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Spitting on the Troops: Old Myth, New Rumors
By Jerry Lembcke
The largest anti-war movement in American history emerged during the weeks leading up to the attack on Iraq. Capped by massive rallies in Washington, DC on January 18 and New York City on February 15, the movement spanned generations and united diverse political interests to degrees that surprised participants and pundits alike.
As the war against Iraq commenced, however, public opinion began to shift. The surprisingly favorable coverage given protests in the weeks leading to the bombing of Baghdad on March 19 gave way to evening news reports about the growing numbers of people turning out for demonstrations and vigils to "support our troops." The nightly-news footage of parents and neighbors distraught over their loved ones' deployment to the danger zone testified to the emotional wreckage left on the homefront when troops ship off to war. At the same time, whatever the intent and stated purpose of the public musterings for the troops, the reality was that they were viewed with skepticism by many observers as thinly-veiled pep rallies for the war policy of the Bush administration.
There is still another layer to the pro-troop rhetoric that has escaped commentary, however. Implicit in it is the assumption that someone doesn't support the men and women in uniform. Behind that supposition lurk the myths and legends of homefront betrayal that have bedeviled American political culture since the Vietnam War, and which have been resuscitated recently by rumors of hostility toward military personnel.
By early April, stories were circulating in several US cities about uniformed military personnel being spat on or otherwise mistreated. In Asheville, North Carolina, two Marines were rumored to have been spat upon, while in Spokane, Washington, a threat to "spit on the troops when they return from Iraq" was reportedly issued. In Burlington, Vermont, a leader of the state National Guard told local television, "We've had some spitting incidents," and then claimed one of his Guardswomen had been stoned by anti-war teenagers.
Upon further investigation, none of the stories panned out — the Spokane "threat" stemmed from the misreading of a letter in the local paper promising that opponents of the war would not spit on returning soldiers — and yet, in each case the rumors were used to stoke pro-war rallies.
Many of the current stories are accompanied by stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans. The recent story of spitting in Asheville, for example, was traced to a local businessman who says he is a veteran who was also spat upon and called a "baby killer" when he returned from Vietnam. An Associated Press story of April 9 reported stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans surfacing in several cities including Spicer, Minnesota whose mayor said he was spat upon in the San Francisco airport while coming home from Vietnam in 1971.
Similar stories became quite popular during the Gulf War of 1991 which raised my curiosity about where they came from and why they were believed. There is nothing in the historical record — news or police reports, for example — suggesting they really happened. In fact, 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. Moreover, the historical record is rich with the details of solidarity and mutuality between the anti-war movement and Vietnam veterans. The real truth, in other words, is that anti-war activists reached out to Vietnam veterans and veterans joined the movement in large numbers.
Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans are bogus. Born out of accusations made by the Nixon administration, they were enlivened in popular culture (recall Rambo saying he was spat on by those maggots at the airport) and enhanced in the imaginations of Vietnam-generation men — some veterans, some not. The stories besmirch the reputation of the anti-war movement and help construct an alibi for why we lost the war: had it not been for the betrayal by liberals in Washington and radicals in the street, we could have defeated the Vietnamese. The stories also erase from public memory the image, discomforting to some Americans, of Vietnam veterans who helped end the carnage they had been part of.
The facsimiles of spat-upon veteran stories that are surfacing now confuse the public dialogue surrounding the war. Debate about the war itself and the politics that got us into it is being displaced by the phony issue of who supports the troops. Everyone supports the troops and wishes them a safe and speedy homecoming. It's the mission they have been sent on that is dividing the nation and it is the mission that we have a right and obligation to question.
The "support the troops" symbolism also comes with a hidden agenda, a subtext that is about the anti-war movement. Understandably, the war brings a lot of emotion to the surface and some of that feeling stems from frustration with the economy, a sense of helplessness in the face of large-scale social and technological change, and fear that cherished American values are being lost. For some people, the real war is the war at home and the enemy coalition comes bundled for them in the anti-war movement. The redirection of their legitimate anger about the deteriorating quality of life in America onto peace activists is shortsighted scapegoating that won't solve problems.
The truth is that nobody spat on Vietnam veterans and nobody is spitting on the soldiers today. Attempts to silence opponents of the war with those figments of hostility are dishonest and should, themselves, be banished from our discourse.
Jerry Lembcke is the author of "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam" (New York University Press, 1998). Jerry is the New England contact for VVAW. He is also an associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts and can be reached at 508-793-3050 or firstname.lastname@example.org.