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.” 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.”
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.
~ ~ ~References:
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