Vietnam: The Quiet Mutiny

“The war isn’t over, but it is ending. It is ending not because of the Paris talks or the demonstrations at home. It is ending because the largest and wealthiest and most powerful organisation on Earth, the American Army, is being challenged from within, from the very cellars of its pyramid, from the most forgotten, the most brutalised and certainly the bravest of its members. The war is ending because the grunt is taking no more bullshit.”

From his first documentary, in 1970, John Pilger made waves. In The Quiet Mutiny, a film for World in Action directed by Charles Denton, he breaks the sensational story of American troop revolts in Vietnam, particularly those conscripts of the anti-war generation. “Grunts” – conscripts – complain that they are given most of the frontline action, unlike “lifers”, enlisted men, and “lifer” officers were being killed by their own men. These revelations were, according to Phillip Knightley in his definitive study of war reporting, The First Casualty, among the most important ever reported from the Vietnam War.

More than half the US Army deaths are caused by “friendly fire” or other mistakes and accidents, reports Pilger. Meanwhile, a patriotic troupe called Donut Dollies, brought in to entertain the troops, have become, along with unpopular officers, targets of GI disaffection. “The other day,” he says, “a Donut Dolly was blown up by a grenade and another was stabbed to death – by grunts.”

The film ends with footage of wounded soldiers being stretchered from a US Army bus and The Beatles singing, “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…”

Following its screening on ITV, Walter Annenberg, the American ambassador to London, complained to the ITA, the commercial channel’s regulator. World in Action’s editor, Jeremy Wallington, and producer Granada Television’s joint chairman, Denis Forman, were given a dressing-down by the ITA’s chairman, Sir Robert Fraser. As Wellington recalls, Fraser identified no inaccuracies in the film, but was most disturbed Pilger might be a “bloody communist”. (He wasn’t). The founder of Granada, Lord Bernstein, subsequently wrote to the Sunday Times praising both the film and its reporter. However, this was a warning of the battles that Pilger would face for many years over questions of "impartiality" and "balance" - so often the code for the official viewpoint.

By 1975, The Quiet Mutiny’s revelations had become received wisdom. The film won seven awards, including the Grand Prix at the Krakow Festival of Short Films and another honour at the Chicago Festival.

The Quiet Mutiny (World in Action, Granada Television), ITV, 28 September 1970

Producer-director: Charles Denton (27 mins)

With thanks to Anthony Hayward, whose biography of John Pilger is available to buy here.