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Nobody Spat On American GIs

Stories of spat-on veterans began proliferating in the US media in 1990 as the country ramped up for the first Persian Gulf War. Anti-war activists had spat on troops returning from Vietnam, or so the stories went, and to make sure that did not happen again, Americans were urged to rally around the men and women dispatched to the Gulf. Within weeks, the nation was awash with yellow ribbons, symbols of support for troops, and by inference, the mission on which they had been sent.

LembkeCoverRather than being spit on, returning GIs and veterans led anti-war demonstrations, as in this photo from 1970.

The classic spitting story is told by a Vietnam veteran who deplaned at San Francisco’s airport and was met by spitting women and hippies or “male longhairs,” some carrying placards reading, “Baby Killer.”

Several of the storytellers say they were warned by military authorities on the plane to go immediately to the airport restroom and change into civilian clothes lest they be attacked by protesters. One caller to a radio show interview with me said that he observed the trash can in the restroom piled high with uniforms. When he was asked if there were any photographs of the piled uniforms, he was gone.

The Gulf War context may have catalyzed, “I was spat on, too,” stories that had never been told before — a kind of copycat phenomenon. But the accounts only proliferated after that.

With research help from Holy Cross College student Lynn Barowsky in 2008, I began collecting the first-person spitting stories and entering their details into a spreadsheet. To my surprise, the frequency of stories-told had not diminished since they first trended in the early 1990s. I have now recorded over 200 stories from returning vets, all of whom relate some variant of the spitting image.

My 1998 book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, delved into the origins of the stories and inquired into their persistence. I was careful not to call the stories lies, and even allowed that some version of their classic form may have actually occurred — after all, you cannot prove a negative. However, there is no evidence that such incidences actually happened, and a scant record of claims in the media or anywhere else made during the late 1960s and early 1970s when the corporate media would have made every effort to cast aspersions on anti-war activists.

Some particulars in the stories could not be true, such as returnees from Vietnam landing at civilian airports like San Francisco. Rather, those planes arrived at military facilities such as Travis Air Force Base, 50 miles north of the city where protesters could not have gotten near deplaning troops.

Also, it was very unlikely that returning soldiers would have been told to take off their uniforms. Discarding their uniforms would have meant abandoning military property, a serious offense that returning soldiers looking forward to getting home and out of the service would have been hesitant to commit. Plus, it is implausible that young women would spit on anyone as a form of political expression, let alone a battle-hardened male soldier.

Stories of protester hostility toward veterans were incongruent with the historical record that activists had reached out and recruited veterans to the cause of ending the war, and that thousands of service personnel returning from Southeast Asia joined the anti-war movement.

The image of spat-on veterans was displacing memory of veterans politicized and empowered by their wartime experience. The consequence of that displacement would be evinced years later when a new generation, oblivious to the political narrative of antiwar veterans, sought identity within victim-veteran imagery provided by the mental health discourse of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I was most fascinated by the fact that similar stories were told in other nations after other lost wars including Germany following World War I and France after its loss of Indochina in 1954. In both cases, it was women who were alleged to have greeted returned veterans with hostility. The German women, some with pistols tucked in their skirts, were said to have spat on the soldiers.

The German scholar Klaus Theveleit, in his two-volume Male Fantasies, examined the stories and judged them to be what his title exclaimed — male fantasies. Theveleit used a Freudian analysis to explain that the stories were expressions of male fears of women with male powers — even the power to project body fluids.

In turn, the scapegoating of women masked veterans’ fears of their own female Inner-Other laying hidden in the subconscious until brought to the surface by battlefront defeat casting doubt on their masculinity.

Theveleit’s psychoanalytic study centered on veterans who were key members of the Freikorp, formed to suppress the revolutionary upsurge in Germany following World War I. Many of his subjects became prominent Nazis a decade later.

One might think that with the passage of time and the efforts like my own to debunk the spitting stories as myth, their telling would be a past-tense phenomenon — the kind of stories “once told” that are now known to be folklore.

But one would be wrong.

The October/November 2014 issue of AARP Magazine ran a story written by Gary Sinise, the actor who played Lieutenant Dan in the movie, “Forrest Gump,” who related a story his brother-in-law, Jack, told upon returning from Vietnam. Jack ducked into the airport’s men’s room to shed his uniform because, “he’d heard the stories about returning soldiers being spit on.” It was what happened “at home” during the war, wrote Sinise, that inspired his commitment to see that it didn’t happen again and that the troops sent to “protect our liberties” will be appreciated and cared for.

