Press Box

Drooling on the Vietnam Vets

Last week, both the New York Times and U.S. News & World Report reprised the horrific accounts of Vietnam War protesters spitting on returning servicemen. In a piece about West Point’s post-Vietnam mood (April 28), timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Times reporter John Kifner writes:

Much has changed since Lt. Col. Conrad C. Crane (’74) watched on television here as the war wound down, a time he remembers as “almost a siege mentality” at West Point, when cadets could not wear their uniforms off campus for fear of being spat on.

Amanda Spake of U.S. News quotes  (May 1) Terry Baker of the Vietnam Veterans Association about the disgraceful behavior:

“When the WWII guys came back,” Baker adds, “they were able to talk about the war. With Vietnam, vets had to change their clothes in the bus station because people would spit on them.”

Although Nexis overflows with references to protesters gobbing on Vietnam vets, and Bob Greene’s 1989 book Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned From Vietnam counts 63 examples of protester spitting, Jerry Lembcke argues that the story is bunk in his 1998 book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (click here to buy it). Lembcke, a professor of sociology at Holy Cross and a Vietnam vet, investigated hundreds of news accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets. But every time he pushed for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story collapsed–the actual person who was spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend. Or somebody’s uncle. He writes that he never met anybody who convinced him that any such clash took place.

While Lembcke doesn’t prove that nobody ever expectorated on a serviceman–you can’t prove a negative, after all–he reduces the claim to an urban myth. In most urban myths, the details morph slightly from telling to telling, but at least one element survives unchanged. In the tale of the spitting protester, the signature element is the location: The protester almost always ambushes the serviceman at the airport–not in a park, or at a bar, or on Main Street. Also, it’s not uncommon for the insulted serviceman to have flown directly in from Vietnam. In the most dramatic telling of the spitting story, First Blood (1982), the first installment of the series about a vengeful Vietnam vet, the airport is the scene of the outrage. John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, gives a speech about getting spat upon. Rambo says:

It wasn’t my war. You asked me, I didn’t ask you. And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win. Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer. … Who are they to protest me? Huh?

Of course, the myth of the spitting protester predates the Rambo movies, but how many vets–many of whom didn’t get the respect they thought they deserved after serving their country–retrofitted this memory after seeing the movie? Soldiers returning from lost wars have long healed their psychic wounds by accusing their governments and their countrymen of betrayal, Lembcke writes. Also, the spitting story resonates with biblical martyrdom. As the soldiers put the crown of thorns on Jesus and led him to his crucifixtion, they beat him with a staff and spat on him.

Lembcke uncovered a whole lot of spitting from the war years, but the published accounts always put  the antiwar protester on the receiving side of a blast from a pro-Vietnam counterprotester. Surely, he contends, the news pages would have given equal treatment to a story about serviceman getting the treatment. Then why no stories in the newspaper morgues, he asks?

Lastly, there are the parts of the spitting story up that don’t add up. Why does it always end with the protester spitting and the serviceman walking off in shame? Most servicemen would have given the spitters a mouthful of bloody Chiclets instead of turning the other cheek like Christ. At the very least, wouldn’t the altercations have resulted in assault and battery charges and produced a paper trail retrievable across the decades?

The myth persists because: 1) Those who didn’t go to Vietnam–that being most of us–don’t dare contradict the “experience” of those who did; 2) the story helps maintain the perfect sense of shame many of us feel about the way we ignored our Vietvets; 3) the press keeps the story in play by uncritically repeating it, as the Times and U.S. News did; and 4) because any fool with 33 cents and the gumption to repeat the myth in his letter to the editor can keep it in circulation. Most recent mentions of the spitting protester in Nexis are of this variety.

As press crimes go, the myth of the spitting protester ain’t even a misdemeanor. Reporters can’t be expected to fact-check every quotation. But it does teach us a journalistic lesson: Never lend somebody a sympathetic ear just because he’s sympathetic.