Is it really an "urban myth" that Vietnam-era soldiers and veterans were spat upon by protesters? This topic is being recycled with the recent news coverage of Jane Fonda being spat upon at a book signing.
The author of the "urban myth" view is Holy Cross professor and Vietnam Veteran Against The War alumni Jerry Lembcke, whose book, "Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam", was published in 1998. He reprised his effort in a recent guest piece in the Boston Globe:
For a book I wrote in 1998 I looked back to the time when the spit
was supposedly flying, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found nothing.
No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on.
For a book I wrote in 1998 I looked back to the time when the spit was supposedly flying, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found nothing. No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on.
What I did find is that around 1980, scores of Vietnam-generation men were saying they were greeted by spitters when they came home from Vietnam. There is an element of urban legend in the stories in that their point of origin in time and place is obscure, and, yet, they have very similar details. The story told by the man who spat on Jane Fonda at a book signing in Kansas City recently is typical. Michael Smith said he came back through Los Angeles airport where ''people were lined up to spit on us."
The "urban myth" notion has been kicked around for years. Jack Shafer (who has been a towering genius on the Valerie Plame case) wrote in support of Lembcke in 2000 and again in 2004. Ahh, but did he apprise himself of Lembke's political views, and, if he knew then what we know now about the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, would he be so supportive?
You guessed it - Lembcke's thesis is a rehabilitation effort of the Vietnam anti-war movement, of which VVAW were a significant part. And his political motivation? Back in 1991, he thought that the rallying cry of "support the troops" was being used to stifle dissent prior to Gulf War I, and a research project was born. Fortunately, he had determined the conclusion at the outset, as he describes in the linked article excerpted after the break. One can only imagine what he thinks today.
The pithiest rebuttal is available in the comments at Hit and Run:
Jerry Lembcke, a Marxist historian, was unable to find any story that convinced him veterans had ever been spit on. Lembcke has also been unable to find convincing evidence that Marxism isn't a workable economic theory; I am not surprised at his inability to find proof of something less well-documented.:)
We aren't pithy. But as an opportunity to check the author's credibility, our eye is drawn to this in the book review:
Lembcke's most controversial conclusion is that posttraumatic stress disorder was as much a political creation -- a means of discrediting returning vets who protested the war as unhinged -- as it was a medical condition. The image of the psycho-vet was furthered through such Hollywood productions as 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Coming Home.'
Or, let's rely on Jerry Lembcke himself to characterize his work (if we can trust these message boards):
Derek Summerfield is correct that PTSD is a social construction but there is more to say about who constructed it, how, and how the concept functioned in post-Vietnam America.
In my book THE SPITTING IMAGE: MYTH, MEMORY, AND THE LEGACY OF VIETNAM (NYU Press, 1998) and the article "The `Right Stuff' Gone Wrong" in CRITICAL SOCIOLOGY (24/1-2, pp. 37-64) I argue that PTSD was as much a mode of political and cultural discourse constructed by the media as anything "found" by mental health professionals. Furthermore, Psychiatrists imported almost all its key elements (e.g. alienation, survivor guilt, and flashbacks) from other contexts.
PTSD functioned to help erase the memory of the war as an act of U.S. agression that we lost because the Vietnamese beat us by rewriting it as a war we lost because we defeated ourseselves, i.e. our military was stabbed in the back, our soldiers spat on, etc. The image of the dysfunctional PTSD-stricken victim-veterans displaced the historical reality that the war politicized and empowered a generation of GIs who revolted against the war and joined the movement to stop it.
Until I can track down a copy of the book, that will have to do.
Left unmentioned in these summaries of the media conspiracy is John Kerry, onetime spokesperson for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who gave some well-publicized testimony to the US Senate in 1971. On the subject of veterans, Mr. Kerry offered this:
But the problem of veterans goes beyond this personal problem, because you think about a poster in this country with a picture of Uncle Sam and the picture says "I want you." And a young man comes out of high school and says, "That is fine. I am going to serve my country." And he goes to Vietnam and he shoots and he kills and he does his job or maybe he doesn't kill, maybe he just goes and he comes back, and when he gets back to this country he finds that he isn't really wanted, because the largest unemployment figure in the country- it varies depending on who you get it from, the VA Administration 15 percent, various other sources 22 percent. But the largest corps of unemployed in this country are veterans of this war, and of those veterans 33 percent of the unemployed are black. That means 1 out of every 10 of the Nation's unemployed is a veteran of Vietnam.
