Sir! No Sir! Documentary Review
“Sir! No Sir!” Daivd Zeiger’s newly released documentary, presents an engaging and cogent investigation to resistance against the Vietnam War. Using a combination of historic footage, print media, and interviews, Zeiger addresses one of the most contentious aspects of the anti-war resistance: the GI Movement. Through the film Zeiger dissects how GI opposition to the war was reported and understood by the government and the public. While technically a standard interview/ historical footage documentary, this format serves the film well; its only weaknesses come in attempts to give the film “edge” through frantic montages and rapid cuts. Well timed with the growing upset perceived amongst U.S. soldiers in Iraq, “Sir! No Sir!” is a successful investigation of a forgotten part of American history.
Zeiger’s thesis centers on the simultaneous importance of the GI Movement and how the public and history overlooked it. The GI Movement was a part of the Vietnam War that has not only been forgotten by history, but was attacked by the government when it occurred. By profiling various parts of the GI Movement, from riots at federal stockades, to the off-base GI Coffee houses, to Jane Fonda’s anti-war USO style FTA show, Zeiger creates a narrative that guides the viewer through the life of the movement.
To do this, Zeiger uses the tried and true combination of interviews and historic footage to support and illustrate the monologue of the interviewee. Through the interviews with mostly former GI Movement participants --soldiers who chose to oppose and subvert the war—Zeiger covers a large spectrum of individuals involved. By interviewing the leaders of the movement --the soldiers that ran the coffee shops, the GI Presses and served the jail time-- Zeiger creates a foundation of the obvious types of soldiers that would have been involved. But then by bringing in a former Colonel as well as other officers that “were doing it [their orders] right, but not doing right” Zeiger underscores the importance of the movement by showing that even the most patriotic and steadfast of soldiers were involved.
With the GI Movement being as large as Zeiger portrays it as having been, it is still a forgotten affair, and one must ask, why? Zeiger’s answer focuses primarily on the way the media and the Department of Defense dealt with the movement. In the “The First Casualty,” author Phillip Knightley details how in-country news media was put under intense pressure and even threat from the U.S. government to “get on side” and support the war. (Knightley, 419) Zeiger argues that domestically in the U.S. this was just as much the case. While for the history of news media there has been influence on the part of government during times of conflict, Vietnam was different; it represented the first time that there was a clear divide between the media and government. Vietnam represented a war of ideas one of “no front line, no easily identifiable enemy, no simply explained cause, no menace to the homeland…and, therefore, no nationwide fervor of patriotism.” (Knightley, 418) Vietnam was the first true war that focused on control of ideas, not just the ideological opposition of communism, but the control of information on the successes, failures, and rational of the war. By showing how large the GI Movement was, while at the same time how uninformed the public is and was about it, Zeiger is able to show how the government marginalized it through limited media coverage.
With this understanding of the governments tactics during the war in mind, Zeiger then examines how the anti-war movement as a whole was demonized. Demonized through both its subversive connotations as well as the idea that anti-war protesters did not “support the troops” and were un-patriotic. The infamous idea of protestors spitting on returning troops in San Francisco is the pinnacle of this myth machine as “Sir! No Sir!” exposes. Not only did this even never happen, but how did it become such a powerful image in the minds of Americans? This idea of hateful, unpatriotic protestors also made GI’s powerless to stand against the war because they would be viewed as soldier hating anti-war activists too. While serving as a distinct example of how the GI Movement was repressed and anti-war movement vilified, the spitting example used in “Sir! No Sir!” is indicative of the wider strategy of how the anti-war movement was dealt with by those who opposed it.
Beyond how the anti-war movement was portrayed as a whole, “Sir! No Sir!” focuses down to the individual level to give a human feel to what Zeiger argues was a conscious strategy to demonize anti-war activists. Jane Fonda or “Hanoi Jane” as she became to be known, is chosen by Zeiger for this because of her support of the GI Movement. Through interviews and the hope of a sympathetic heart from the viewer, Zeiger introduces us to the “real” Jane Fonda; the activist who above all opposed the war because she wanted to save the lives of soldiers. In this sense, as with the GI Movement, Zeiger is not only honoring her good intentions but clearing the record the best he can.
