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 firstname.lastname@example.org.