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An Interview with Jerry Lembcke

The Myth of the Spat Upon Vets

by STEPHEN PHILION

Jerry Lembcke is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, He teaches Sociology at Holy Cross College.

Q: In the recent days the British general responsible for British troops in Iraq has make remarkably strong calls for British troops to be removed from Iraq. So it’s pretty timely to have a discussion like this, since I’m finding that there are quite a few students who are opposed to the US occupation of Iraq, but are afraid to "go against" the soldiers, many of whom are friends or relatives. First thing, though, is, for the sake of Counterpunchers who haven’t read your book The Spitting Image, maybe you could give a quick intro to the key arguments of the book.

Lembcke: In a nutshell, most people remember there was pretty widespread opposition to the US going into Iraq with huge demos in February and March of 2003. And then there were a good number of ‘support the troops’ rallies that tapped into the popular sentiment that something bad happened to the troops when they returned from Vietnam. The very slogan "support the troops" with the yellow ribbons and all that sort of presumes that someone doesn’t support the troops and that presumption is based on that sentiment, belief that when people came home from Vietnam they were treated badly and we don’t want to do that again this time.

By having these rallies in 2003, the people who supported the war use support the troops as a way to support the war. A lot of these rallies told stories of Vietnam vets who had been spat on. I got calls from people in Florida, North Carolina, Vermont,news reporters who had been at these rallies and asking me, "What about these stories?". Sometimes they would even have men who said they were vets or family members who claimed they remembered someone being spat on. The myth was used to drum up emotional support for the troops, or better said, to dampen down opposition to the war. Again, the same way it worked during the Persian Gulf War, some were afraid of being outspoken against the war lest they be accused of being ‘against the troops’.

I teach at Holy Cross College and just the other day in one of my classes, in the context of talking about the context of the Bush administration’s strategy of being very accusatory toward critics of the war policy as being ‘cut and run’ Democrats, ‘soft on terrorism’With no more context than that, one of my students said she was ‘undecided about the war, but as long as the troops were fighting it was really important to ‘support the troops and we have to support the mission’Now is not the time to be critical of the war, it was, in her mindall mixed together.

That’s the way it works on people’s emotions. It throws them off-target. The target is the war itself and what we need to be doing is opposing the war itself. Often emotions get kind of confused with this stuff about ‘supporting the troops’. It creates just enough space for the administration to push on ahead.

Q: Yes, it seems to be a good strategy to distract from the main issue, namely the policy of making war itself. I never quite understand why it’s so important to focus on the supporting the troops as so central an issue. It doesn’t really matter, since the troops in fact have little, in fact no say, in war policies to begin with.

Lembcke: Yes, it confuses the means and ends of war, it becomes a form of demagoguery. It makes a non-issue an issue, ‘support or not supporting the troops’. At a humanitarian level, none of us wants to put people in harm’s way. The people who oppose the wars are most strident in that objective of keeping people out of the war. That’s not an issue, but it keeps us from focusing on the war itself and talking about it. And one of the things Lembcke: I got interested in this topic in the runup to the Persian Gulf War in 90-91. There were students who were opposed to the war, but afraid to speak out because of what they had heard about the antiwar movement and veterans during the Vietnam War era. These stories of ‘spat upon’ vets were beginning to circulate in the news and students on campuses were picking up on these stories. I had never heard these stories before. So I got interested in where they were coming from, how long they had been told, who was telling them and so forth.

One thing led to another and I kept looking back in the historical records, when people were actually coming home from Vietnam and I found out that no, there was no record. Not only was there no record of people spat on, but none of anyone claiming that they were spat on. So then I got interested in the stories as a form of myth and found out that in other times and other places, especially Germany after WW 1, soldiers came home and told stories of feeling rejected by people and particularly stories of being spat on.

Like with the case of the Vietnam stories many of the ‘spitters’ were young girls and knowing that these things happened at another time and place supposedly, I found out about a Freudian psychologist who wrote about male fantasies and treated these stories as fantasies, expressions of the subconscious, men who felt they’d lost manhood in the war. When I told a psychologist friend of mine in womens studies, she asked me who the spitters wereshe too thought it was likely a myth since the spitters were women, an expression of loss of manhood.

