Wednesday, July 26, 2006

No Sir!

I saw the documentary Sir! No Sir! last night and was struck by many aspects of the film. Mostly I was stirred into a memory of what seems like another lifetime now.

First there were the obvious memories of the nightly news of our "progress" against the Viet Cong. Then there was the deep resonance with the music of my teenage years in the 1960's, the decade that bridged the sweet love songs of Dianna Ross and the Platters to the gut impacting, drug induced, soul ripping experience of the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Hoplin. We went from the most innocent kind of expectations to the depths of protest of everything that had come before - all in a decade flat. Some would say almost overnight. For me it went like this.

I arrived in San Francisco at 17 years of age wearing pretty designer dresses accessorized with stylish hats and gloves, just as my mother had worn when we shopped on Market Street in my youth. It was my desire to become a fashion designer and ultimately a boutique owner. It took only a few short months for the harsher reality of that life to settle in. I saw how it was done. Drinks with older men who controlled the wholesale industry. Dingy little showrooms in the Flood Building. Dinner and sex in exchange for large orders. It all frightened me, so I bolted and left those dreams behind.

Not long after, I was exposed to smoking pot and political protests and learned that there was another world just a couple of miles from my apartment - Haight Ashbury. I only ventured over there on a couple of occasions because I didn't understand the rules, which were There Are No Rules. Unlike the fashion industry where there were unspoken rules, this was something entirely different. Women with long skirts and body hair were sleeping with multiple partners, little kids were clinging to their skirts as mom took a "toke or two" with one of her boyfriends. People were sleeping on the street and shooting up. Anything was fair game, including questioning the authority of our government to interfere in the affairs of people halfway around the world in a country called Vietnam. This is where the protest of all that came before began, right before my eyes in a place where Flower Power ruled.

While Haight Ashbury wasn't my bag, much of what it stood for was. Why WERE we sending our kids to Southeast Asia? I had already lost a couple of my high school buddies to the war effort and none of it made any sense to me. No one had attacked us nor threatened our safety. Little did I know that it didn't make any sense to many of the soldiers there too. I didn't know the extent of the internal protest in the military until I saw Sir, No Sir.

At the height of the war there were over 300 underground newspapers and newsletters protesting the war put out by military personal around the US and in Vietnam. Soldiers risked their freedom and went to jail for their beliefs. Toward the end of the conflict, there was out and out mutiny with enlisted men committing acts of of violence, including the use of hand grenades called "fragging", against their superiors. At the end, the military had to resort to an air campaign because they could no longer trust the ground troops to follow orders. You could see the triumph in the faces of the soldiers holding fists high in the archival film. You could also hear the guilt and heartache of those who had returned. I remember it this way.

In 1971 I was a flight attendant for one of the largest military contract airlines in the US, World Airway. It was our job to transport the troops in and out of Vietnam and the surrounding regions. What always struck me was the levity onboard the plane as we were flying into Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam to drop the soldiers for a tour of duty. Lots of joking and bravado. What was not so funny was the trip back home at the end of the tour.

One memory that stuck happened while I was standing at the top of the stairway welcoming the soldiers onboard. At the bottom of the stairs was a young fair haired soldier clinging to his Vietnamese girlfriend who had a little Eurasian baby on her hip. The beautiful young woman was crying savagely, knowing she would likely never see the father of her baby again. He finally let go and turned up the ramp, tears quietly streaming down his face.

Once in flight, there was no revelry at returning home. There was a frightened and empty look on the faces of the men. That look of someone that had seen too much and had little pride in what they had just done. How were they going to reconcile their lives to going to the office, mowing the lawn and coaching little league after filling their minds, hearts and auras with such atrocities - some of which they committed. I didn't truly understand what they were feeling until I began seeing the aftermath in the form of babbling ex-vet street people sometime later.

When we left the theater I felt sad. I realized it was because the same thing is happening now in Iraq, only we're not seeing the protests. It's as though people have given up after coming to underatand that no amount of effort is going to force change in the current set of puppet masters running this country. It's not that protest is gone, it's just happening on the internet - not on the streets. No more "where two or more gather" dynamics. When the people have gathered to protest, tall fences are constructed to shield the president of this country from the ugly truth of his failures, and to shield the press from the faces of the protesters and their protest signs.

I do take some small comfort, however, in knowing that there are a number of films being released about Iraq, including a documentary from one of our interviewees Robert Greenwald titled Iraq For Sale. As I write this, however, I question whether people will choose to do anything about it. We're so deep in the slavish matrix of survival, so deep in debt both personally and collectively, that we can't afford to look up and take action. At least that's what I'm seeing. I hope I'm wrong. It would fill my heart to see the fresh faces of soldiers stand up, refuse to serve and downright disobey orders if those orders are against healthy human values. I know it's happening every day in Iraq, we just don't hear about it. Even if it doesn't end this beastly battle, it would give us hope for the future that some of the troops chose ethics over orders. In my book, that is a brave soldier, the one who says NO SIR!!