The Myth of the Spat-Upon Veteran
A review of The Spitting Image:
Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam
by Jerry Lembcke (New York: New York University Press, 2000;
paper, ISBN 0814751474).
Michael G. Livingston
[We reprint this article from five years ago because of its relevance
to the movement that has grown up against the Iraq war, especially those forces
represented by Iraq Veterans Against the War, Gold Star Families for Peace,
Military Families Speak Out, and Veterans for Peace.]
Many Americans carry the image
in their heads: the Vietnam
vet, returning from war, gets off the plane in San Francisco and is greeted by protesters
with shouts of “Baby Killer!” Then, out of the crowd, a protester rushes
forward and spits on the vet. This image is so widespread that already by early
1991 (during the Persian Gulf War) polls showed that the majority of the
American People believed the anti-Vietnam war movement had been anti-soldier
and had, in many cases actually spat upon returning troops.
In The Spitting Image Jerry Lembcke shows
how this image is a myth that serves the interests of the powerful who led the U.S. to war, and still lead the U.S.
to war. Lembcke is a sociologist at Holy Cross College and a Vietnam veteran who was an active
member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). His
readable and well-documented book demolishes the lie that the antiwar movement
was anti-soldier and that the vets were spat upon.
Of course it is hard to
disprove a myth and hard to prove that something never happened. Still Lembcke has extensive evidence showing that “the spitting
image” is an illusion created by the Nixon-Agnew administration and the mass
media (especially Hollywood movies). From the beginning, the antiwar movement
worked closely with veterans and active duty military personnel. Many leading
antiwar activists were veterans of earlier wars. Many groups active in the
antiwar movement, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), worked to support
GIs and defend GI political rights.
By 1968, a large number of Vietnam
vets were key activists in the movement. Polls conducted at the time showed
that most combat troops viewed the antiwar movement as their only real
supporter. Other polls conducted at the time showed that over 94% of returning
troops said they were greeted positively by people their own age who had not
served in the military. Even more telling, there is no documentary evidence
(not one letter, photo, news clip, press report, or police report) of an
antiwar protester spitting on a returning vet. There are, however, a number of
photos and published stories showing protesting vets being spat upon, sworn at,
and pelted with trash by pro-war members of the VFW or American Legion. The
documentary film Hearts and Minds,
for example, has footage of protesting vets being greeted with jeers and abuse
by pro-war supporters.
The stories of the veteran spat
upon by antiwar activists started appearing in the late 1970s and all such
stories have proven either demonstrably false or nearly impossible to prove.
Where did the myth come from
and why do people believe it? Lembcke shows that the
Nixon-Agnew administration sought to discredit and divide the antiwar movement
by casting it as an internal enemy who stabbed “our boys” in the back. Nixon
and Agnew also created a contrast between the good vet (pro-war, pro-Nixon) who
was spat upon and the bad vet who was violent, crazy, and, not incidentally,
against the war.
defeat by Vietnam was a
bitter pill for warmongers and others who believe that the U.S. is both the most powerful and
righteous nation on earth. After 1975 the usefulness of the Nixon-Agnew myth to
the right wing increased substantially.
shows that Hollywood
did a lot to develop and spread this myth, starting in the late 1960s. He
devotes a chapter of the book to Hollywood
films and how they have shaped false memories of the antiwar movement. The
projected varied from movie to movie, but certain stereotyped roles were common
from 1968 onward. Vietnam
veterans were often portrayed as ultra-violent crazies or paramilitary
vigilantes. Nowhere was the politically organized veteran shown; nowhere were
the veterans’ criticisms of U.S.
After the end of the war (and
the defeat of U.S.
imperialism) in 1975, Hollywood
started to develop the image of “betrayal of our boys” by the antiwar movement.
According to Hollywood,
“we lost because of the protesters.” Lembcke
discusses such movies as Coming Home,
The Deer Hunter, and Rambo in detail to show how Hollywood created the
image intentionally. While there are some, mostly non-Hollywood, exceptions
such as the documentaries Hearts and
Minds and No Vietnamese Ever Called
Me Nigger, the films that were viewed by most Americans perpetuated the
places the myth in an historical and sociological context, showing how similar
myths appeared in Germany
after its defeat in World War I and in France
after its Indochina defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954.
The myth of the spat-upon
veteran serves a political function. By making the issue “our troops” and not
the policy of the war, the U.S.
government and pro-war elements gain a powerful lever with which to manipulate
the American people. The myth of the antiwar movement’s alleged hatred toward
veterans also serves to alienate many from the movement, prejudicing folks
against the movement while fostering political passivity. The struggle to
regain the truth is not mere intellectual exercise. It is an effort, as Lembcke writes in his conclusion, to “reclaim our own
history, the construction of our own memory, and the making of our own
The reviewer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.