FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Veterans’ Day Through a Maureen Dowd Flashback

Unbelievable—an overused word, for sure. But it is what came to mind as I read Maureen Dowd’s November 1, New York Times column. Unbelievable that she would begin “A Cup of Joe: Making every day Veterans Day” with her own flashback to the war in Vietnam. “When I close my eyes,” she writes, “I can easily flash back to a time when it was cool to call people in uniform `pigs’ and `baby killers.’” Really? I mean really, she really wrote that.

It can’t be that she doesn’t know better because the world of journalism in which she lives surely does. When Barack Obama trafficked in the same imagery for his 2012 Memorial Day speech, Los Angeles Times editor Michael McGough said the President’s words recalled the stories of veterans spat-on by war protesters. He called the stories an “edifying myth,” but a myth nevertheless. McGough pointed readers to a 2007 slate.com article in which news critic Jack Shafer upbraided reporters for repeatedly lending credibility to the spat-on veteran stories.

There are plenty of stories but no evidence that anyone spat on Vietnam veterans, and only scant evidence that anyone at the time claimed it to be happening. There are also stories that G.I.s were met at airports by radicals holding placards reading, “Baby Killer.” But planes with returning troops landed at military airbases to which protesters did not have access, and despite thousands of troops returning with PX-purchased cameras slung around their necks, there are no photographs, that I’ve seen, of those signs in airport settings or anywhere else.

And “pigs”? Veterans? I’ve never heard that one. Is she referring to demonstrators calling police officers pigs? This is a Veterans Day column about veterans—who would believe she is not slurring images to imply that was baby-killing veterans who were called pigs? Unbelievable.

Dowd’s “flashback” was just a set-up for writing about Starbuck’s chief Howard Schultz’s mission to “celebrate soldiers.” On a crusade to get “`more skin in the game’” from Americans, Schultz has put former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the Starbucks board, and pledged to hire veterans. He is organizing a Veterans Day Concert for Valor on the Capitol Mall that will feature the stars Rihanna, Eminem, and Bruce Springsteen.

Set against the backdrop of veteran disparagement drawn by Dowd, his efforts are made to appear even more righteous than they otherwise might. Schultz himself, as cast by Dowd, cuts a contrasting figure to the alleged traitors who scorned the Vietnam fighters. “My [draft lottery] number was 332,” he remembers, “so I didn’t go. But I would have.” Belief that the nation itself failed to adequately support the men and women sent to Vietnam, or even betrayed the military mission there, is essential to the mantra that we “must not let that happen again”—words that motivate Schultz but which make sense only if the real history of the war years is forgotten.

The scenes imagined by Dowd of antiwar-movement hostility to returning G.I.s took root during the 1970s as a political antidote to the uncomfortable truth that activists recruited veterans to their ranks, and thousands of returnees joined the war to end the war. By the end of the Reagan years, though, fantasies like the one spun by Dowd had displaced reality in American memory. With the help of Hollywood and the mental health establishment, the image of Vietnam veterans empowered and politicized by their wartime experience, was made-over into one of “damaged goods,” men traumatized by combat and the rejection they encountered upon coming home who now suffer the hidden effects of “unseen wounds.”

The damaged-goods narrative carried over from the post-Vietnam era to the news coverage of units returning from Iraq and Afghanistan; within months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, had displace almost all else from the coming-home story. Dowd follows the script, credentialing Schultz’s concern that “many vets he talked to had lost `a sense of core purpose’.” She strings together her own set of clichés about lack of public support for the war (read in that the lack of appreciation for veterans), the high rate of PTSD among veterans, and a supposed “PTSD bias among employers.”

The coda for that package can’t be Schultz’s own struggle with war trauma (recall that lottery number). So trot out another trope: the World War II veteran, his father, so shaken by combat in the South Pacific that, well, he never talked about it.

Unbelievable. Not so much the details in what Dowd wrote (okay, I don’t believe the “baby killer” part—because there is no evidence for it) but that American journalism at its highest levels continues to recycle a meme-laced narrative from the post-Vietnam War years. (The reticent World War II veteran appears most often, as a strange apparition, in PTSD-themed stories of Vietnam veterans.) It is a story-line that casts a shadow over the antiwar movement, and obscures the political agency of veterans with images of their dependency and dysfunction. Most importantly, it diverts attention from the very neo-colonial foreign policy that puts all of us at risk, and feeds fantasies of perfidious enemies at home and abroad—fantasies with their own vengeful imperatives.