...I understand 57 percent of all those entering the VA hospitals talk about suicide. Some 27 percent have tried, and they try because they come back to this country and they have to face what they did in Vietnam, and then they come back and find the indifference of a country that doesn't really care, that doesn't really care.
Evidently, Mr. Kerry had embraced the myth of the suicidal, unemployed vet. Later, Mr. Kerry was asked about drug use by soldiers, and said this:
The problem is extremely serious. It is serious in very many different ways. I believe two Congressmen today broke a story. I can't remember their names. There were 35,000 or some men, heroin addicts that were back.
The problem exists for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the emptiness. It is the only way to get through it. A lot of guys, 60, 80 percent stay stoned 24 hours a day just to get through the Vietnam-
Senator Symington: You say 60 to 80 percent.
Mr. Kerry: Sixty to 80 percent is the figure used that try something, let's say, at one point. Of that, I couldn't give you a figure of habitual smokers, let's say, of pot, and I certainly couldn't begin to say how many are hard drug addicts, but I do know that the problem for the returning veteran is acute...
So, in his Senate testimony the spokesman for the VVAW is describing vets as suicidal, unemployed drug addicts. Perhaps in a moment of eerie prescience John Kerry had already embraced the troubling message of such films as "Deerhunter" and "Coming Home".
In any case, a former member of the VVAW manages to conclude, after careful research, that the notion of the psycho-vet was a media creation (abetted by the right) intended to discredit protesting veterans. Hmm - from Kerry's testimony, one might have guessed it to be a creation of the anti-war left, intended to discredit the Administration's pursuit of the war.
My confidence is his objectivity is not high.
And the other end of the spectrum would seem to be "Homecoming - When the Soldiers Returned From Vietnam", as described here.
OK, that is a start. Bob Greene collected testimonials from folks claiming to remember abusive treatment. Another possible source of contemporaneous evidence would be travel orders or travel advisories from the early 1970's - did the military have any written advice about soldiers traveling in civilian clothes to avoid trouble?
Other suggestions as to contemporaneous evidence would be welcome - letters to the editor of a small-town paper describing/deploring/(applauding?) abusive treatment, or letters home from a soldier might also be convincing.
Otherwise, reasonable folks like Jack Shafer will be unconvinced.
UPDATE: Let's present an excerpt from p. 232 of Bob Kerrey's new book, "When I Was A Young Man". The future Senator is describing an incident in 1969; he is in Philadelphia undergoing rehab with his prosthetic leg and the incident occurs at the Martin Luther King track meet at Villanova:
After the race I was taunted by a group of long-haired men who blocked the exit and knocked me to the ground as I pushed past them to leave.
Now, Kerrey does not say he was spat upon. However, this does not sound precisely like the Veterans outreach described by Lembcke. Of course, lacking a police report or a contemporaneous news account, Lembcke might just reassure us that this is just an invented memory. (And doesn't he get knocked down in New Hampshire in 1992, or some other Presidential run, by unsympathetic protestors? Hmm...)
By Jerry Lembcke, Associate Professor of Sociology
In February 1991, I was asked to speak at a teach-in on the Persian Gulf War in the Hogan Campus Center Ballroom. My presentation focused on the image then being popularized in the press of Vietnam-era anti-war activists treating Vietnam veterans abusively. After sending troops to the Gulf region in August, the Bush administration argued that opposition to the war was tantamount to disregard for the well-being of the troops and that such disregard was reminiscent of the treatment given to Vietnam veterans upon their return home. By invoking the image of anti-war activists spitting on veterans, the administration was able to discredit such activism and galvanize support for the war. Drawing on my own experience as a Vietnam veteran who came home from the war and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), I called the image of spat-upon Vietnam veterans a myth.
After seven years of research and writing, my book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam was published in August 1998, by New York University Press.