Looking a little further, I found that French soldiers returning from Indochina after defeat at Dien Bien Phu also told stories of being treated badly, rejected by women, attacked by women on the streets, having to take their uniforms off before going in public, being ashamed of their military service. These were very similar to stories circulating in the 1980’s in the US. The time gap between the end of the Vietnam War and when the stories began to be told is also a sign that there is something of an element of myth or legend. That’s the key part of the book, not whether or not such things, since it’s hard to refute what isn’t documented, ever happened, as much as the mythical element.

And of course we see how the rise of the myth had an effect on support for the war in Iraq.

I’m concerned about now is a certain strain of the anti-war movement has gotten caught up in this itself. There’s a certain group of antiwar types who focus on what happens to the soldiers, how they’re damaged psychologically, physically,I’ve been to a number of anti-war rallies now where all they talk about is PTSD and what happens to ‘our boys’ when we send them off to war. It’s sort of a mirroring of the political right’s approach.

They make the ‘support the troops’ ideology the basis for supporting the war, and some strands in the anti-war movement now mimic that we need to oppose the war by ‘supporting the troops’ and, I’ve been to some antiwar protests where very very little is said about the war itself!

We hear instead about getting the troops the help they need and heart rendering stories of parents of sons who have committed suicide after they come home, etc. That stuff from the anti-war left is as beclouding as similar rhetoric from the right, in that it takes us away from a political discourse, which we need in order to focus our energies around stopping the war and its causes.

Q: What’s your sense in terms of how this myth is replayed now with vets coming home from Iraq and claims of their being ‘abused’ by the antiwar movement or sentiment?

Lembcke: I’ve heard a few of these stories. Again, in the spring of ’03, stories circulated about soldiers being spat on. In Vermont a story went around that a woman in the National Guard had been pelted with a box of stones by antiwar teenagers. None of these stories have turned out to be supportable by any sort of evidence. And then, periodically, other stories like one in Seattle of a guy who was back from Iraq marching in a parade, ‘spat on’, ‘booed’, ‘called baby killer’, etc. The same, no serious evidence.

Occasionally then I get reports of these, but I’ve always suspected if the war goes down as a ‘lost war’, we’ll hear more such stories, but the more important point, I think, is that the image of spat on Vietnam Vets is so engrained and part of the American memory and cultural sub-text, it almost doesn’t have to be reaffirmed through stories of Iraq Vets being ‘spat on’ or ‘mistreated’. It’s almost as though the Vietnam Spitting myth is a background that everyone ‘knows’ about and when the President talks of Democrats not supportive of the war or otherwise baits antiwar people, the background that makes that resonant is the belief that something untoward happened to Vietnam Vets.

So it’s not necessarily good news for the anti-war movement if we don’t hear stories of Iraq Vets being ‘spat on’. My fear is the mythical spat on Vietnam Vet is now so internalized as something that "happened’, it doesn’t have to be spoken anymore as a contemporary phenomenon.

Q: What’s the significance of the documentary "Sir! No Sir" , which tells the story of the GI antiwar movement during Vietnam, in terms of what that film can tell students trying to organize antiwar movements on campuses across America today?

Lembcke: Oh, I think it’s terribly powerful. Even thought there’s no mention of Iraq, Afghanistan, or the War on Terror in the film, it seems that everyone that sees the film can extrapolate from it to the ways it applies to the wars that we’re currently involved in. Probably the greatest impact it has is on young people in the military today. I’ve done quite a bit of public speaking at showings of the film.

First of all, it reminds even those of us involved in the antiwar movement as vets of stuff that they had forgotten about or informed us about things that were going on at that time that we didn’t know about. They’re kind of surprised to find out quite a few things about the GI antiwar movement that they didn’t know.

Q: One of the things I was surprised to learn of was the extent of support shown to Jane Fonda by American soldiers stationed in Asia during the war at the "Free The Army" tour that she, other famous actors such as Donald Southerland, and soldiers/vets organized at US bases. Considering all the media discourse about vets’ anger at Fonda , I had no idea that some 60,000 soldiers had attended and enthusiastically received her at those shows, which served as an alternative to Bob Hope’s pro-war tours at the time.

