaries about dissent from within the military during the Iraq war? Or will the homogeneity of the military make that less likely?
One way to see for yourself is to check out Occupation: Dreamland on Thursday and Friday. The movie provides a “grunt’s-eye view”of Fallujah in 2004. Our soldiers are doing their best, but they’re being asked to do the impossible. Dreamland is required viewing for anyone with an opinion on the Iraq war.
After this weekend, the IFS keeps trying to answer the question of what we expect from our soldiers, although in a more traditionally cinematic way.
Before Americans were in Iraq, the British tried to expand their empire into Arab lands. In April, IFS will show a restored 35mm print of Lawrence of Arabia, based on the accounts of soldier/adventurer T.E. Lawrence.
Finally, Stanley Kubrick directed both Paths of Glory, in which three men are tried for cowardice for disobeying the unreasonable orders of an incompetent General, and Full Metal Jacket, a two-part Vietnam War movie about the absurdity of both boot camp and field combat.
Republished by permission of The Boulder Weekly