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In Response February 28, 2003  RSS feed

The Myth of the Spat-Upon Veteran

By Gabrielle Bernard, Winsted

Chad Barlow, in his impassioned support of war [Some War Is Necessary, February 14], repeats the myth that peace activists "SPAT ON our soldiers returning from Vietnam." It’s a great story, but like many right-wing myths (e.g., the story of feminists burning bras), it is simply not true.

Jerry Lembcke, an associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College, did an exhaustive search in the process of writing his 1998 book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam. He found not a single case of a returning Vietnam veteran spat upon by antiwar activists. The relation between Vietnam veterans and the peace movement was generally good, since the antiwar people saw the mostly working class vets as just as much victims of the war machine as the Vietnamese peasants. We should remember that in that war, as many as 550,000 GIs went AWOL or deserted. A Harris Poll in 1971 showed that only 1% of the veterans encountered hostile reactions when they came home, and they did not think the antiwar movement was hostile to them.

There are practically no reports of spitting during the war itself (1965-75). The first reported instance occurs during an International Day of Protest featuring "Veterans for Peace in Vietnam." Here it is the war supporters who are spitting on the pro-peace veterans. In 1965, World War II veterans who were taking part in an antiwar demonstration were reviled as "cowards" and "traitors."

Lembcke was not able to find a single photograph, news story, or FBI report of veterans being spat upon (remember, the FBI did obsessive surveillance of the peace movements). He tried to track down individuals who said they had been spat upon or witnessed it, but they "dissolved on scrutiny" and others "betrayed lack of authenticity"—which, I assume, means they lied. So what is going on here?

Vietnam veterans did not come home in bulk at the end of the war as WWII vets did; they dribbled back after their usually one-year tour of duty. As the war progressed, thousands of WWII and Vietnam vets turned against the war. The Nixon administration launched a campaign to differentiate between "good" (pro-war) vets and "bad" (antiwar) vets. Spiro Agnew, who would soon be hounded out of office as a felon, led the charge. Overnight, conservatives changed the debate from "our objectives in Southeast Asia" (anti-communism, democracy) to "supporting our men who are fighting the war." (Everyone will remember a similar shift during the Gulf War.)

The single image of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran became the perfect myth of the Nixon-Agnew strategy to discredit the antiwar movement. What solidified the image of the reviled, spat-upon, and eventually crazed Vietnam veteran was the movies. It started in Jane Fonda's Coming Home, where a returning vet is verbally accosted as he returns home: "We don't want your rotten war!" Trouble is, peace activists quietly picketed soldiers going to Vietnam, not returning. But it was the 1977 movie Tracks in which we got the good pro-war veteran and the bad antiwar activist, Mark, who repeatedly spits on his opponents. Hollywood's role in creating the myth of the spat-upon veteran had begun.

And the end result was Rambo, the crazed Vietnam veteran: "But somebody wouldn't let us win. I come back and see all these maggots at the airport. Protesting me, spitting, calling me a baby-killer. Who are they to protest me? Huh?"

It's called the manufacture of consent. It is going on now and it's very scary.