Spitting antiwar protestors?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed May 3 09:48:01 MDT 2000

Drooling on the Vietnam Vets
By Jack Shafer

Last week, both the New York Times and U.S. News & World Report reprised
the horrific accounts of Vietnam War protesters spitting on returning
servicemen. In a piece about West Point's post-Vietnam mood (April 28),
timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Times
reporter John Kifner writes:

Much has changed since Lt. Col. Conrad C. Crane ('74) watched on television
here as the war wound down, a time he remembers as "almost a siege
mentality" at West Point, when cadets could not wear their uniforms off
campus for fear of being spat on.

Amanda Spake of U.S. News quotes (May 1) Terry Baker of the Vietnam
Veterans Association about the disgraceful behavior:

"When the WWII guys came back," Baker adds, "they were able to talk about
the war. With Vietnam, vets had to change their clothes in the bus station
because people would spit on them."

Although Nexis overflows with references to protesters gobbing on Vietnam
vets, and Bob Greene's 1989 book Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned
>From Vietnam counts 63 examples of protester spitting, Jerry Lembcke argues
that the story is bunk in his 1998 book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory,
and the Legacy of Vietnam (click here to buy it). Lembcke, a professor of
sociology at Holy Cross and a Vietnam vet, investigated hundreds of news
accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets. But every time he pushed
for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story collapsed--the
actual person who was spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend. Or
somebody's uncle. He writes that he never met anybody who convinced him
that any such clash took place.

While Lembcke doesn't prove that nobody ever expectorated on a
serviceman--you can't prove a negative, after all--he reduces the claim to
an urban myth. In most urban myths, the details morph slightly from telling
to telling, but at least one element survives unchanged. In the tale of the
spitting protester, the signature element is the location: The protester
almost always ambushes the serviceman at the airport--not in a park, or at
a bar, or on Main Street. Also, it's not uncommon for the insulted
serviceman to have flown directly in from Vietnam. In the most dramatic
telling of the spitting story, First Blood (1982), the first installment of
the series about a vengeful Vietnam vet, the airport is the scene of the
outrage. John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, gives a speech about
getting spat upon. Rambo says:

"It wasn't my war. You asked me, I didn't ask you. And I did what I had to
do to win. But somebody wouldn't let us win. Then I come back to the world
and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting.
Calling me baby killer. ... Who are they to protest me? Huh?"

Of course, the myth of the spitting protester predates the Rambo movies,
but how many vets--many of whom didn't get the respect they thought they
deserved after serving their country--retrofitted this memory after seeing
the movie? Soldiers returning from lost wars have long healed their psychic
wounds by accusing their governments and their countrymen of betrayal,
Lembcke writes. Also, the spitting story resonates with biblical martyrdom.
As the soldiers put the crown of thorns on Jesus and led him to his
crucifixtion, they beat him with a staff and spat on him.

Lembcke uncovered a whole lot of spitting from the war years, but the
published accounts always put  the antiwar protester on the receiving side
of a blast from a pro-Vietnam counterprotester. Surely, he contends, the
news pages would have given equal treatment to a story about serviceman
getting the treatment. Then why no stories in the newspaper morgues, he asks?

Lastly, there are the parts of the spitting story up that don't add up. Why
does it always end with the protester spitting and the serviceman walking
off in shame? Most servicemen would have given the spitters a mouthful of
bloody Chiclets instead of turning the other cheek like Christ. At the very
least, wouldn't the altercations have resulted in assault and battery
charges and produced a paper trail retrievable across the decades?

The myth persists because: 1) Those who didn't go to Vietnam--that being
most of us--don't dare contradict the "experience" of those who did; 2) the
story helps maintain the perfect sense of shame many of us feel about the
way we ignored our Vietvets; 3) the press keeps the story in play by
uncritically repeating it, as the Times and U.S. News did; and 4) because
any fool with 33 cents and the gumption to repeat the myth in his letter to
the editor can keep it in circulation. Most recent mentions of the spitting
protester in Nexis are of this variety.

As press crimes go, the myth of the spitting protester ain't even a
misdemeanor. Reporters can't be expected to fact-check every quotation. But
it does teach us a journalistic lesson: Never lend somebody a sympathetic
ear just because he's sympathetic.


Louis Proyect

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