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Capturing war within the military over Vietnam

One of the least-told stories of the Vietnam War is that of the antiwar struggle within the American military. The current presumption is that war protests started on college campuses, but they were actually sparked by the soldiers themselves. Disillusioned by, among other things, the enormity of their orders, the soldiers started the GI Movement. They printed newsletters, mounted protests against the war they were fighting, and even deserted -- according to the Pentagon, more than half a million soldiers did -- galvanizing a larger antiwar movement.

David Zeiger's sobering documentary ``Sir! No Sir!" recounts the struggles of the men and women who audaciously challenged the American government and its reasons for remaining in Southeast Asia for so long. The movie features astounding archival footage: news reports, documentary interviews, and combat footage (the film opens with the jarring, slowed-down image of a village bombing campaign). It also catches up with dozens of antiwar veterans who recall their involvement with the GI Movement. They share crisp memories of their awakenings, their actions, and the government's reactions.

A Navy nurse was arrested after she flew a plane over military bases in San Francisco that dropped antiwar leaflets, two black soldiers were given eight to 10 years for attempting to organize a discussion group that asked whether black soldiers should be participating in the war, and hundreds of other soldiers were jailed for any number of reasons. Decades later, the veterans Zeiger talks to still seem completely astonished, shell-shocked as it were, by both the confusing scope of the war itself and by their ability to resist it.

As it happens, Zeiger was part of the Movement, too. He worked as a civilian in one of the many antiwar coffee shops that sprang up on military bases around the country and served as havens for dissenting soldiers. (His was the Oleo Strut in Killeen, Texas.) Zeiger helped put together demonstrations in the 1960s and '70s, and his participation affords ``Sir! No Sir!" an authenticity that's both personal and political. He also has such awesome access to so many people and so many facets of the war that it warps the structure of his movie and makes it hard to absorb.

In less than 90 minutes, Zeiger gives us a staggering overview that you wish he'd been allowed to extend, perhaps as a documentary miniseries. That way he could explore all this information rather than drive by it. We get glassy-eyed reminiscences from Jane Fonda, who along with Donald Sutherland formed a troupe that performed irreverent but emotional cabaret for the troops. (Fonda's son, Troy Garity , narrates the film.) We hear about the stark moral Catch -22s in which soldiers found themselves. We get a cogent debunking of the cultural misperception that there hadn't ever been an antiwar strain within the military, brilliantly capped by a comical clip of Sylvester Stallone in ``Rambo" railing against civilian antiwar activism. A lot of the film is roughly assembled, but on the movie's website Zeiger implies that his 84-minute movie is just a version, and perhaps he's working on something longer.

In any case, ``Sir! No Sir!" is a valiant enterprise. Like last year's re release, ``Winter Soldier," a film of the informal but crucial Vietnam hearings mounted by antiwar soldiers, Zeiger's movie is a timely salute to the risky and brave men and women who had the temerity not only to think for themselves but to speak their minds.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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