While up until this point “Sir! No Sir!” holds a somewhat non-partisan line, the Jane Fonda issue pushes it clearly over to the far left. Being as controversial figure as she is, especially amongst conservative Americans, by casting her in such a good light Zeiger weakens his argument. Regardless of what Fonda argues was the reality of the photo shoot with North Vietnamese AAA, the photo is so emblematic of traitorous anti-war activism that defending it takes away from the strength of Zeiger’s argument. Though it could serve as an example of how successful certain parts of society were at demonizing the anti-war movement, Fonda’s photo with the enemy crosses a line beyond being anti-war activism to near legitimate treason.
“Sir! No Sir!” is not without other weakness as well. Technically, “Sir! No Sir!” follows a standard documentary model discussed before. However, at times Zeiger uses frantic montages and cuts, along with overly enthusiastic period music that is a bit too much at times. In his attempt to give the narrative “edge” and recapture the spirit of the time, Zeiger fails. While it is a solid attempt to liven up an at times static formula of documentary making, a more subtle approach would have been advisable.
In terms of content it seems that in addition to trying to cover too much with the inclusion of the Fonda sideline, Zeiger does not adequately address the motivations of the “man,” the military and government in doing what it did. Although Fonda’s case is useful in detailing the way that the media-government agreement was able to demonize activists, it is too severe of an example. Zeiger would have been better served using this time to take a closer look at the DOD’s motives in controlling information and maintaining the idea of success in the publics mind, rather than trying to save Jane Fonda from her past.
“You cannot wage a war without media, without propaganda,” states Al Jazeera’s senior producer Samir Khadir, in a dismissive tone. So begins Jehan Noujaim’s second documentary endeavor, Control Room—a paradoxical, insightful, and meandering glimpse of the Arab satellite television news network Al Jazeera, during the earliest days of the American invasion of Iraq. Throughout the film, Khadir’s wise and from some perspectives, contradictory proclamation gains traction as Noujaim weaves a narrative of verbal and visual proclivity which makes these once polarized terms (media and propaganda) indelibly linked.
See extended entry for full paper
In 1996, Al Jazeera was launched with a $150 million grant from the emir of Qatar and currently has close to 50 million viewers (a viewer-ship rivaling the BBC). The first Arabic news site, aljazeera.net, was created in 2001 as an outgrowth of the television network. The English language site claims that it provides “freedom of thought, independence, and room for debate” by offering a “different and new perspective” from the stereotypical news “heavyweights” (read: western news outlets) that dominate news thinking. And yet over the past ten years, Al Jazeera has come under fire from Arab governments for its critical approach to regime policy and has been condemned by some of its Muslim viewers who object to the station giving air time to Israeli officials. More recently, with the onset of the war in Iraq and September 11th, Al Jazeera has been accused of promoting anti-American propaganda and acting as the “mouth piece of Osama bin Laden” as some in the Bush administration have charged.
The tension between Al Jazeera as catering to an Arab audience and its Arab underwriters, and its location in the broader context of the so called ‘objective’ news media is explored both internally and externally in Control Room. Noujaim provides a microcosmic vision of Al Jazeera through the voices and insights of its producers, translators, journalists and cameramen as a way to engage larger topics of objectivity and war media coverage of the war in Iraq. At times limited by its underlying sympathy for Al Jazeera, Control Room brings to the surface a level of critical analysis oftentimes bereft in Western news media, while also exposing a universal subjectivity and partiality inherent in all war-time journalism. In creating Control Room, Noujaim sought to give audiences insight into the reality of war reporting in order to help viewers understand the differences between what is seen on their television sets in the west and those of their Middle Eastern counterparts. As Noujaim noted in an interview with CNN: “Since September 11th, there has been enormous pressure not to criticize the President…and if we are not knowledgeable of what the other side is thinking then I think we are in trouble.” Floating between omniscient documentarian and inextricably involved critic, Noujaim breaks down some of the myths of Al Jazeera and in the process, those about the war-time media at large.