I continue to receive stories sent to me as evidence that Vietnam veterans had been spat on. The most recent was received on January 22, 2015 from a veteran who returned through San Francisco in 1970:

“I was followed by five or six hippies who immediately started cussing at me, calling me all kinds of names and spit at me. They didn’t hit me since they were bad shots. I realized that to hit them would create a disturbance, involve the police, and the odds were against me. So, I continued on and got onto my plane. To this day, I don’t even like to go back to that area of the country.”

This fellow was quite angry with me for describing stories like his as myths. In a set of email exchanges between us, he said I was calling men like him “liars” and expressed doubt that I “had ever served my country” and speculated that I had an “anti-military agenda.”

Stories of spat-on Vietnam veterans have become so ingrained in the American discourse about war and veterans that they can now be referenced matter-of-factly with no acknowledgment of their mythical properties. Their migration from bar-stools to the higher cultural ground of literary trope has been assisted by mainstream news organizations, which, with few exceptions, repeat the spit-on stories uncritically.

As recently as February 22 of this year, The New York Times Sunday Review repeated the canard — “…with Vietnam, people spit on you…” — as if it’s just something that everyone knows to be true.

As one of the Vietnam War’s more enduring legacies, the stories of denigrated veterans are now salted into the biographies of the latest generation. The late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle wrote in his book American Sniper of being disparaged in San Diego upon his deployment to Iraq. He recalled passing “a small group of protesters demonstrating against the war. They had signs about baby killers and whatever, protesting the troops going over to fight.”

The new stories also continue a pattern in which claims of mistreatment by anti-war activists are often bundled in resumes displaying remarkable martial accomplishment. In his blog, culture critic Michael McCaffrey challenged the veracity of several boasts made by Kyle and gave particular attention to the “baby killer” incident. It was, said McCaffrey, “at worst, pure fantasy; at best, a great embellishment.”

The American betrayal narrative was provided Presidential imprimatur when Barak Obama used his 2012 Memorial Day speech to announce a $65 million Pentagon plan to commemorate the war in Vietnam with a 12-year series of events running across the 50th anniversary dates of the war. Speaking to cameras with the Veterans Memorial Wall as the backdrop, the President called the Vietnam War, “one of the nation’s most painful chapters.” Treatment of Vietnam veterans he said, “…was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened….We’re here today to see that it doesn’t happen again.”

News pundits were quick to associate the President’s remarks with the enduring images of the Vietnam era spat-upon veteran. The Los Angeles Times editorialized in 2012 that “it was a mythical image — an edifying myth,” the writer said, but still a myth. An edifying myth — and a dangerous myth. The disparaged Vietnam veterans invoked by President Obama are mythical, and it is dangerous imagery. Myths are group stories, stories as real as the people who tell them — as real as the group, the nation, that the stories create.

Nations bonded by commitments to avenge their hurts are dangers to all. Germany’s dolchstosslegende led it into a terrifying campaign for retribution that, in the end, destroyed Germany itself. France’s generals in the 1950s, feeling abandoned in Indochina by civilian leaders, sought reaffirmation in Algeria and inflamed the conflicts there with consequences that Paris has still not outlived.

The United States, having gone to the Persian Gulf in 1990 to “kick” its Vietnam Syndrome, as President George H.W. Bush said at the time, instead supercharged the jihadi movement into the World Trade Center and found itself, years later, bogged down in a multi-front war with no end, much less victory, in sight.

Remembered by many as a war lost because of betrayal at home, Vietnam has become a modern-day Alamo that must be avenged, a pretext for more war and generations of more veterans.

However, it more correctly should be remembered as a war in which soldiers, veterans and citizens joined hands to fight for peace demonstrating the effectiveness of popular resistance to political authority.

Obama’s endorsement of the Pentagon’s plan to remember Vietnam during the next 12 years as a war lost to betrayal on the home front only beclouds what needs to be remembered lest we are taken down the path to more wars like it.

We need to reject the political, economic, and militarist logic that leads to endless wars, and to remember the inspiring history of returning veterans who, along with the anti-war movement and GI resistance, brought the troops home from Vietnam.

(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.)

10 Comments

  1. BB Grace July 9, 2015

    “Some particulars in the stories could not be true, such as returnees from Vietnam landing at civilian airports like San Francisco. ”

    But they are true.

