|Obama In the Shadow of The Spitting Image
Let's recall that key passage again:
Meanwhile, some of those in the so-called counter-culture of the Sixties reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea, of America itself - by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.
What he comes close to here, but then draws back from, is the full-throated lie that anti-war protesters commonly spat on returning veterans. We know it is a lie, thanks to the dogged research of sociologist Jerry Lembcke, author of the 1998 book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam. While it's impossible to prove a negative, and some such incidents may well have happened, Lembcke says, he found no contemporaneous reporting of any such spitting events, which surely would have been regarded as newsworthy at the time, given the overheated political atmosphere. Lembcke found no arrests, news reports, photographs, or references in FBI files. If it was happening, he concludes, it left virtually no contemporaneous trace--no one seemed to have been reporting it or talking about it.
Since publication of his book, and attempts to refute his work, a grand total of one solid news report of such an incident has been found--but it was not a direct report of such an event, and cannot be considered proof. It was included as part of a portrait of a returned Vietnam Vet who claimed to have been spit on sometime previous to the interview, which was broadcast by CBS news. Given the prominence of this outlet, if the event had been commonplace, it's reasonable to think that others would come forth to share their experiences as well. But this didn't happen. Thus, if the reported incident did happen, it was so anomalous that reporting it did not strike a chord with anyone that can be identified today.
There were other reports, but none seems to be credible and specific. For example, one of the founding members of Nixon's front group, which eventually gave us the always-reliable Swiftboat Veterans, claims to have been spit on not once, but twice! He could be telling the truth, of course. Given that he was part of a Nixon front group when he made the original claims, and given what that front group later evolved into, well, the word "credible" is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind.
In fact, as Jack Shafer reported in Slate, an all-out attempt to refute Lembcke came up with very little:
Jim Lindgren, professor of law and Volokh Conspiracy blogger, has done yeoman's work in scouring the news archives in search of evidence to refute Holy Cross College scholar Jerry Lembcke's stand that the returning-Vietnam-vets-spat-upon-by-protesters story is an urban myth.
If you're arriving late to the story, I've written about the spit myth a number of times since 2000, most recently last week. Like Lembcke, I've have yet to see anything that corroborates the tales told by some vets about being gobbed on by protesters at airports while in uniform during the Vietnam War era.
In his Feb. 8 Volokh Conspiracy post, Lindgren presents his findings (scroll down and click the "show the rest" link for his complete case). Lindgren writes that, contrary to Lembcke's claims, many easily discovered newspaper stories from the 1967-1972 era show servicemen were spat on frequently. He starts by citing a Bucks County Courier Times article from 1967 in which two sailors were spat on outside a high-school football game by a gang of about 10 young men, one of whom said, "We're going to get a couple of sailors." One of the attackers was sentenced to time in a reformatory following the assault.
He also cites James Reston of the New York Times, who wrote of servicemen guarding the Pentagon being spat on by anti-war protesters during the famous October 1967 demonstration. He has other stories about protesters slinging saliva on an ROTC officer, on ROTC students, and on a military recruiter. He points to a 1967 New York Times story in which Neil Sheehan writes that National Guardsmen were being trained not to react when protesters spat on them, as well as several other stories culled from the press to establish the culture of protester-spitting.
But for all his industry, Lindgren has failed so far to produce a contemporaneous news account--or other corroborative evidence--of a protester ambushing a returning veteran with a gob of spit, which I take as the main point of Lembcke's book, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.
Lembcke has responded to Lindgren's challenge in an e-mail, which he's sent to his critics. I publish it here as a sidebar. For the point-counterpoint effect, open Lindgren's piece in one browser window and Lembcke's response in another.
Rather than strengthening his case, the inclusion of two sailors attacked by a teenage gang is indicative of how thin the counter-evidence actually is. As Lembcke said in his response to Lindgren:
1. I've never said I knew that spitting did not happen. In the book, I speculate that, given the raucous nature of the war years and the many years that the war and opposition went on, I'd be surprised if some veteran, sometime, someplace, would not have been spat on.
2. At the time I wrote, I did not find any first-person "I was spat on" stories that had been told in the late 1960s or early 1970s and still today I have almost nothing of that sort. I did find some second/third-hand claims of spitting, from that time period, and I recounted some of those on pages 80-82 of the book....
3. The first-person stories began to come around 1980. I stand by that, but the existence of early claims wouldn't alter my conclusions substantially....
Lindgren also went on to attack other aspects of Lembcke's research, such as the assertion that soldiers did not fly into civilian airports, which were typically the setting for such stories. However, the totality of his evidence and arguments does not come close to touching the core of Lembcke's argument, that such stories did not become commonplace until well after the fact, and were quite at odds with the common experience of soldiers returning from war at the time.
