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Spitting Image

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I haven’t seen the Ken Burns Vietnam series yet and given my indifference to Burns, not to mention my outright hostility to his anti-intellectual and anti-scholar claims that professional historians don’t want to engage popular audiences, which is bullshit, I may or may not get around to it. But it has led to a number of editorials about Vietnam, some of which discussing things Burns did not and others reminding us of key issues. I don’t know what Burns said about the pervasive and pernicious lie that protestors spat on veterans, but there is absolutely no actual evidence suggesting this is true. Nothing at all. And the man who exposed this myth, Jerry Lembcke (who I got to know because I interviewed him for my logging book because of his organizing in the 70s) has a good op-ed about this.

But you don’t believe the stories, right? she asked. Acknowledging that I could not prove the negative — that they were not true — I went on to say there is no corroboration or documentary evidence, such as newspaper reports from the time, that they are true. Many of the stories have implausible details, like returning soldiers deplaning at San Francisco Airport, where they were met by groups of spitting hippies. In fact, return flights landed at military air bases like Travis, from which protesters would have been barred. Others include claims that military authorities told them on returning flights to change into civilian clothes upon arrival lest they be attacked by protesters. Trash cans at the Los Angeles airport were piled high with abandoned uniforms, according to one eyewitness, a sight that would surely have been documented by news photographers — if it had existed.

And some of the stories have more than a little of a fantasy element: Some claim the spitters were young girls, an image perhaps conjured in the imaginations of veterans suffering the indignities of a lost war.

Listeners, I speculated, are loath to question the truth of the stories lest aspersion be seemingly cast on the authenticity of the teller. The war in Vietnam was America’s longest war at the time, and its first defeat. The loss to such a small, underdeveloped and outgunned nation was a tough pill for Americans to swallow, many still basking in post-World War II triumphalism. The image of protesters spitting on troops enlivened notions that the military mission had been compromised, even betrayed, by weak-kneed liberalism in Congress and seditious radicalism on college campuses. The spitting stories provided reassuring confirmation that had it not been for those duplicitous fifth-columnists, the Vietnamese would have never beaten us.

The “war at home” phrase captured the idea that the war had been lost on the home front. It was a story line promulgated by Hollywood within which veteran disparagement became a kind of “war story,” a way of credentialing the warrior bona fides of veterans who may have felt insecure about their service in Vietnam. In “First Blood,” the inaugural Rambo film, the protagonist, John Rambo, flashes back to “those maggots at the airport, spittin’, callin’ us baby killers and all kinds of vile crap.” The series supported the idea that decisions in Washington had hamstrung military operations. “Apocalypse Now” fed outright conspiracy theories that the C.I.A.’s secret war run from Washington had undercut the military mission. “Coming Home” and “Hamburger Hill” played on male fears of unfaithful wives and girlfriends, a story line hinting that female perfidy and the feminist subversion of warrior morale had cost us victory.

The whole thing is really important. When I lecture on the Vietnam War, this is a huge part of my lecture, because nearly every student has heard this myth and they all believe it. It’s simply an accepted truth now, a truth not that dissimilar from how southern propaganda framed the War to Defeat Treason in Defense of Slavery for a century. It’s tremendously damaging and helps play into people freaking out by football players kneeling during the national anthem today. It’s a myth that doesn’t just need to be debunked. It needs to be defeated and destroyed and discredited.

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