Sunday, February 01, 2015

Book of the Month: The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam

Regular readers know my opinion of the whole "spitting on Vietnam veterans" thing, i.e., that it is a myth and an urban legend. The book that first exposed this myth is my new Book of the Month: The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembecke.

Lembecke, a Vietnam veteran himself and a sociology professor at Holy Cross, takes a scholarly look at the issue from many angles, relying on the mythmaking potential of the media and the politicians, examines the sociology -- and the pathology -- behind it and comes to some pretty irrefutable conclusions.

If we do not remember our own history, someone else will remember it for us. That's what has happened with the history of the Vietnam War. We let the politicians, starting with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, redefine the war and its effect on the United States, so that the Vietnam veterans were victims of the stab-in-the-back betrayal back home, by the anti-war crowd, by the media and by the liberal politicians.

Does that sound familiar? I don't want to stretch the analogy too far, but that is exactly the mindset among the returning soldiers and the defeated masses in Germany at the end of World War I. Like in the Vietnam War, the people back home did not have to experience the horror of war. Unlike in WWII, Germany did not have to endure saturation bombing, gas attacks, wild artillery rounds, etc. So when the war was lost, someone other than the brave troops at the front had to be blamed. Enter the liberal politicians of the Weimar Republic and their financiers, The Jews.

Again, without stretching the analogy too far, the people "back home", e.g., the war protesters, the "liberal media", and the sucky weak-kneed lily-livered politicians "sold out" the brave American boys. Finally, Nixon hit upon the ideal meme: We have already lost 30,000 men in Vietnam -- do you want those lives to have been lost in vain? In a nice bit of circular logic, we have men on the ground fighting, so we have to keep fighting. That's like burning up a wad of cash worth $1 million and then thinking that you have to burn up another $1 million because you squandered the first one. Or my favorite analogy, the man who kills both of his parents and then pleads for leniency because he is an orphan.

Anyway, back to the book.

Like a tide out of nowhere, the letters to the editor column in my local newspaper swelled to bloated proportions in the last month or so with people who claim that they are Vietnam vets and claim that it really, really happened to them.

There are a few common threads to all of these narratives: It always happened in an airport (usually SFX) and the vet had just stepped off the plane coming back from Vietnam when some "long haired hippie" (usually female) popped up, spit in his face, and called him a "babykiller".

There are some problems with this narrative: When we came back from Vietnam, we landed at a military installation, such as Travis AFB in California or McChord Field in Tacoma. From there we were loaded on buses and taken to another military installation for processing out. It wasn't until the very end of this grueling process that we were discharged and then we had to find our own way to the airport, usually by an expensive taxi ride. By the time the returning vet got to the airport, he was just one more guy in uniform and did not wear a banner that said "Vietnam Vet". Any long-haired hippie that wanted to spit on a Vietnam veteran would have to take pot luck, hoping that the guy in uniform was truly the intended recipient.

There are no -- I repeat, NO -- contemporary accounts of that spitting ever happening. No news stories, no witnesses, no incident reports from airport security, no bail receipts, no nothing anywhere that can verify that this actually happened. It's impossible to "prove" a negative, but this comes close to it.

And what about those vets who say it did happen to them? Well, I don't want to call them liars, exactly. I'm sure that at this point they truly believe that it happened to them. But memory is a funny thing, and whole studies have been made on the process of implanting or self-creating "false memories" that seem just as real as any other "organic" memory.

But that is the power of myth. In many ways, the myth is more "real" than the facts. When faced with facts that counter the myth, people still cling to the myth.

Read this book for a scholarly but immensely readable insight into the whole "spitting on veterans" phenomenon. Highly recommended.