Thursday, August 19, 2004
Who Spit On Vietnam Vets? Not Anti-War Protesters!
More than a year has passed since the invasion of Iraq. Virtually everything major the Bush Administration told us has turned out to be a lie. The only ones who proved truly accurate were those opposed to war. And yet, though the American people have turned solidly against the war, and Michael Moore has filled the theatres, his claims are scrutinized far more skeptically than anything coming from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice & company. There are many reasons for this, including the widespread perception that anti-war activists are unpatriotic—even traitorous—so nothing they say should be trusted.
This perception is fed by lies.
A prime example is the notion that anti-war protesters spat on returning Vietnam War veterans. This image is deeply ingrained in our culture, casting doubt on every word uttered by any opponent of any war. It is, however, a lie, as Jerry Lembcke convincingly demonstrates in his 1998 book, The Spitting Image—Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. (Text of a speech based on the book is available here.)
Lembcke’s book came out of research stimulated by the first Gulf War. There was a lot of talk then about how anti-war protesters didn’t want to come off as being against the troops. They didn’t want to be like those terrible Vietnam-era protesters, the ones who spit on returning troops.
Lembcke remembered things differently. He remembered serving in Vietnam as a chaplain’s assistant. He remembered returning—like thousands more who also served—to join the protesters who welcomed him with open arms. So he began digging for the truth.
The most damning evidence Lembcke found against this lie was reminiscent of the "curious incident" of the dog that didn’t bark in the middle of the night in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of Silver Blaze." Like the missing dog bark, there were no accounts of protesters spitting on veterans when the events supposedly happened—when the nation’s emotions were at a fever pitch, and any such story would have immediately caught on like wildfire. The stories only began to show up later, invariably in urban legend third-person, often in settings and circumstances where they could not have occurred—such as returning soldiers carrying arms, landing in airports where no troops returned. The stories only appeared after the mass media—subtly following Nixon’s lead—had replaced the image of the bad (anti-war) vet with the mad (crazed killer) vet.
Lembcke’s investigation is both fascinating and revelatory. He draws parallels not only to more mundane urban legends, but also to more sinister post-WWI German stories, part of the stab-in-the-back mythology on which the Nazi Party fed, and eventually gained state power. His findings are too rich to summarize here. Rather, I want to develop a point that applies to lies more generally.
It was mainstream culture and society which figuratively spat upon returning veterans—just as the government did, short-changing them on benefits, stonewalling them about post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of Agent Orange, and doing everything possible to shut them up when they spoke out against the war. The rejection never let up. When homelessness exploded as a national problem under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, at least a third of them would be Vietnam Veterans—a far cry from the post-WWII era when the GI Bill sent veterans to college, and helped them buy houses in suburbia.
The anti-war movement had every reason to embrace returning veterans—as indeed it did, routinely placing a contingent of anti-war veterans at the head of countless anti-war marches across the land. The movement also helped establish anti-war coffeehouses outside military bases, encouraged the publishing of anti-war GI newspapers, and helped resisters avoid combat—sometimes legally, sometimes not. But the government—and its supportive "silent majority" public—wanted no part of real Vietnam vets, who spoiled the noble propaganda war with their first-hand stories of chaos, confusion, corruption, and pointless slaughter.
The reality of this rejection was clearly too painful for many veterans to bear. Over time, the figurative spit-in-the-face from the government and their own hometown communities was doubly transformed—into a literal spit-in-the-face from the one group it was safe to blame, now that the war was over, and the movement was gone—the anti-war protesters.
There’s a military story my dad learned in World War II. It probably dates from well before Roman times. A battle goes badly, and the commanding general chews out his top lieutenants. They, in turn, chew out their attaches, and so on down the ranks. The private first class chews out the buck private, and the buck private kicks the dog. That’s what psychologists call "displacement." One person hurts you, and you blame another. Or, more accurately, one person hurts you and you lash out at another. Placing blame comes after lashing out—to justify it, retroactively.
That’s precisely what some veterans did, displacing the humiliation they felt onto someone lower, less powerful than them. It’s more complicated, since it involves groups, not individuals, hearsay, rather than direct experience, and since a figurative act becomes literal. But the basic kick-the-dog structure is the same.
This is a valuable insight—that a political lie can be partially structured by what psychologists call an "ego defense." These are subconscious reflexes that fend off psychic pain. Originally, the theory goes, the pain was such that it seemed to threaten the ego’s very existence. We don’t have to buy the whole theory to make use of the mechanisms it identifies—especially when sayings and stories have identified them for generations.
But it makes good sense that subconscious thought gains the upper hand when we feel most threatened. That’s the whole rationale behind all martial arts, all military and emergency training: Do something over and over again, shape your subconscious to act a certain way, so that faced with a threat, you respond automatically as you were trained to—not according to unformed subconscious thought, which could mean panic or paralysis.
Psychologists have identified a whole range of ego defenses—denial, dissociation, projection, introjection, splitting, etc. It seems a good bet that some, if not all of them can also function to help structure political lies.
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You make me sick!!!!!!!!! and all other veterans!!!!
American Indian Veterans' Homecoming and Readjustment Experiences
"I was spit on and called a baby-killer in the mainstream culture when I first came home, and no way any college would accept me or any good job would be open to me. I felt too ashamed and enraged to accept the love and gratitude my family and community showed me. I thought I was going crazy, waking up in a sweat trying to choke my wife, seeing signs of Charley around every corner when the weather was hot and steamy. I'd always kept my feelings to myself, but now I didn't seem to have any feelings except anger. I couldn't get through a day without getting into a fight, and when I tried to numb the pain with alcohol I just got more angry and out of control. I left my wife and kids because I was ashamed and afraid of what I was doing to them, but I miss them still. I've had more jobs than I can count, and I walked out on every one because I'd start to feel trapped. I really never left Vietnam until just a couple of years ago after I got sober in a program, and then I felt I had to either go back to my tribe and go through the healing ceremonies or I was going to kill myself. I'm finally beginning to come home, with the help of a Vet Center counselor and the Blessing Way in my community."
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