Also the extent of African American soldiers in the antiwar movement was something I never fully heard about in histories of the antiwar movement, which the movie makes clear was very deep and militant.

Lembcke: I was in Vietnam in 1969 and got involved in Vietnam Veterans Against the War once I returned and yet there were things in that film that I had not known about at the time. On the one hand there was a lot in the news in the papers about the vets antiwar movement at the time, which I know now just from researching it. I don’t think there was a blackout at all, often it was front page news and people knew about it.

One of the things I found interesting was looking at Stars and Stripes, the civilian published but military supported publication that soldiers got in Vietnam and a lot of anti-war news was reported there. It reported the story of Billy Dean Smith, the GI accused of fragging an officer, which is featured in Sir! No Sir!. It had stories about soldiers in Vietnam wearing black armbands in support of the 1969 anti-war Moratorium back home. It turns out Stars and Stripes is a pretty good source for information on the vets’ and soldiers antiwar sentiment and movement back then!

So people knew of these things then. The more important story is what’s happened to that in people’s consciousness and memory. It certainly is gone now, even from people who were active in the vets antiwar movement then. Sir! No Sir! has helped to bring it back into the public memory and showing that a vets antiwar movement can happen now is very helpful for people teaching in college and high school. They can take this knowledge into the classroom and that part of the history can get back into the curriculum. Younger people will now get a different view of what happened then.

I’ve talked to a few soldiers back from Iraq, one a Holy Cross College student who graduated in Spring 2002, who was an ROTC cadet who is back from Iraq and has spoken after showings of Sir No Sir! and likewise didn’t know about the GI antiwar movement during Vietnam. She reports that there is a lot of opposition to the US occupation of Iraq among US soldiers in Iraq but it doesn’t express itself because there’s no organization, no organized communication between people. Maybe the film will play a catalyst role, if people see this film about organized GI opposition to the Vietnam War, it might inspire and even spark their imagination about the kinds of thing that can be done to oppose the war from within the military.

Q: And the significance of that for today?

Lembcke: Well, the GI antiwar movement became a vitally important part of the antiwar movement during Vietnam. And that is likely to be the case today also. Lots of people are asking what’s the difference between today and Vietnam? Why isn’t there a movement today? One possible answer is that the movement within the military is not quite congealed yet, but that the potential is there. Hopefully Sir! No Sir! can have an effect on accelerating that development a bit.

Q: One of the things that struck me about the film is that you saw that soldiers were not just protesting the war because of their equipment issues or technical matters about how the war was being conducted, but actually because they were against what was happening to the people of Vietnam because of the war and they were learning, while deployed there, about the actual history of the Vietnamese people’s struggles against foreign occupation as opposed to what they were brainwashed to believe in boot camp or high school teachers.

Lembcke: Here’s a big difference, namely the nature of the ‘enemy’ and how it’s perceived. In the later years of Vietnam we came back rather sympathetic to the cause of the other side. One of the vets interviewed in the film, David Cline, talks of how he was shot and how he had shot a Viet Cong soldier. He then recalls how he looked at the fellow he had shot dead and realizes that this man was fighting for his country too, for freedom. That was a real consciousness raising moment for him and he dedicated moments like that to doing something to honor the loss of that man’s life, namely to end the war and contributing to the other side’s fight for freedom. I certainly came back in February 1970 with such sentiments, though I’m not sure exactly how it happened. Surely conversations with other GIs and my own reading at the time helped with that.

But today it is harder to portray the ‘enemy’ in Iraq or Afghanistan in that kind of sympathetic way, there’s a political challenge there for the American antiwar movement to understand what the other side represents.

It needs to get some grasp on what is supportable in what the other side is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, like we did in the Vietnam War. Recall in the early phases of the Vietnam war, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong were called terrorists and there tactics were called tactics of terror. Today we talk about the roadside bomb in Iraq, but during Vietnam there was the satchel charges were one of the main weapons of the Vietnamese War.

Q: For those of us who haven’t fought in a war, what is a Satchel Charge?

