Saturday, October 9, 2010

Spitting Out the Truth

Say what you will about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, at least American and Coalition service men and women are receiving almost universally unflagging support and the highest praise. We should admire those among us to have the courage to make the ultimate sacrifice in protecting our freedoms. The intelligence, or lack thereof, on the part of our leaders in choosing to enter into such conflicts should in no way overshadow the sacrifice of those who have to do the dirty work. After all, we don’t want to repeat the disgraces heaped upon our returning Vietnam soldiers – of being spat upon and told they were “baby killers” when they returned home from an unpopular war.

Though I was in college at the time of the Vietnam war, I was called for my induction physical in preparation for being drafted. Fortunately, I never received my official “Greetings” letter. However I do have many friends and acquaintances who served, both voluntarily and involuntarily; some of whom were deployed to Vietnam. Oddly, only one of them ever said they were spat on while in uniform upon returning from the war.

Joe mentioned the incident during a party where he was talking about his two sons currently serving overseas. I like Joe but he has always been the kind of guy who likes to impress... particularly if there are attractive women present. Sure like many, he pads his credentials a bit and I usually brush off a lot of what he says as harmless bluster. But truthfully; I don’t believe for one moment that anyone spit on him… perhaps for other reasons, but not likely in the context of his being a uniformed returning vet.

I have always been troubled by these accounts of spitting on returning Vietnam veterans; frankly the image of such alleged deeds chaff against my “reasonableness meter”. Yet these stories persist in the news media. I heard it yet again this week cited by a National Public Radio reporter. Earlier this year, Conservative reporter Glenn Beck conjured up a story of an Iraq War veteran being spat upon at a rally in Washington.

The image of a war protester spitting on a soldier or veteran generates an extremely visceral response – and I believe that is precisely why this myth tends to persist. The metaphor is a strong indictment of those who oppose war in general and certain wars in particular. It has all the elements of a very jagged propaganda tool.

In researching this story I discovered a book written by Jerry Lembcke, "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam" (New York University Press, 1998). Jerry is an associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts and a Vietnam veteran himself. Troubled by the pervasiveness of this story, his book is the result of direct interviews of hundreds of veterans claiming being spat upon. What he discovered was that ALL of these accounts appeared to fall apart when the claimants were pressed for details. Indeed, though the media still seems to report these incidents as fact, there remain no substantiating news articles, tape or pictures to support these claims.

What Lembcke found even more remarkable were that in virtually all such accounts, the soldiers always walked away in sadness or shame – never, it seemed, did any of these service men “punch the lights out” of any of these spitting war protesters. Such altercations would clearly have generated some level of media coverage, if not police incident reports.

Lembcke states: …the Veterans Administration commissioned a Harris Poll in 1971 that found 94% of Vietnam veterans reporting friendly homecomings from their age-group peers who had not served in the military.”[1] According to the people I know personally who served in Vietnam, they recall nothing but praise and support for them. In fact, several remember their service as a positive experience.

Then why does this myth of war protesters spitting on veterans seem to persist? As Jack Shafer of Slate Magazine writes: “The myth persists because: 1) Those who didn't go to Vietnam--that being most of us--don't dare contradict the "experience" of those who did; 2) the story helps maintain the perfect sense of shame many of us feel about the way we ignored our (sic) Vietvets; 3) the press keeps the story in play by uncritically repeating it... 4) because any fool with 33 cents [postage] and the gumption to repeat the myth in his letter to the editor can keep it in circulation.[2]

With upcoming elections, currently our nation is awash in all manner of urban folklore being spewed forth over the airwaves in an attempt to sway the appeal of one political candidate over another. Unfortunately when emotionally-charged issues are involved, one of the first casualties is the truth.
~ ~ ~

1. Spitting on the Troops: Old Myth, New Rumors, The Veteran, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Spring 2003
2. Drooling on the Vietnam Vets, Slate Magazine, May 2, 2000
3. Beck went beyond NY Times' and Sparling's (contradictory) accounts of "spitting incident" to ask: "Have we learned nothing from Vietnam?", Media Matters for America, February 1, 2007


Orhan Kahn said...

Reading this it got me thinking about how someone would feel spat on by not receiving the support and praise they expect upon returning home. I just don't see a protestor spitting on a person in uniform, it just doesn't seem...right? I'm only applying to be an army cook but if the time comes and I have to be a solider then I would absolutely expect the support of the people I'm fighting for.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Orhan I think that if anyone spat on you for wearying your country's uniform, you would be more than justified in giving the perpetrator a mouth full of loose teeth.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski couldn't stop talking about his service in Vietnam even though the Dude, his best fried, was a pothead ex-hippy. Maybe that was closer to reality.

Jerry said...

I do remember -- and I was in the Navy at the time not posted in a war zone -- TV stories of protesters on college campuses carrying around 'Baby Killer' signs outside ROTC buildings. But no, I never heard a first person account from a soldier returning home being spit upon or harassed.

I was just recently in Vegas and ran into a returning veteran in the car rental area. It was good to see folks going out of their way to walk up to him and shake his hand. I was one of them. I never saw that back in the 60's.

PeterDeMan said...

1964. An idealist youth of 20, I first applied for the brand new Peace Corps. Never heard anything back. I enlisted in the Marine Corps. Right after that my Peace Corps orders came thru. The Marine Corps (incredibly) released me; made a two column article in the paper. Two years later I got a letter saying I was being drafted but then my wife was pregnant and got deferred. I was lucky. But, looking back at the decade that followed I too never saw any example of what you wrote about. American legends are like that; small things become big things in the media and take on a life of their own. It is pretty incredible the myth lives on until today. But, a lot of myths live on, like WMDs in Iraq, Bush was a great president and we are the greatest country in the world,

TechnoBabe said...

