Torturous Guilt?

In a May 26, 2010 New York Times article headlined “The Political Debate of 2010 Is Still Trapped in the Cultural Divide of the 60’s” discussing the impact of Richard Blumenthal’s Vietnam lies, the New York Times Magazine’s political columnist Matt Bai, expresses a childish impatience with 60s issues. This is not surprising. Bai, the editor’s choice to wrap-up a controversy that the Times itself instigated turns out to have been born two weeks after the police riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, September 9, 1968. It’s fair to ask: What would a Woodstock baby really know about the “cultural divide” of the 60s?

For Bai, the controversy over Blumenthal’s lies about his Vietnam service, “has as much to do with the forty year old emotions around draft boards and deferrals, the lingering bitterness among those who served and the torturous guiltamong those who did not, as it does with the straight up issue of veracity.” Really? I can’t speak for those who served, but I can say emphatically that there is nothing like “torturous guilt about not serving” for those who didn’t. Bai goes on to opine “in a country where no one under fifty has ever seen a draft notice, it is increasingly irrelevant; to those Americans we might as well be having an argument over who sunk the Maine. “

It’s one thing for Woodstock babies like Bai to have OD’d on the 60s, but that hardly gives the so-called “paper of record” license to disregard and misinform other readers under fifty about what is arguably the most important American era of the twentieth century. One can only think that the Times is trying to erase the historical memory of the 60’s by publishing such ignorant blather. For good reason. With the exception of printing the Pentagon papers, the Times coverage of the Vietnam era, like its Iraq coverage, left much to be desired, to put it mildly. Watching important 60’s history dismissively muddled by its second hand “experts,” one gets the impression that the Times wants to submerge its past journalistic failures by assigning them to smart-assed writers who were too young to have experienced the era and too egotistic to have tried to learn about it. [See my blog, “That’s the Way It Wasn’t.”]

So I want to tell Messrs. Bai, Keller, and Sulzberger that pretending to speak authoritatively about the Vietnam war protest generation when you know less than nothing about it is offensive. The very idea that the generation that bravely protested the war in the face of systematic police state repression suffers from” torturous guilt” from not having served in it is so twisted it makes you wonder if there is anybody editing the paper at all. One can only assume that Bai came to his convoluted conclusion by lazily extrapolating from Blumenthal’s delusional pandering to all of Blumenthal’s generation. If Blumenthal is guilty, well, his generation must be too. This is political journalism?

If Bai had actually studied the “cultural divide of the 60’s”, as one might have expected the “political columnist” of the Times Magazine to have done, he would have learned that the “cultural divide” [chasm, really] opened after Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam and betrayed the eighteen million vote mandate for peace he’d won in the 1964 election. In that election Johnson ran as America’s peace candidate, claiming “we’re not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do with Asian boys ought to be doing themselves.” And declaring, ” We seek no wider war in Vietnam.” Talk about a whopping reason for guilt!

More than anything else, it was Johnson’s outrageous betrayal of his peace mandate that set off the 60’s cultural revolution. Rather than suffering from “torturous guilt,” the 60’s generation that mounted eight years of righteous protest against the war in Vietnam is proud that they stood up for democracy and against Johnson’s betrayal of the will of the people. Not only did it have the courage and integrity to fight the unwanted war, it suffered subversive attacks and out and out police state oppression for doing so from the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, Richard M. Daley, and finally, Richard Nixon and his lawless minions.

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As for Blumenthal himself, I doubt very much that he had anything close to torturous guilt, or any guilt whatsoever. Richard Blumenthal’s frequent “misspeaking ” about being in Vietnam was simply part of the phony script of a super-ambitious politician. His lies fit the classic paradigm of the conscience-free, self-serving political opportunist. The worst part of his act, from my anthropological perspective, was his repeated perpetuation of a bigger lie–that returning Viet vets were spat upon. “I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse.” NYT 5/17/10

The false idea that people who opposed the war were disrespectful, angry, and hostile towards American veterans is a malicious myth created by war-mongering militarists whose macho need to find a scapegoat for the humiliation of America’s Vietnam defeat was reinforced by their need to create a climate favorable for new predatory wars. They were right wingers who wanted the country to believe that America lost the war because people protested against it and those flag-hating protesters spat on the returning veterans. That’s a crock!

Underlying the canard that war opponents were hostile and disrespectful to returning veterans is the false premise that people who opposed that war or any war are unpatriotic. The alleged disrespect conveyed by spitting on uniformed veterans is not different from spitting on the flag itself.

