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JERRY LEMBCKE

Debunking a spitting image

STORIES ABOUT spat-upon Vietnam veterans are like mercury: Smash one and six more appear. It's hard to say where they come from. For a book I wrote in 1998 I looked back to the time when the spit was supposedly flying, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found nothing. No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on.

What I did find is that around 1980, scores of Vietnam-generation men were saying they were greeted by spitters when they came home from Vietnam. There is an element of urban legend in the stories in that their point of origin in time and place is obscure, and, yet, they have very similar details. The story told by the man who spat on Jane Fonda at a book signing in Kansas City recently is typical. Michael Smith said he came back through Los Angeles airport where ''people were lined up to spit on us."

Like many stories of the spat-upon veteran genre, Smith's lacks credulity. GIs landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops. There may have been exceptions, of course, but in those cases how would protesters have known in advance that a plane was being diverted to a civilian site? And even then, returnees would have been immediately bused to nearby military installations and processed for reassignment or discharge.

The exaggerations in Smith's story are characteristic of those told by others. ''Most Vietnam veterans were spat on when we came back," he said. That's not true. A 1971 Harris poll conducted for the Veterans Administration found over 90 percent of Vietnam veterans reporting a friendly homecoming. Far from spitting on veterans, the antiwar movement welcomed them into its ranks and thousands of veterans joined the opposition to the war.

The persistence of spat-upon Vietnam veteran stories suggests that they continue to fill a need in American culture. The image of spat-upon veterans is the icon through which many people remember the loss of the war, the centerpiece of a betrayal narrative that understands the war to have been lost because of treason on the home front. Jane Fonda's noisiest detractors insist she should have been prosecuted for giving aid and comfort to the enemy, in conformity with the law of the land.

But the psychological dimensions of the betrayal mentality are far more interesting than the legal. Betrayal is about fear, and the specter of self-betrayal is the hardest to dispel. The likelihood that the real danger to America lurks not outside but inside the gates is unsettling. The possibility that it was failure of masculinity itself, the meltdown of the core component of warrior culture, that cost the nation its victory in Vietnam has haunted us ever since.

Many tellers of the spitting tales identify the culprits as girls, a curious quality to the stories that gives away their gendered subtext. Moreover, the spitting images that emerged a decade after the troops had come home from Vietnam are similar enough to the legends of defeated German soldiers defiled by women upon their return from World War I, and the rejection from women felt by French soldiers when they returned from their lost war in Indochina, to suggest something universal and troubling at work in their making. One can reject the presence of a collective subconscious in the projection of those anxieties, as many scholars would, but there is little comfort in the prospect that memories of group spit-ins, like Smith has, are just fantasies conjured in the imaginations of aging veterans.

Remembering the war in Vietnam through the images of betrayal is dangerous because it rekindles the hope that wars like it, in countries where we are not welcomed, can be won. It disparages the reputation of those who opposed that war and intimidates a new generation of activists now finding the courage to resist Vietnam-type ventures in the 21st century.

Today, on the 30th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam, new stories of spat-upon veterans appear faster than they can be challenged. Debunking them one by one is unlikely to slow their proliferation but, by contesting them where and when we can, we engage the historical record in a way that helps all of us remember that, in the end, soldiers and veterans joined with civilians to stop a war that should have never been fought.

Jerry Lembcke, associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College, is the author of ''The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam."


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