Sorry, anything that Glenn Beck says I can count on to be untrue.

The Mother said...

While I have no doubt that this is a myth, thanks to Lembcke's excellent research, I also have no doubt that isolated incidents of this type were possible.

Look at the mom who lost her baby after a circumcision and the nastiness that came from the anti-circ folks.

Ideologies trump empathy regularly in our society.

DJan said...

I do remember well how reviled our troops were as they returned from Vietnam, but you're right: it was the media that told me that, I never saw it myself. So much of what we think we know is something we learned from unknown origins. I regularly see people coming up to men in uniform these days and shaking their hand and thanking them for their service. I never saw that during the Vietnam era.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas LOVE that film!! Yes, a bunch of my buddies did go kind of "hippie" upon release from military service; lots of long hair and some similar behaviors ensued.

Jerry I was from San Francisco so a LOT of the draft card burning and protests were at the Oakland Induction Center, the place where I had to show up for my physical. There were some "hawkish" recruits who did mix it up with the anti-war protesters for sure.

Peter We have a good friend who got his start in the Peace Corps. He had a fantastic experience and it launched his career (engineering) for him. But yes, a myth can be a powerful motivator.

Nance said...

Excellent! Just the kind of post I like: well-written, documented, and it offers a new perspective or adds to a worthy one. What a find I have in Plead Ignorance!

When I marched with Vietnam Veterans Against The War, I never saw a vet spit on, although I saw the occasional rock or bottle thrown in--strange, this--military towns like Fayetteville, NC. And lots of fist waving. Some of those vets were in wheelchairs, but none were in full uniform at the time.

When I married a fighter pilot just after the war, I got to meet and talk with a quite a few active duty men who had just returned from Vietnam. One, a former POW, had hair that had gone snow-white overnight. I don't think it stretches the point to say we held men like him in reverence.

Thanks for your good work, here. The nation may not have learned how to avoid Vietnam-style wars, but we have learned a little about how to regard a soldier.

Robert the Skeptic said...

techonBabe Agreed. Why so many people WANT to be led around by the nose by this guy is amazing to me.

Dr. Mom Ideologies are in full bloom now that the elections are ramping up. Missing is ANY modicum of substance to any of the positions. Each party promising to create jobs - I guess using a Ouija Board because I have heard NO specifics... only ideology.

Djan See that is just it, I don't recall how reviled our troops were when they returned!! The war was hugely unpopular, but I recall mostly sympathy for the guys coming out of the war. This is what I mean... I think a false memory has been created by mythology and repetition. That is the just of my post.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Nance As I responded to Peter, I recall seeing very violent protests between both pro and anti war factions. From my recollection of the nightly news, the anti-war protesters received the brunt of the violence; often from the cops! One of our family friends was a California Highway Patrol cop assigned to riot duty; it was uncomfortable to hear him brag about the heads he busted.

My dad was Republican and a WWII Vet. I just assumed he supported the Vietnam war. I was surprised to discover he was totally against it - and he was scared to death that I was going to end up drafted.

Madame DeFarge said...

Over here, some servicemen are banned from places because they were wearing uniform. Now there's a big groundswell of support for them and we're being encouraged to recognise what they do for our country. I may not agree with what any government does, but why take it out on soldiers?

Marylinn Kelly said...

I would not have thought to explore as propaganda these stories reaching back decades. But yes, what a fine way to vilify all who stood (or stand) against the administration (pick one), making them appear to be the ignorant and petty. As one involved in the anti-war movement in 1968, it was never about the troops. Whether draftees or volunteers, they deserved and deserve our gratitude.

secret agent woman said...

Your friend Joe reminds me of a guy I knew who used to go to the UU church. He was always talking about being a POW in Vietnam. Finally, my ex questioned him about it. Turns out he had been caught, sat, un-restrained, in a chair in a hut for an hour or so and then climbed out a window and escaped when the guard was absent. I'd be embarassed if I were him, but he didn't seem to be.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Madame Completely agree - The dedication of these men and women and their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice makes it even more incumbent that our leaders put their precious lives in jeopardy ONLY when it is truly justified. In recent years, I do not believe that has been the case.

Marylinn Of course, the anti-war people didn't want anyone being killed senselessly... least of all their own brothers and sisters. And many vets turned to anti-war activities upon being released from their service obligation.

SecretAgent Even that minimized story sounds implausible when you think about it. Encountering fabricated military or other experiences and accomplishments is something I would think you have encountered in your line of work. I will have more on that subject soon.

GutsyWriter said...

With my son in Junior high at a military school, I have changed the way I view what these kids and soldiers go through. It takes a certain person to do what they do so I have so much more respect now that I know a little more about their training.

Rain said...

That was interesting and something I had never heard. I remember those years also but at the time never heard the spitting stories. The hatred the vets have for some people from those years like say Jane Fonda has never abated. I wonder how much of it has been grown to serve a political agenda. We need more truth and less myth!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy There is no doubt that those among us who pursue careers in military service do so for the most honorable of reasons. The pride you have in your son is well deserved.

Rain Fonda was a fervent opponent of the Vietnam war; unfortunately she conducted her opposition thoughtlessly and recklessly. In the end, in many ways, she actually damaged the anti-war effort.

KleinsteMotte said...

How is all this worked into your upcoming election? I hear some much about those elections that seem to be constantly running for as long as i can remember. Sometimes i wonder if those campaigns are there to hide the truth?That respect for vets is up is good. Now how about more respect and tolerance for all good folks. The media seems to sell crime and acts of violence because it makes money. I find the discussion on this post interesting..

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte Respect for veterans is about the only demonstration of respect I am seeing today - the political discourse, at least in this country, has hit an all-time low.