The Deeper Level-the Logic of Blame-Shifting
Indeed, there is a deeper level to Lembcke's argument, as there is to the spitting myth itself: the myth is used to delegitimate anti-war activism, and to shift blame for losing the war onto those who opposed it. For the myth to be true, there must not only have been a significant number of such incidents, they must have been either an intentional tactic of the anti-war movement--if not, indeed, part of a larger strategy--or an instinctual expression that resonated at the time and had a profound negative impact that undermined both the moral of returning troops and those still stationed in Vietnam.
As Lembcke explained in an interview with Toward Freedom:
I didn't originally use the term urban myth or urban legend, other people have used it, but that's the way that urban myths start. The main characteristic of the origin of an urban myth is that it has no point of origin or time of origin, and that it is being told across a wide geographic area. So, the absence of any point of origin, suggests that the spitting stories are of the same nature as an urban legend.
To me, this means that the stories are reflecting something deeper about an anxiety in American culture; that they are an inarticulate expression of something that is really bothering people, which is "Why did we lose this war?" What the spitting stories help construct, then, is an answer to that question, which is "We lost the war because of betrayal at home. We did not lose the war to the Vietnamese; we lost the war to ourselves, were defeated by ourselves."
None of this is true, and none of the evidence that Lundgren works to assemble begins to establish any of these claims. Indeed, quite the opposite: rather than antagonism, there was not just good relations between anti-war protesters and returning vets or active duty military--members of the military itself were heavily involved in the anti-war movement. Indeed, that was part of the reason for myth coming about in the first place--as a late stage in a prolonged process of erasing the military anti-war movement from public consciousness.
The GI Anti-War Movement
To get a sense of how widespread the military anti-war movement was, I am going to quote from a contemporary report by a member of the military brass who was clearly horrified by what he was reporting on. This should completely rule out any claims that the source is unreliable. It comes from the Armed Forces Journal, 7 June, 1971, "The Collapse Of The Armed Forces" by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr.
"Frag incidents" or just "fragging" is current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs. With extreme reluctance (after a young West Pointer from Senator Mike Mansfield's Montana was fragged in his sleep) the Pentagon has now disclosed that fraggings in 1970(109) have more than doubled those of the previous year (96).
Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units.
In one such division -- the morale plagued Americal -- fraggings during 1971 have been authoritatively estimated to be running about one a week....
The issue of "combat refusal", and official euphemism for disobedience of orders to fight -- the soldier's gravest crime - has only recently been again precipitated on the frontier of Laos by Troop B, 1st Cavalry's mass refusal to recapture their captain's command vehicle containing communication gear, codes and other secret operation orders.
As early as mid-1969, however, an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade publicly sat down on the battlefield. Later that year, another rifle company, from the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division, flatly refused -- on CBS-TV -- to advance down a dangerous trail.
(Yet combat refusals have been heard of before: as early as 1813,a corps of 4,000 Kentucky soldiers declined to engage British Indians who just sacked and massacred Ft Dearborn (later Chicago).)
While denying further unit refusals the Air Cav has admitted some 35 individual refusals in 1970 alone. By comparison, only two years earlier in 1968, the entire number of officially recorded refusals for our whole army in Vietnam -- from over seven divisions - was 68.
"Search and evade" (meaning tacit avoidance of combat by units in the field) is now virtually a principle of war, vividly expressed by the GI phrase, "CYA (cover your ass) and get home!"
That "search-and-evade" has not gone unnoticed by the enemy is underscored by the Viet Cong delegation's recent statement at the Paris Peace Talks that communist units in Indochina have been ordered not to engage American units which do not molest them. The same statement boasted - not without foundation in fact - that American defectors are in the VC ranks.
Symbolic anti-war fasts (such as the one at Pleiku where an entire medical unit, led by its officers, refused Thanksgiving turkey), peace symbols, "V"-signs not for victory but for peace, booing and cursing of officers and even of hapless entertainers such as Bob Hope, are unhappily commonplace....
Sedition - coupled with disaffection within the ranks, and externally fomented with an audacity and intensity previously inconceivable - infests the Armed Services:
At best count, there appear to be some 144 underground newspapers published on or aimed at U.S. military bases in this country and overseas. Since 1970 the number of such sheets has increased 40% (up from 103 last fall). These journals are not mere gripe-sheets that poke soldier fun in the "Beetle Bailey" tradition, at the brass and the sergeants. "In Vietnam," writes the Ft Lewis-McChord Free Press, "the Lifers, the Brass, are the true Enemy, not the enemy." Another West Coast sheet advises readers: "Don't desert. Go to Vietnam and kill your commanding officer."
At least 14 GI dissent organizations (including two made up exclusively of officers) now operate more or less 31 openly. Ancillary to these are at least six antiwar veterans' groups which strive to influence GIs.
Three well-established lawyer groups specialize in support of GI dissent. Two (GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee and new York Draft and Military Law Panel) operate in the open. A third is a semi-underground network of lawyers who can only be contacted through the GI Alliance, a Washing, D.C., group which tries to coordinate seditious antimilitary activities throughout the country.