    I was born and raised in the US Navy, carried a military ID for 23 years. Vietnam was my Father’s third war. He was Zumwalt’s Aide https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmo_Zumwalt

    Hawaii and Guam have military and commercial airports. Military flights were not always available on military planes. A person could sign up for available space but that didn’t mean one would quaranteed to get it. Commercial airlines reduced rates for military, so plenty of troops who wanted to spend their leave doing something besides waiting for space available took commercial flights out of Hawaii to the main land.

    Before my father moved us to Hawaii in 1968 his stations for Nam were Treasure Island (Hunter’s Point), San Pedro (Long Beach), which Los Angeles County military bases witnessed protests outside the gates, which included throwing flowers to spitting. Unlike CA, Hawaii was pro military which afforded to build Hawaii’s tourist industry.

    • Harvey Reading July 9, 2015

      As I recall, officers were often very unpopular during the Vietnam invasion years. Remember fragging? Toward the end, even some Air Force officers were refusing to fly bombing missions, to the anger of one of our leading war criminals, Hank Kissinger.

      The U.S. military was falling apart, around the world, as enlisted men and draftees expressed their opposition to the Vietnam atrocity. That’s in large part why we have a volunteer military now, though the economic draft is in full swing. There’s an essay by a fellow, Robert Heinl (retired lifer), that is pertinent and was written at the time. I am sick and tired of liars who claim the the peace movement spit on them or otherwise treated them badly. Funny thing: out of all the stories, no proof is ever produced, just hearsay … and similarity.

      My recollection is that the only activity at SFO was that of the panhandling Hare Krishna crowd, and they were aggressive to everyone in their demands for donations, in exchange for having provided an unsolicited, flower, “free of charge”.

  2. Jerry Lembcke July 9, 2015

    The small number of senior officers who flew from a commercial airport in Hawaii, on a commercial flight, to a commercial mainland airport is very exceptional: how would anti-war activists know ahead of time of the arrival of that flight with that officer aboard? The only “known” protest of returnees at LAX is that portrayed in the 1978 film “Coming Home.” Using the Waldo Salt papers at UCLA and archives at the Margaret Herrick Library, I debunked that scene in my book “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.”
    Jerry Lembcke

    • BB Grace July 9, 2015

      Nam was protested by a PRO-PEACE movement not “Antiwar”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_movement

      Antiwar was fabricated after Nam by think tanks that developed out of the peace movement to control ideas of what is peace and war history.

      Coming from a tradtional military family, not everyone in my family achieved the rank of senior officer. WE never used LAX. Along with 11 million “brats” like myself, commercial flights were very common among enlisted who had military family and friends that supported them and wanted to be met at the airport rather than at a base gate.

      Who protested at commercial air ports? The International Society For Krishna Consciousness made commercial airports an occupation.

      Commercial flights for military prefered John Wayne Airport, Oakland Airport, etc. http://www.ocair.com/

      I look forward to reading your book.

  3. Betsy Cawn July 9, 2015

    As another “B-Rat” (shortened after WWII to “Brat”), I love how we say we were “born and raised in the US ______” (in my case, the Army). With “the Army” and all of “the military” as my large, extended family — everywhere we went — I grew up listening to the heated debates of my father’s buddies (and the “dependent” families we shared our lives with across the “country” and “overseas”) on a range of subjects including the decision to include the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Korean “Police Action,” post-war Europe and the Soviet Union, the partitioning of India, and the ever-brewing Southeast Asian struggles (of all kinds).

    By the time my youngest brother decided to enlist in the US Marines, in early 1969, I had already spent five years actively advocating for the US to stay out of Southeast Asia, all of it — as a bad military tactic and terrible political position. I was called a “war protestor,” a “peacenik,” a “red-diaper baby,” a “commie-pinko treasonist sympathizer” (poor Jane), a “subversive” and so forth, and spent the next 50 years working with Viet Nam vets as neighbors, friends, and family. That youngest brother was blown to bits, but the US Navy put those bits back together in a semblance of a fully-functioning human being; he lives with me now, in what passes for peace in this militarized civilian compound we call Lake County.

    I participated anti-war and pro-peace and civil-unity efforts from 1959 to 1975, and my heart turned hard against the military chieftans and political bandits that misuse their power and authority for private gain, spending the blood of our brothers and sisters without a second thought — and destroying vast civilizations and cultures and human societies from air conditioned enclaves in Las Vegas via remote detonation created by video-game simulating devices. I remember confronting the LA PD in a protest march at Century City when LBJ was staying there, where the equally sanctified uniformed authorities billy-clubbed unarmed men, women, and children who were exercising their right to redress a grievance in a public place — no real injury compared to Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman, et al, all the way to Clementa Pinkney and the Charleston massacre, Malcolm and Martin, John and Bobby, and the last Goddamned 35 years of right-wing destruction — but the punishment of those who sought and still seek peaceful coexistence with all races, cultures, and species by the gluttonously greedy power brokers of the world (from the Rothschilds to the Bushes) for suggesting that war is a supreme WASTE of everything holy and worthy of your love and devotion.

