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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2000

From the mouths of babes: a myth

SPITTING IMAGE: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke. New York University Press, 2000, 280 pp., $18.95 (paper).

My most lasting memory of the Vietnam War is the divisiveness it created in the small American town where I grew up. The nation was divided at every level. Even junior and senior high school kids could be grouped into hawks and doves, more or less along existing fault lines separating hoods and hippies. And the arguments went in circles, something like this:

"The war is wrong, we have no right to bomb Vietnam." "What are ya, some kinda communist?" "No, I just don't agree with the war." "Yeah, you and all the other hippies. Spitting on our boys when they come back from Vietnam."

The image of veterans being mistreated lasted long after the war ended. Unseemly but easily imagined, the spat-upon vet was an icon that summed up an unpopular war.

"Spitting Image," by Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke, meticulously explores that image and comes up with some surprising conclusions.

Such as: It didn't happen. Or, at least, it was never documented, except in hand-me-down stories and Hollywood films. But this story wasn't intended merely to titillate or frighten. It was a political non sequitur that was used to shut up the antiwar crowd.

One minute the discussion is about the morality of U.S. carpet-bombing and the next minute it's an argument over whether it's right to spit on veterans returning home.

It put veterans, men who were man enough to go, against sissies, men who wouldn't go. The obvious injustice of the "wet welcome" hovered in the air, taking the steam out of arguments of greater import, such as the invasion of Cambodia or the Christmas bombing.

The greater the number of vets who died "for us," the more unfair the spitting seemed. Had someone only spat upon Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger, Lembcke wryly notes, that would have been precision bombing. The author makes a compelling argument that Vietnam vets were more antiwar than was generally known, but were pitted against other protesters by an urban myth that stigmatized both those who fought in the war and those who fought against it.

Of course, no one can prove that no vet was ever hit by a wayward saliva projectile, and Lembcke doesn't try to prove a negative. Rather, he parses the spitting story and its variations: A longhaired draft dodger did it or a long-haired girl did it -- always at an airport. The story is tightly scripted with little variation in character or locale, which leads him to suspect it's an urban myth.

In symbolic terms, it's the masculine warrior being assaulted by the feminine essence: a reactionary message that bears a demonstrable resemblance to French and German myths involving water, weakness and women that were circulated earlier in the century to dispel criticism of failed military efforts. The alleged humiliations of German vets after World War I and Versailles were seized upon by Nazis to mobilize public support for a new war. The idea that popular narratives adhere to invisible, underlying structures is fascinating, but for many readers, a more journalistic approach is called for.

Happily, "Spitting Image" offers both. Lembcke's examination of the written record notes a paucity of first-person accounts. If such airport incidents were so common, he asks, why is there not a single newspaper or TV report that documents such an act? Why has everyone always heard the story second- or third-hand? Writer Pat Conroy questions the veracity of the myth, noting sarcastically that "A million vets get spat on and no one loses a tooth."

Lembcke suggests there'd be a lot of hippies with broken noses if hostile airport receptions were common. Every age and culture has its myths and mythmakers, but Americans are particularly vulnerable to the Hollywood paradigm in which reality and film are confused in favor of the latter. Constructed narratives are easier to remember and ironically more "believable" than the truth when it is full of loose ends.

Ronald Reagan, actor/president, famously epitomized the blurring of fact and film, but all Americans, and not a few moviegoers of other nations, look at reality through Hollywood eyes, taking loose facts and making them fit a tight story structure.

If it's just a fishing story, where the fish gets bigger and bigger with the retelling, no harm is done. But that isn't so for mental scripts that embellish reality with pre-existing prejudices. Take the O.J. Simpson case, which revealed not so much the discord between blacks and whites as the different attitudes toward police and the law. The narrative of the unlucky black man being abused by racist white cops collided with the narrative of black man as violent criminal -- both images are compelling to many Americans.

As a result, the facts and physical evidence were of secondary importance. Ditto for Wen Ho Lee, who is seen alternately as a victim of racial profiling and as a sneaky foreigner caught with his hand in the nuclear cookie jar.

Lembcke argues that President Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew maliciously spread rumors and sowed discord to separate what White House aide H.R. Haldeman called the "black sheep and the white sheep" in the antiwar movement. Suppressing dissent while claiming the support of a "silent majority" was a critical part of the psychological war for the hearts and minds of the American public, an effort that involved both the Committee to Re-elect the President (of Watergate fame) and phony front organizations such as "Vietnam Vets for Nixon." "Coming Home," initially popularized as an antiwar movie, was the first in a long line of Hollywood flicks to show vets at war with America.

Lembcke says this inverts reality: Protests were staged against vets leaving, not against them coming home, and vets didn't come home with war weapons.

"Coming Home" and "Rambo" introduced the idea of the vet as mentally unstable, which set the mood for "Taxi Driver" and other psycho-veteran films that followed. Sylvester Stallone's career was jump-started when he manipulated urban myths for the movie market. When Rambo says "Do we get to win this time?" he's up against not only the "Cong" but the spitters.

A film analysis over two decades shows a creeping narrative shift in which the image of vets went from "bad to mad." According to this inversion of reality, the vet's problem was not participation in indiscriminate bombing, killing and burning, nor was it the official lies that claimed victory in every defeat, the drugs on the battlefield, the horror of killing civilians. What made the vets go psycho, what gave them Vietnam syndrome, was a gob of saliva at San Francisco airport.

Suddenly, the accusations are reversed: It is as if the peaceniks, not the war-mongers, were guilty of inhumane and reckless bombing, as if saliva and napalm were somehow comparable.

Everyone would prefer to believe their nation was good rather than bad, and myths, intellectually dangerous though they may be, offer an emotionally satisfying way to counter the humiliation of reckless aggression and defeat. The myth-making machinery examined in "Spitting Image" can be applied to other wars and other myths. Most critical is the dichotomy of "victor or victim" in the retelling of a war. If you didn't win, you must be a victim.

This mentality gets Japan's rightwing politicians into trouble, because it makes atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre, in which Japan was neither victim nor ultimate victor, hard to handle. The great geographic injustice of the last century becomes the the lost sovereignty of four islands north of Hokkaido, not the startling conquest of China and Southeast Asia that preceded it. When aggressors lose, they can be recast as victims so long as the memories of rape, pillage and murder can be swept under the carpet of history.

The brutal U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made that possible, blurring cause and effect, who did what where, and creating a year zero of Japanese innocence based on victimhood. "Spitting Image" is about much more than America's reckless and humiliating adventure in Vietnam. It's a case study of myth and memory that can help the reader understand why memory is unreliable and why rumors can be so powerful.

The book helped me understand, though not necessarily agree with, the noisy sound trucks blaring out hymns of patriotic glory on the streets of Tokyo. It's only human to want to be on the right side of history.

Philip Cunningham teaches media studies in the Faculty of Communication Arts at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

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