One antimilitary legal effort operates right in the theater of war. A three-man law office, backed by the Lawyers' Military Defense Committee, of Cambridge, Mass., was set up last fall in Saigon to provide free civilian legal services for dissident soldiers being court-martialed in Vietnam.
Besides these lawyers' fronts, the Pacific Counseling Service (an umbrella organization with Unitarian backing for a prolifery of antimilitary activities) provides legal help and incitement to dissident GIs through not one but seven branches (Tacoma, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Monterey, Tokyo, and Okinawa).
Another of Pacific Counseling's activities is to air-drop planeloads of sedition literature into Oakland's sprawling Army Base, our major West Coast staging point for Vietnam
On the religious front, a community of turbulent priests and clergymen, some unfrocked, calls itself the Order of Maximilian. Maximilian is a saint said to have been martyred by the Romans for refusing military service as un-Christian. Maximilian's present-day followers visit military posts, infiltrate brigs and stockades in the guise of spiritual counseling, work to recruit military chaplains, and hold services of "consecrations" of post chapels in the name of their saintly draft-dodger.
By present count at least 11 (some go as high as 26) off-base antiwar "coffee houses" ply GIs with rock music, lukewarm coffee, antiwar literature, how-t-do-it tips on desertion, and similar disruptive counsels. Among the best-known coffee houses are: The Shelter Half (Ft Lewis, Wash.); The Home Front (Ft Carson, Colo.); and The Oleo Strut (Ft Hood, Tex.).
Virtually all the coffee houses are or have been supported by the U.S. Serviceman's Fund, whose offices are in new York City's Bronx. Until may 1970 the Fund was recognized as a tax-exempt "charitable corporations," a determination which changed when IRS agents found that its main function was sowing dissention among GIs and that it was a satellite of "The new Mobilization Committee", a communist-front organization aimed at disruption of the Armed Forces.
Another "new Mobe" satellite is the G.I. Press Service, based in Washington, which calls itself the Associate Press of military underground newspapers. Robert Wilkinson, G.I. Press's editor, is well known to military intelligence and has been barred from South Vietnam.
Col. Heinl is in no way sympathetic to what he is reporting on. The little details can be most telling in this regard. Note, for example, the snide reference to "lukewarm coffee" in the GI coffeehouses--damn hippies can't do anything right! Nevertheless, there can be no doubt it is a picture of a vibrant, not lukewarm, anti-war culture within the military--one that receives assistance and support from the wider anti-war movement. This is the reality that the spitting myth is meant to permanently erase from the American memory.
There can be no doubt that some incidents of spitting or other acts of disrespect may have transpired between anti-war activists and returning military in the US at the time. But the sheer numbers of military troops involved in anti-war activities themselves clearly dwarfs any such isolated incidents by several orders of magnitude.
Of course, there were those who disrespected the troops on their return, who "spit on them" figuratively, if not literally. At the top of the list were the US government itself, and mainstream American society. Anti-war vets were not popular with the Nixon Administration, of course, but neither were politically neutral or even pro-war vets who might talk too frankly about what the war was really like, and many ordinary Americans felt the same way. Returning vets have a hard time fitting back in to a rapidly-changing America, with high unemployment rates in the short term, leading to a homeless population that is with us still.
After WWII, the GI Bill integrated millions of returning troops back into civilian life, but after Vietnam, the effort was much more modest, and far from adequate to the need. If anyone truly disrespect the Vietnam vet is not those who opposed the war so much as those who supported it, but didn't want to take responsibility for it. Those in the anti-war movement did take responsibility for it. In a democracy, the people are responsible for what their government does, and if they disagree with their government, they are responsible for changing its policies. That is precisely what the anti-war movement did: take responsibility for the war.
On a personal note, I hitch-hiked across country a number of times in the late 60s and early 70s. I had long hair and a beard. In rural areas, it was particularly common for me to get picked up by Vietnam vets, hungry to have someone to talk to about their experiences. Mostly I just listened, as they spilled their guts about the horrors they'd seen, the fear they'd felt, the sheer incomprehensibility of it all. Usually, they told me, there was no one they could talk to, which is why they were so eager to talk to me. Often, they had fathers who had served in WWII, but instead of giving them something in common, it only made things harder, because of how different their experiences were from each other. After hearing so many stories this way, I, for one, was not the least bit surprised to hear the testimony from the Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit Michigan, in early 1971.
Oh yes, and one more thing. You know all those guys who picked me up hitch-hiking? I never spit on a single one of them.
This is just a glimpse at the difficult and complicated nature of the American response to the Vietnam War, a response that Barack Obama quite misleadingly referred to in the passage quoted above. I want to repeat it, with all that I have said still fresh before you:
some of those in the so-called counter-culture of the Sixties reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea, of America itself - by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.
Senator Obama, with all due respect, you have no idea what you are talking about. No idea at all. And that, sir, really is a national shame.