Blumenthal’s repeated and unconditional hammering of this myth to ingratiate himself to VFW and other military gatherings was by far the most reprehensible aspect of his fabricated stories about Vietnam and his military service.

Photographic images from the protests surrounding the Chicago 1968 Democratic convention tell a completely different story. [Consulting for the documentary Chicago 10, I studied 14,000 of them.] The photos show demonstrators expressing a fascinating variety of respectful and nonviolent attitudes towards the heavily armed American military constituting the police state that Johnson and Daley assembled to prevent an antiwar option from emerging from the Democratic convention. Despite the fact that the military had trained for violent confrontation with the demonstrators, the common sentiment expressed by the demonstrators to this massive military presence was “Join us!” “Join us! “

This spirited, peaceful image of the antiwar movement was best characterized by the iconic photo at the massive October 1967 Pentagon demonstration of Yippie “SuperJoel” putting a flower into the rifle barrel of a soldier. That image is ravaged by the breathtaking political opportunism of “liberal” Democratic candidate Blumenthal’s Vietnam veteran stump speech smearing antiwar protesters as unpatriotic spitters.

For me, Blumenthal’s pandering to the pro-Vietnam War sentiments of selected

constituents by lying about the character of his generation’s antiwar movement goes deeper than spitting. It turns my stomach.

The genesis and development all of the spitting image myth has been documented in a terrific sociological study by a Vietnam veteran, Jerry Lembcke. It is called The Spitting Image: Myth Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam. The LA Times Review said:

The image is ingrained: A Vietnam veteran arriving home from the war gets off the plane only to be greeted by an angry mob of antiwar

protesters yelling Murderer and Baby killer!”. Then out of the crowd, comes someone who spits in the veteran’s face. The only problem, according to Jerry Lembcke, is that no such incident ever has been documented. It is instead, says Lembcke, a kind of urban myth that reflects our lingering national confusion about the war.

Lembcke’s research cites a Harris poll reported to Congress in 1972 that indicates 93% of returning veterans found their homecoming friendly, while only 3% found it unfriendly. The poll also reported that over 75% of returning vets were opposed to the war.

The perpetuation of the “spitting image myth” has had serious consequences. It contributed to the inability of congressional Democrats in 2006 to force the end of the Iraq occupation by giving credence to the irrational notion that the alleged disrespectful attitude towards returning Vietnam veterans would be repeated towards returning Iraq veterans. This lie based on a lie was used as a hammer to continue the destructive deployment of the American military in the misbegotten Bush and Cheney Iraq adventure.

The anti-Vietnam War generation was protesting for all Americans, especially the young men who were being drafted at an average age of nineteen and indoctrinated to believe that they were fighting for their country and its beliefs and ideals. More than fifty thousand of these young men unnecessarily died in Vietnam and one hundred and fifty thousand more were wounded. The war within America in the 60’s was against the patriarchs, who believed they could do whatever they wanted regardless of the will of people. The anti-war movement was uplifted by the Viet vets, since 75% of them were denouncing the war and members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War had mounted a stunning Washington demonstration of throwing away their medals. If it were not for the effectiveness of the warmongering propaganda machines and the willingness of pandering pols like Richard Blumenthal to feed the “the spitting image” myths, the heroic background of anti-war Viet vet John Kerry would not have been vulnerable to the “Swift Boating” mythology propagated by the right wing in 2004 and he would have won the presidency and the U.S. would have been long gone from Iraq.

Today is Memorial Day. I am writing to defend the honor and memory of those who proudly fought for democracy in America, who fought for truth in electoral campaigns, who fought for the right to protest the injustice of having the voice of the people ignored. Since memorials mean remembering, we need to remember what really happened, and bury the political myths used to propel political careers and justify government failures and misrepresentation of the will of the people.

SAMUEL LEFF is a Margaret Mead-trained anthropologist whose specialty has been American culture for more than four decades. He has taught anthropology at Adelphi, Hunter and Hofstra Universities. An activist participant observer of the ’60s, he was a close confidant of Abbie Hoffman’s. He has led local preservation movements, uncovered corruption at the New York City Health Department, and most recently was the consultant for Brett Morgen’s film, Chicago 10. He is currently fine tuning his work about American culture: Old Boys Growing up Primitive in Modern America and collecting a series of essays that apply his unique anthropological perspective to underlying culture and personality issues of modern life.