Veterans Day this year, the country may be moving beyond the platitudes of “Welcome Home” and “Thank You for your service,” expressions that found resonance in the mythical world of spat-upon veterans visited by Maureen Dowd in her flashbacks.

Just as some veterans have begun to publically shun the shallowness of the welcome-home rhetoric, more are likely to take offense at their use as props in corporate PR campaigns like Howard Schultz’s. Engaged thoughtfully on the matter, still others will see the danger inherent in America’s growing sense of itself as a defeated and declining super power in search of redemption and vengeance that is cued to exploit victim-veteran imagery for revanchist militarist purposes.

This year’s Veterans Day is a good time to take the spotlight off veterans, while yet privileging the special perspective they have, to begin a national conversation with them about the meaning of our wars and the importance of the way we remember them.

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Emeritus of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam and  Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. His newest book is PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Emeritus of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam and  Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. His newest book is PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

Weekend Edition
June 14, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump’s Trade Threats are Really Cold War 2.0
Bruce E. Levine
Tom Paine, Christianity, and Modern Psychiatry
Jason Hirthler
Mainstream 101: Supporting Imperialism, Suppressing Socialism
T.J. Coles
How Much Do Humans Pollute? A Breakdown of Industrial, Vehicular and Household C02 Emissions
Andrew Levine
Whither The Trump Paradox?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of 10,000 Talkers, All With Broken Tongues
Pete Dolack
Look to U.S. Executive Suites, Not Beijing, For Why Production is Moved
Paul Street
It Can’t Happen Here: From Buzz Windrip and Doremus Jessup to Donald Trump and MSNBC
Rob Urie
Capitalism Versus Democracy
Richard Moser
The Climate Counter-Offensive: Secrecy, Deception and Disarming the Green New Deal
Naman Habtom-Desta
Up in the Air: the Fallacy of Aerial Campaigns
Ramzy Baroud
Kushner as a Colonial Administrator: Let’s Talk About the ‘Israeli Model’
Mark Hand
Residents of Toxic W.Va. Town Keep Hope Alive
John Kendall Hawkins
Alias Anything You Please: a Lifetime of Dylan
Linn Washington Jr.
Bigots in Blue: Philadelphia Police Department is a Home For Hate
David Macaray
UAW Faces Its Moment of Truth
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Washington Detests the Belt and Road Initiative
Horace G. Campbell
Edward Seaga and the Institutionalization of Thuggery, Violence and Dehumanization in Jamaica
Graham Peebles
Zero Waste: The Global Plastics Crisis
Michael Schwalbe
Oppose Inequality, Not Cops
Ron Jacobs
Scott Noble’s History of Resistance
Olivia Alperstein
The Climate Crisis is Also a Health Emergency
David Rosen
Time to Break Up the 21st Century Tech Trusts
George Wuerthner
The Highest Use of Public Forests: Carbon Storage
Ralph Nader
It is Time to Rediscover Print Newspapers
Nick Licata
How SDS Imploded: an Inside Account
Rachel Smolker – Anne Peterman
The GE American Chestnut: Restoration of a Beloved Species or Trojan Horse for Tree Biotechnology?
Sam Pizzigati
Can Society Survive Without Empathy?
Manuel E. Yepe
China and Russia in Strategic Alliance
Patrick Walker
Green New Deal “Climate Kids” Should Hijack the Impeachment Conversation
Colin Todhunter
Encouraging Illegal Planting of Bt Brinjal in India
Robert Koehler
The Armed Bureaucracy
David Swanson
Anyone Who’d Rather Not be Shot Should Read this Book
Jonathan Power
To St. Petersburg With Love
Marc Levy
How to Tell a Joke in Combat
Thomas Knapp
Pork is Not the Problem
Manuel García, Jr.
Global Warming and Solar Minimum: a Response to Renee Parsons
Jill Richardson
Straight People Don’t Need a Parade
B. R. Gowani
The Indian Subcontinent’s Third Partition
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: The Black Body in LA
Jonah Raskin
‘69 and All That Weird Shit
Michael Doliner
My Surprise Party
Stephen Cooper
The Fullness of Half Pint
Charles R. Larson
Review: Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America”
David Yearsley
Sword and Sheath Songs
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail