Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Spitting on Vietnam Vets Myth

There are certain battles I know I will spend the rest of my life fighting. One is that Merle Haggard is a superior artist to Johnny Cash. Another is that the Confederacy committed treason in defense of slavery and that there leaders should have been executed. Sometimes these battles kind of come up on you--like the idea out of certain areas of the progressive blogosphere that Ulysses Grant was a good president. That's some crazy talk right there.

Another of these battles is the urban legend that antiwar protesters spat upon Vietnam veterans as they returned to the United States. This of course is central to conservative mythology about why we lost Vietnam. According to these ideas, we could have won easily in Vietnam if it wasn't for the hippies and the media. That we were invading a country where we had few interests, even less knowledge of, and intervening in a civil war we didn't really understand on the side of a clear loser plays no role in this mythology.

Naturally, the thing to do when examining these ideas is to turn to the evidence. Sociologist Jerry Lembcke did just this in his 1998 book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. Lembcke, a Vietnam vet himself, examined about 500 news stories from the time concerning soldiers returning from Vietnam. Not a single story mentioned spitting on soldiers. Surveys done at the time found a whopping 3% of returning soldiers who found their welcome unpleasant, as opposed to 93% who described it as "friendly." There is not a single piece of evidence of anyone even talking about spitting upon soldiers until the early 1980s. Every single time Lembcke pushed those who claimed someone had spat upon them, they admitted that it hadn't actually happened to them, but to friends or relatives.

This is overwhelming evidence that protesters spitting on soldiers was extraordinary rare, though you couldn't prove that it never happened. On the other side, there are thousands of veterans saying it happened to them and millions of Americans who believe it.

Tomorrow, in my survey class, we are reading a chapter out of a source book that presents a series of first-person accounts from veterans. One of the interviewed veterans claims he was spat upon, an assertion that goes unchallenged by the book's authors. This disturbed me. Now, I have to tell my students that this a myth. Going against me is not only the fact that they believe it happened and that there family members say it happened, but that it's in the book too. Frankly, I don't think they'll believe me. It's even possible (though I'm not worried about this) that it will show up on evaluations. Nonetheless, I can't let this go.

One obvious question that might be asked is this: Are you calling my father, uncles, grandfather a liar?

While I wouldn't use that term, yes. Yes I am.

Memory is a tricky thing. Historians want to honor and respect the memory of people. But of course memories cannot serve as the only source base. [Note: this is why I could never ever work on Native American history.] And with Vietnam, memory gets really weird because veterans want so bad to recast the war to place their actions in a positive life. They are ashamed because they lost the war. They are ashamed because they didn't match the experiences of their fathers in World War II (this I think is really important and plays right into another annoying myth---that of the "greatest generation."). Some are ashamed because of the atrocities they committed. Others are trying to create a reason for fighting a pointless war. Many are angry because the nation didn't honor their experiences. There are many reasons and it is a quite complex issue. But the image of hippies spitting on honorable men fighting for our freedom has stuck like no other. It provides an enemy, it explains why we lost, it allows veterans to honor their own actions by shifting fault for the whole catastrophe. It is a story with legs.

The problem is that there's not an ounce of truth to it.

So tomorrow I'll explain this whole situation to my students. I'll have to tell them that what their fathers have said to them is not true. A few might come around to what I have to say. Others will probably be offended. Many will dismiss me as a left-wing kook. And I will go on to fight the exact same losing battle next year.

Couple of interesting links. Jack Shafer had a 2000 piece in Slate on this myth. We don't necessarily see eye to eye on why the myth continues, but he makes many good points. And if you want to go into the heart of the beast, in 2004 the Free Republic site posted a story about this. The comments are as frightening as you'd expect from freepers.