A tension between approaches to war journalism emerges early in the film, centering on the war of images. Al Jazeera oftentimes shows gruesome images of dead soldiers, civilians, children, and frequently runs videos of Al-Qaeda; whereas Western media coverage maintains explicit policies against showing the dead bodies of fallen soldiers or those who have been harmed by U.S. bombing. Noujaim capitalizes on this disparity in representation, highlighting the rift between self imposed censorship and the ‘reality’ on the ground. Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim, the former head of the BBC Arab New Service, makes explicit Al Jazeera’s stance on the war of images: “we’ve got the pictures,” he states, “so we will show them, we’ll catch hell from the Americans, but we’ll show them.” Ibrahim’s conjecture about ‘catching hell from the Americans’ is responded to by a news clip of Donald Rumsfeld condemning Al Jazeera for “playing propaganda over and over again…we are dealing with people who are willing to lie to the world to make their case.” Juxtaposed as two extremes, these views alone would set-up a tired oppositional dialog, but Noujaim makes a significant move, cutting in another perspective on the matter with a brief conversation from Abdallah Schliefer, a Western media analyst. Schliefer suggest that the Western media is not going to be able to stop Al Jazeera from showing gruesome images of the war, and those images are what is shaping Middle Eastern perspective of the war. This perspective remains largely unarticulated in Western media, which has led in Schliefer’s view to misconceptions among the American people about how the government should be handling or has been mishandling the situation. “We don’t have the pictures of insurgents using people as human shields, so how can we prove it?” Schliefer asks. The narrative of truth in the Iraq war is delivered by Al Jazeera through images of the dead, dying and injured. Here, Noujaim parodies Rumsfeld’s revelation half-way through the film (“truth ultimately finds its way to people’s eyes and ears and hearts”) removing the statement from its condemning context that references the grotesque lies mapped out in the images displayed on Al Jazeera, to suggest an echoing paradox: the evidentiary visual artifacts of this war will find their way to the people’s eyes, ears, and hearts; forming a visual truth, that cannot be challenged by the verbal contradictions of a visually unengaged Western perspective.
Noujaim is not claiming Al Jazeera is objective just because it shows images of the dead, she instead insists upon a more nuanced understanding of war media coverage where individuals on a daily basis make sometimes subjective decisions about what is communicated to the public—whether they are accepting the news briefings they receive at the U.S. military’s Central Command without critical intervention, or bringing a leftist Bush bashing professor onto their nightly programs. Lieutenant Josh Rushing, the open minded and boyish U.S. military press officer, expands: “when I watch Al Jazeera I can always tell what they aren’t saying, what they are leaving out;” a realization that applies to the Western media as well. Rushing embodies a patriotic yet skeptical view of the war and its media coverage. As the film unfolds Rushing becomes more sympathetic to the plight of Al Jazeera and their particular brand of war reporting. The viewer is almost endeared to Rushing, although he is the voice and uniformed figure on the television that spins the military’s official version of the ‘truth on the ground,’ he is willing to communicate with Al Jazeera reporters and learn and debate their perspective. He is balanced in his personal pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the Arab view, but Rushing also maintains his allegiance to his country. In many ways, his character mirrors that of his foil, Hassan Ibrahim. They both traverse the liminal landscape between objectivity and subjectivity, allegiance and their personal sentiments, arriving at a complexity each and every journalist faces in reporting the news from Iraq. In the end of the film, Noujaim’s characters seem to arrive at a difficult enlightenment—the war is messy as the Al Jazeera manager Joanne Tucker cites, and as such, representing it is a messy project.
Jean-Luc Godard called unedited film “truth at twenty-four frames per second.” The documentary nature of Control Room and Noujaim’s application of cinema verite— where a natural and non-intrusive technique of filming is used to elicit a more truthful documentation of events—attempts to arrive at Godard’s presupposition. Yet in its very subject, Control Room, challenges such attempts at objectivity and truth. In the process of unraveling the myths held about war-media coverage, Noujaim brings to the fore, her own myth. Noujaim, just as the Arab and Western media outlets depicted in her film, has turned the “reality of the world,” as Roland Barthes states, “into an image of the world.” She has provided a brief glimpse of Al Jazeera, but did not once mention its origins, funding, or the long standing trouble between the station and the Arab states where it is broadcast. Also remiss in the film, although probably due to its ‘cinema verite’ nature and not because Noujaim “didn’t know what she was filming” as some critics have suggested, is any critical analysis of Al Jazeera’s impact on its viewers. Only in the outtakes do we get any insight into the possible democratizing role the television station provides by giving viewers the opportunity to speak their once silenced opinions. Deema Khatib, a producer at Al Jazeera, illuminates a complicated aspect of the station’s and the Iraqi people’s internal conflict, “we liked the idea of overthrowing Sadaam Hussein, but then what do we do afterwards?” As Rami Khouri explains in his article “Arab Satellite TV: Promoting Deomcracy or Autocracy,” the media activities in the region are still totally divorced from the political processes, the people of Iraq can’t translate effectively their views into real-decision making scenarios. Noujaim skirts over these issues, replacing them with footage of a failing war and its early failing democratization efforts; but in doing so, she does not suggest any recourse for the Iraqi people. Their voices and perspectives can be heard on Al Jazeera, but they seem at least in Control Room to be only voices, without a political apparatus to support them or the personal motivation to create a government that would. And perhaps the point in the end is that it is not the Iraqi people’s responsibility to fix the mess. In the closing minutes of the film, Noujaim turns the camera back on its American viewers with a final weighty statement from Hassan Ibrahim: “I have absolute confidence in the American people to stop this war.”
