The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembcke examines the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran and comes to some conclusions that extend far beyond the question of whether or not soldiers returning from Vietnam were actually spat upon by anti-war protesters.
While acknowledging that it is impossible to prove a negative (that no veteran anywhere, anytime was ever spat upon) he presents convincing evidence that the “spat-upon veteran” was actually a fabrication designed to whip up support for wars of American empire (most specifically, Bush I’s Gulf War) and to discredit anti-war Vietnam vets and to rob them of their historical legacy.
In light of the front page stories posted by BooMan today Taking Care of our Vets and Don’t Expect the Truth, We are the Enemy it is critical that anyone who is opposed to the Iraq war heed what Lembcke has to say. BooMan’s two posts are not two separate topics – they are intimately related.
Extended quotes from The Spitting Image below. I’ve transcribed them from my copy – any errors mine. I’m going to let them stand without comment from me – if you want to know my memories of the Vietnam era – as a young woman opposed to the Vietnam war with many friends who were Vietnam vets, see my comment on leftvet’s diary Coming Home: A Vietnam Veteran Remembers. And please read his diary and the many comments left by veterans (of several wars) on it.
Important to know about The Spitting Image – it was written in 1998.
. . . the idea that Vietnam veterans had met with malevolence gained prominence during the Fall of 1990, when the Bush administration used it to rally support for the Persian gulf War. After sending troops to the Gulf in August, the administration argued that opposition to the war was tantamount to disregard for their well-being and that such disregard was reminiscent of the treatment given to Vietnam veterans on their return home. By invoking an image of anti-war activists spitting on veterans, the administration was able to discredit the opposition and galvanize support for the war. . . .
An analysis of the news stories gleaned from press accounts from the fall of 1990 reveals that the administration put forth one explanation after another for the impending war, to the point that nobody could reason about the rightness or wrongness of it because the objectives to be served by military means kept changing. When reasoning within a means-ends framework became paralyzed, public opinion about the war derived from emotion, symbolism , and myth. In effect, the administration invoked the image of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran to solidify support for the war and opposition to an anti-war movement that was growing rapidly during December of 1990.
The hurt and confusion that many Americans felt with the loss of the [Vietnam] war was exacerbated by the inadequacy of the attention given veterans. Assessing blame for those wrongs was part of the process by which the country put the war behind it and moved on. But the laying of blame for the loss of the war and the mistreatment of veterans at the feet of the anti-war movement was misdirected. It was a form of scapegoating, and as such it left the real sources of peoples’ troubles unaddressed. The war itself went unexamined, and the leaders who got us into it were never held accountable. America’s war in Vietnam remains a festering sore covered over by such mythic bandages as the spat-upon veteran.
The myth also functions to reverse the verdict of history, to find the innocent guilty and guilty innocent. The indicters were themselves indicted as the responsibility for the loss of the war shifted from those whose policies had failed to those who were critical of the policies all along. In the process, the resolve and resourcefulness of the Vietnamese people was denied, and the credibility and character of Vietnam veterans, who were the most convincing witnesses for the case against the government, was attacked. Initially dismissed as imposters and then discredited as deviant malcontents, this generation of “bad” war veterans were eventually recast as “mad” war veterans.
The myth sullies the reputation of those individuals and organizations who dared to dissent, and strips Vietnam veterans of their true place in history as gallant fighters against the war. The identity crisis supposedly suffered by Vietnam veterans because they were denied the military victory of their youth might be better laid at the feet of a culture that confers manhood on warriors, but not on peacemakers.
In The New Winter Soldiers, Richard Moser writes about what he calls the “soldier ideal.” The soldier is constituted of the images we have of soldiers and the values we attach to those images. There is a duality in the American soldier ideal, he says, between the dominant vision of the frontier fighter and the defender of empire, and the alternative figure of the citizen-soldier. Soldiers of the first sort live in a world separated from civilian concerns, fighting wars with neatly drawn lines between good guys and bad guys. The citizen-soldier, on the other hand, as represented by the Revolutionary War’s minuteman and by the armed fugitive slaves of the Civil War era, is someone who fights to create of defend freedom. He is a character capable of crossing boundaries, of fighting as a soldier but also as a citizen against wars he deems unjust. It is this spirit of the citizen-soldier that anti-war Vietnam veterans connected with, and thus began to transform what it means to be an American soldier. The loss of the war in Vietnam made their identification with the citizen-soldier ideal all the more imperative for Vietnam veterans. But their place as citizen soldiers who stood up against military authority, racism, and genocidal warfare was stolen from them. By the late 1970s, the culture of empire and its dominant image of the soldier ideal was reasserting itself, and the fabricators of the national imagination lent themselves to the pathologizing of the Vietnam veterans’ image.
On a societal level we have largely forgotten that much of the energy and inspiration for the anti-war movement came from the veterans themselves. Such political amnesia is dangerous. For militarists, the failure to remember the GI and veteran opposition to the war could lead to overly optimistic assessments of what to expect from soldiers in a future conflict. . . .
The Gulf War of 1990-91 is a marker by which we can assess the impact of the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran on American political culture. The myth’s awesome power to sow confusion, stir political passions, and lead large numbers of citizens into war was exhibited at the time. But that was by no means the end of the story.
Reclaiming our memory of the Vietnam era entails a struggle against very powerful institutional forces that toy with our imaginings of the war for reasons of monetary, political, or professional gain. . . . it is a struggle of epic importance . . . .
Remembered as a war that was lost because of betrayal at home, Vietnam becomes a modern-day Alamo that must be avenged, a pretext for more war and generations of more veterans.
Remembered as a war in which soldiers and pacifists joined hands to fight for peace, Vietnam symbolizes popular resistance to political authority and the dominant images of what it means to be a good American. By challenging myths like that of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran, we reclaim our role in the writing of our own history, the construction of our own memory, and the making of our own identity.