Lembcke: A briefcase that would be loaded with explosives, dropped off some place and would explode. The point I’m making is that early in the war in Vietnam the Vietnamese and the Vietcong weren’t as viewed sympathetically as they were by the early 1970’s. What changed was how they were represented in terms of what they were all about. I think we need to go through that rethinking process on Iraq now, though I’m not sure where that goes.

We don’t right now have an embraceable ‘other’ as we did in Vietnam and what the complexity of the other side means, how it’s to be sorted out, what’s supportablebut we need to find if there is something there to be supportable and that can have a big impact on the military elements against the war, namely that there is an honorableness to the ‘enemy’ on the other side as was the case for GIs against the war in Vietnam.

Q: I always find it interesting to focus on what happens with US when it does negotiate with the armed opposition in Iraq, what the US’s key demands are during such negotiations and how the US can’t meet the oppositions’ demands because of that oppositions’ demands, no matter how low the bar is set, because those demands go against the interests of the US, given its actual goals in Iraq.

Lembcke: Most of us understand the war ended when the Vietnamese people won. And when we recognized that the sooner the other side wins, the war is over. The US is not gonna stop fighting until it stops, when the US is unable or unwilling to win the war. That conclusion is very sobering if it’s applied to the war in Iraq. That’s a pretty sobering thought, is this war going to go on until the US can’t do so anymore and at what point is the US antiwar movement going to see that the war won’t end until the other side wins and who is the other side? It’s very complex, the other side is very divided, not a monolith. So I don’t know how that lesson from Vietnam translates into something we can act on to inform our political work today.

Q: There’s plenty of writing out there on the liberal left that we can’t leave now because of the nature of the opposition.

Lembcke: Yes, there is that, but you know the pro-war elements during Vietnam used that logic too. They often said we can’t leave now, we’ll have so many losses or the ‘bloodbath’ that would happen if we left too soon

Q: I find that when I deal with people on the liberal-left who will argue that calling for leaving Iraq immediately is ‘isolationism’. But if you argue back that this is not isolationism we are arguing, but that the US should pay massive reparations to the people of Iraq for the damage the US invasion and occupation has caused the Iraqi people-no reply forthcoming. They have no answer as to why we know that that is not going to happen if the US stays there or if it leaves!

But it opens up the question that people on the liberal-left who support staying there that the pro-war or lukewarm "anti-war" liberal left have no answer for, namely what is the purpose of what the US is doing in Iraq? It’s just set in stone for them that if we leave things will be worse, even though the evidence now is so overwhelmingly that the US occupation is the key source of the violence we see in Iraq today. So much so that the argument that once was so common among the liberal left, "well the Iraqis want us to stay" has really collapsed under the weight of Iraqi realities. Now even the Iraqis polled are saying in big majorities in US State Dept. commissioned polls that they want us to leave now and it’s ok to shoot US soldiers.

Lembcke: The NYT kind of buried that story on the inside, but the antiwar movement can use that information. We shouldn’t have to make that argument, it should be apparent we’re not welcome, but sometimes data helps to persuade.

Q: It also throws the light back on Iraqis, which the ‘supports the troops’ antiwar movement focus doesn’t do. The focus is so often only on Americans as though the only impact is on Americans or it’s the only one that matters, except for small periods like Abu Ghraib or Haditha

Lembcke: Yes, the war becomes all about us and erases Iraqis, much like we did during Vietnam erasing the agency of Vietnamese people.

Q: Yes, it’s interesting that in the process, ironically, it ignores the agency of the soldiers and their potential role in stopping the war and recognizing the actual roots of war itself.

Lembcke: Yes, you know one of the best new sources of information for the antiwar movement is another film called "Why We Fight". I saw it with two classes and they haven’t stopped talking about it. If they had heard before about the term ‘military industrial compex", now it makes it more real. Now they think about the war beyond the slogans of "the war is for freedom, democracy’which is all most Americans know. The oil thing too has also become a kind of cliché they don’t think about much. For my students those bumper stickered explanations are erased and the film puts the war in a much more material and realistic framing. It’s a film that might have as important an impact as Sir! No Sir!

STEPHEN PHILION is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Cloud State University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, teaching social theory, sociology of race, and China and Globalization. His writings can be found at his website. He can be reached at: stephen_philion@yahoo.com