Roland Barthes. Mythologies. 35th ed. Canada: Harper Collins Canada Ltd., 1999. 141.
Rami Khouri. “Arab Satellite TV: Promoting Democracy or Autocracy.” 9 May 2001. Jordan Times.
Donald Rumsfeld. Interview with Jamil Azer of Al Jazeera. Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with Al Jazeera TV. 25 Feb. 2003.
New York Times
May 5, 2006
U.S. Uses Iraq Insurgent's Own Video to Mock Him
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and DAVID S. CLOUD
BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 4 — The videotape released last week by the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi showed him firing long bursts from a machine gun, his forearms sprouting from beneath black fatigues, as he exuded the very picture of a strong jihadist leader.
But in clips the American military released on Thursday and described as captured outtakes from the same video, Mr. Zarqawi, head of the Council of Holy Warriors, cut a different figure.
In one scene, Mr. Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq, appears flummoxed by how to discharge the machine gun in fully automatic mode. Off camera, one aide is heard ordering another, "Go help the sheik." A man walks over and fiddles with the weapon so Mr. Zarqawi can fire it in bursts.
Another sequence shows Mr. Zarqawi handing the weapon off to other aides and striding away, revealing white jogging shoes beneath his black guerrilla attire. One insurgent later appears to grab the machine gun absent-mindedly by its scalding-hot barrel and drop it.
In an effort to turn Mr. Zarqawi's own propaganda against him by mocking him as an uninspiring poseur, the American military released the selected outtakes at a news briefing in Baghdad. A senior military spokesman said that American troops had discovered the tape among a trove of information captured last month in Yusufiya, a town just south of Baghdad regarded as sympathetic to the insurgency.
Documents found in that raid also laid out a plan to "cleanse" Shiites from Sunni-dominated areas in Iraq and to provoke sectarian warfare, according to the American military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch.
Intelligence and military officials in Washington said that Mr. Zarqawi, who was once thought to be roaming across western and northern Iraq, was tracked to Yusufiya after tips indicated that his men had been behind the downing of an Apache helicopter near there in early April.
During an early morning raid on a suspected safe house in the town just south of Baghdad on April 16, soldiers killed five occupants and captured five more in a fierce gunfight. The officials said they were later told by Iraqis captured in the raid that Mr. Zarqawi was only blocks away at the time.
General Lynch added that in several raids in the area, soldiers killed at least 31 foreign fighters, possibly destined to become suicide bombers.
The video outtakes and the plans to drive out Shiites, among other documents, were found in the house, General Lynch said, confirming an account first reported in Army Times.
Mr. Zarqawi, a Sunni, long ago declared war on Shiites, whom he considers apostates. The captured documents disclosed at the carefully orchestrated news briefing described a plan to "reduce the attacks on Sunni areas" and instead "be dedicated to cleansing them, calmly, of spies and Shias," according to the American military's translation.
The goal, they said, is to "move the battle to the Shia depths and cut off the paths from them by any means necessary to put pressure on them to leave their areas."
The captured documents further suggested a strategy, perhaps temporary, of shifting the terrorist group's firepower away from attacks on American forces in Sunni regions to attacks in the capital.
"We will leave or reduce our operations against them in our areas for the near future, and will perform our work against them in the areas of Baghdad itself, as well as the surrounding areas," the military's translation said.
General Lynch said that even as Mr. Zarqawi was "zooming in on Baghdad, we're zooming in on Zarqawi, and it's focused now in Yusufiya, in the areas around Baghdad."
"Zarqawi's center of gravity for his operations are in Baghdad," the general said. "We believe it's only a matter of time until Zarqawi is taken down. It's not if, but when."
