Myth Making and Spitting Images from Vietnam

With nearly 550 US soldiers killed - so far -- in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, our country is revisiting many of the images and issues of the Vietnam War. Thus we hear much about a quagmire in Iraq, about search and destroy missions that alienate the local populace, about soldiers depressed over their service as an invading and occupying power, and about the administration's controversial news blackout on filming the returning dead soldiers at Dover Air Force base, unlike during Vietnam.

The Vietnam legacy has become a pivotal issue in the presidential race too. George W. Bush's cavalier approach to meeting his privileged Air National Guard duties is stood in stark relief to John Kerry's heroic command of a Navy Swift boat patrolling the coastal canals of Vietnam. In response, even veterans groups have squared off. Some hit the campaign trail with Kerry, while others launch attacks on Kerry because when he returned from Vietnam he actively opposed the war, as a decorated veteran.

But in the rush to inflict damage on John Kerry for his peace activism, historical truth is sacrificed. The February 17, 2004 story by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Sabrina Eaton, "Kerry's Bid Ignites Vet's Interest," is a case in point.

The story quotes Ted Sampley, a Green Beret in Vietnam whose web site has led the charge for some veterans against Kerry. Sampley says, "I truly believe that John Kerry's testimony before Congress [against the Vietnam War] had a big role in people who were supposedly peaceniks spitting on vets and calling them baby killers when they got home."

There are two problems with Sampley's "belief" as reported by the Plain Dealer. First, guilt by association is always a weak argument, and more likely a smear tactic that is unfair to the subject. America has learned this before, during the Palmer Raids of WWI, the McCarthyism of the Cold War, and now during the Ashcroft era of the War on Terror and the Patriot Act.

More important, however, is that the charge is simply not rooted in reality. It is both unfair to Senator Kerry and to the Vietnam-era peace movement. The fact is, there is absolutely no record of any peace activist taunting or spitting upon returning veterans. It is myth, and like most myths it is hard to dislodge.

In 1995 sociologist Thomas Beamish and his colleagues analyzed all peace movement-related stories from 1965 - 1971 in the NY Times, LA Times, and SF Chronicle (495 stories). They found no instance of any spitting on returned troops by peace movement members, nor any taunting. Indeed, they found few examples of negative demonstrations involving returning troops of any kind, or even of simple disapproval of returning soldiers. Three years later, sociologist Jerry Lembcke conducted a similarly exhaustive study for his book, The Spitting Image, with like results. He discovered war protesters being spat upon by war supporters, and hostile acts toward Vietnam veterans by conservative, pro-war groups like the VFW, but no taunting or spitting on returned veterans by peace movement members. Returned veterans and in-service GIs were welcomed in the peace movement, and many assumed leadership roles. Yet the myth endures

Cultural myths are often created in a collective fashion over time, as such they represent widely shared values in the group. But myth making is seldom divorced from the politics and power struggles that are always present in society. That is, some myths are created or perpetuated to serve the particular political interests of subgroups. Similarly, some general cultural myths may be reconstructed to serve special interests at the expense of the common good. Myths also help us deal with events that don't fit our world-view. How could a superpower be defeated by a small, "primitive" country? The spitting myth helps redirect that responsibility to an unsupportive peace movement at home.

The Vietnam era peace movement directed its displeasure at policy makers, not at the soldiers. Yet the Gulf War and Iraq War peace movements have each had to defend against mythological charges that peace activism means they don't support the troops, or that they will soon by spitting on them. In fact, by opposing an unjustified war, today's peace movement has demonstrated its high regard for the women and men whose lives are forever changed - or lost - by political leaders too willing to go to war.

While the spitting image is a convenient myth for some to exploit during a war waged simultaneously with a presidential election, neither its convenience nor its frequent repetition make it any more true.

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