How the Myth of Spat on Vets Holds Back the Anti-War Movement Interview with Jerry Lembcke

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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 those who haven't read your book The
Spitting Image
, maybe you could give a quick intro to the
key arguments of the book.

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 WWI, 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 women’s
studies, she asked me who the spitters were…she 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.

Q: And what
is the link that you see?

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 mind…all 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 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.

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?

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

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 their 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 supportable…but 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 okay 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 complex," 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!

16, 2006

Lembcke [send him mail]
teaches Sociology at Holy Cross College. Visit his

Philion [send him mail]
teaches Social Theory in the
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
at St. Cloud
State University and researches Chinese Workers' Protests against
Privatization. Visit his

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