But the military has made such predictions before, only to have Mr. Zarqawi slip away from them. Moreover, officials' view of Mr. Zarqawi as the main architect of violence in Iraq is more convenient than the possibility that much of the mayhem is committed not by foreign jihadists but by Iraqi-born Sunni Arabs — who can easily find shelter in the cities and villages along the Euphrates.
Questioned on Thursday about how much insurgent activity is actually directed by Mr. Zarqawi, General Lynch acknowledged that "there's no pure science here."
"So for me to give you some mathematical formula that says this many belong to Zarqawi, and this many belong to the Iraqi rejectionists, and this many belong to the Saddamists, I can't do," he said.
The torture and killing of young men believed to be the latest victims of sectarian violence have continued unabated in the capital.
On Thursday, at least 9 Iraqis were killed and 44 wounded when a suicide bomber attacked a crowd of people outside a courthouse in Baghdad. The attack followed the discovery a day earlier of the bodies of about three dozen men dumped around Baghdad. All had been tortured and shot in the head.
Several reports also said several civilians were killed in Ramadi by American forces on Thursday. The military said it killed eight insurgents there after marines were attacked by rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. Two American soldiers were also killed Thursday morning by a roadside bomb in south central Baghdad.
Mr. Zarqawi and his organization have taken responsibility for scores of car bombings, beheadings and other atrocities, many of which have been videotaped, posted on the Internet and shown on Arab satellite television channels.
The selected outtakes released late Thursday were not shown on the most popular Arab channels, Al Jazeera and Arabiya, although Arabiya mentioned them in a newscast later. But they were broadcast on state-run Iraqi television.
In releasing the outtakes, the American military sought to show that Mr. Zarqawi is a phony who cannot even fire a basic infantry weapon without help and who walks around the desert in comfortable Western jogging shoes.
"What you saw on the Internet was what he wanted the world to see," General Lynch said. "Look at me, I'm a capable leader of a capable organization, and we are indeed declaring war against democracy inside of Iraq, and we're going to establish an Islamic caliphate."
"What he didn't show you were the clips that I showed, wearing New Balance sneakers with his uniform, surrounded by supposedly competent subordinates who grab the hot barrel of a just-fired machine gun," he said.
"We have a warrior leader, Zarqawi, who doesn't understand how to operate his weapon system and has to rely on his subordinates to clear a weapon stoppage," the general said. "It makes you wonder."
Richard A. Oppel Jr. reported from Baghdad for this article and David S. Cloud from Washington.
From: Thomas Y. Levin [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Thursday, May 04, 2006 10:24 AM
To: Der Derian, James
Subject: my little Situ show
Did I tell you about this little exhibition that I curated from my
personal collection of SI materials which is currently on view in
Philadelphia at the Slought Foundation? You can see some images --and
listen to the roundtable I did with Tony Vidler, Jean-Michel Rabbate
and Keith Sanborn-- at http://slought.org/content/11324/
How did the class go yesterday? Any reactions to my intervention?
On May 4, 2006, at 12:20 PM, Der Derian, James wrote:
Dug the show - especially the harsh situationist lighting...
Big buzz in class and out - good discussion on the scopic asymmetry of
the panopticon and recalibration of eventhood (TM by TYL),
and a revolt
of the masses, led by santos, against a 'literacy' of surveillance - too
suggestive of a singular meaning as opposed to preferable hermeneutics.
this is of course nonsense, since what I mean by literacy is precisely a critical hermeneutic capacity. Sheesh!!
All in all, great burst of brain food,
bon appetit. With oysters, bien sure.
James Der Derian
Professor of International Studies (Research)
Watson Institute for International Studies
Brown University Box 1970
111 Thayer Street
Providence, RI 02912
Voice 401 863-1814
Fax 401 863-1270
I hope by now your ganglia have stopped twitching from Tom Levin's two-hour bravura performance yesterday on the surveillant society (and what we can do about it), so you can take in today's presentation by John Santos (in person) on the much ballyhooed 'Nokia Effect'. Crash class assignment: Bring your cell phone cameras and record and transmit this event to friends, foes, and major news outlets.
Mock Iraqi Villages in Mojave Prepare Troops for Battle
By DEXTER FILKINS and JOHN F. BURNS
FORT IRWIN, Calif. — Three years into the conflict in Iraq, the front line in the American drive to prepare troops for insurgent warfare runs through a cluster of mock Iraqi villages deep in the Mojave Desert, nearly 10,000 miles from the realities awaiting the soldiers outside Baghdad and Mosul and Falluja...