    As for the mythology of guys (it was all guys in those days) getting spit on, what about those young men who were protected from the draft (by any number of ruses, some illegal) and who were comforted and cared for when they returned in wheelchairs (if they were “lucky”!)? Many of the young men I worked with then recall being shunned by the older “warriors” of World War II and even Korea, as not being “real soldiers” (getting high, protesting the war, opposing the draft, revealing the gross truth about what we were actually DOING in Southeast Asia); my brother is one of them. It took our father almost 40 years to come to terms with the differences between us and his total dedication (St. Lo, Seoul, and three tours in Japan), and to accept that his other sons — both of them military “lifers” that never saw combat — were not “better” than the one who actually went to war, nearly lost his life, and then silently suffered its incurable injuries. All four of us siblings live in solidarity and common understanding now, after that reconciliation, but many “civilians” will never comprehend how much that issue became the central core of our lives. The generation that knows nothing but what it sees on its “smart phone” cannot comprehend the reasons why we believe in engaging our government in a dialogue — instead of watching TV — here at home, where we volunteer and serve in our communities as the antidote to imperialism, colonialism, and despair. Long live the AVA!

  4. B. B. GRACE July 9, 2015

    Clicking the, “Leave A Reply” icon led to a new box (for me): “Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *”

    My Reply:

    Yes, I recall the tragedy of fragging and I agree with you about the draft being why there’s a “volunteer” economically drafted, military today. I tried to have a converation with my Father once about politics, his reply was, “I don’t care who is president, I serve them all.”

    What I remember most about Nam is McNamara because I heard that name probably millions of times growing up.

    I joined Krishna Consciousness in 76 as part of my military upbringing rebellion. I left when they arranged a marriage for me with someone I didn’t know. I shudder when told, “Nameste”, recalling how many rights I gave up when I joined them.

    Peace

  5. Louis S. Bedrock July 9, 2015

    Vietnamese civilians were bombed, burned, poisoned by chemicals like Agent Orange, tortured by U.S. military personnel, kidnapped, imprisoned, disappeared.

    The Phoenix Program was appalling–read Douglas Valentine’s book on the subject.

    I really don’t give a damn if any American soldiers were spat on. They were war criminals. And I don’t care if they were only obeying orders.

    The police in Chicago and the National Guard on the campuses of Kent State and Jackson State treated anti-war protesters a lot worse.

    • Mitch Clogg July 9, 2015

      I take your point, Mr. Bedrock. I agree that it’s unsuitable to celebrate our evil wars. As to not caring whether vets collect spittle in their daily lives, in a country that treasures ignorance–that always has–a dab of sympathy should be offered the kids who go over to Granada or Mesopotamia and act much like the rulers of their homeland. They weren’t following orders. There were no orders. The order of the day was ambiguity–were we invading, attacking, occupying or “freeing”? Our highest officials approved atrocity from one side of their mouths and democracy from the other. Our soldiers had no clear instruction. They acted disgracefully, but the ones that didn’t–as in all things covered by news organizations–attracted no notice. The prevalence of suicide among our veterans is a consequence of putting ill-prepared people in positions of subjugation and lethal authority at the same time. That’s today’s military man or woman.

      • Louis S. Bedrock July 10, 2015

        And I take your well-made points, Mr Clogg.

        I have friends who served in Vietnam and almost wound up there myself as an 05C.

        However, the concern about whether or not a few returning soldiers were spat upon seems overwrought considering the damage inflicted upon Vietnam and its people for no reason except the deranged ideology of the people running our government.

  6. Dennis July 16, 2015

    Saw this story posted in a friend’s FB feed. Beneath were three comments to the tune of “Yes, they did. I had a relative who came home from Vietnam to experience it firsthand.”

    Also, the first sentence of the story begins with a claim that the “got spat on” thing began in the 90s. My first exposure to reports of this was in the early ’80s.

    I haven’t read the rest of the story. It was too quickly discounted as either erroneous or just a flat-out lie.

    You have apparently been gifted with the ability and the will to write. To share information with others. Would you waste this on disinformation? Do you understand that such behavior is an affront to your own personal dignity?

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