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The Spitting Image

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam

Jerry Lembcke
Consulting Editor: Harvey J. Kaye
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 217
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  • Book Info
    The Spitting Image
    Book Description:

    One of the most resilient images of the Vietnam era is that of the anti-war protester - often a woman - spitting on the uniformed veteran just off the plane. The lingering potency of this icon was evident during the Gulf War, when war supporters invoked it to discredit their opposition. In this startling book, Jerry Lembcke demonstrates that not a single incident of this sort has been convincingly documented. Rather, the anti-war Left saw in veterans a natural ally, and the relationship between anti-war forces and most veterans was defined by mutual support. Indeed one soldier wrote angrily to Vice President Spiro Agnew that the only Americans who seemed concerned about the soldier's welfare were the anti-war activists. While the veterans were sometimes made to feel uncomfortable about their service, this sense of unease was, Lembcke argues, more often rooted in the political practices of the Right. Tracing a range of conflicts in the twentieth century, the book illustrates how regimes engaged in unpopular conflicts often vilify their domestic opponents for "stabbing the boys in the back." Concluding with an account of the powerful role played by Hollywood in cementing the myth of the betrayed veteran through such films as Coming Home, Taxi Driver, and Rambo, Jerry Lembcke's book stands as one of the most important, original, and controversial works of cultural history in recent years.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4513-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. ONE Introduction: The Spitting Image
    (pp. 1-10)

    Barry Streeter returned from Vietnam in November 1971. His account of an unfriendly homecoming was collected, along with many like it, by newspaper columnist Bob Greene for his 1989 book,Homecoming. Like many stories of abused Vietnam veterans, Streeter’s account involved hippies spitting on a soldier as he arrived at the San Francisco airport from Vietnam.

    Sharon Moore has different memories of San Francisco. She made her comment just as I had begun to tell her that I was writing a book about Vietnam veterans and the anti-war movement. “You remember,” I began, trying to find common ground for a...

  5. TWO Yellow Ribbons and Spat-Upon Veterans: Making Soldiers the Means and Ends of War
    (pp. 11-26)

    In early January 1991 the U.S. Congress authorized President George Bush to use armed force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. But for thousands of Americans, including the anonymous soldier interviewed byNew York Timesreporter James LeMoyne (1990b), the reasons for the war in the Persian Gulf had more to do with support for the American men and women already stationed there than it did with Iraq or Kuwait. By the time the United States went to war on January 16, the U.S. soldiers in the Gulf had become the primary reason for the war.

    An analysis of news stories...

  6. THREE Dear Spiro Agnew: About Soldiers, Veterans, and the Anti-war Movement
    (pp. 27-48)

    I am writing in response to your criticisms of war critics, which was printed in thePacific Stars and StripesSaturday, April 3, 1971. TheStars and Stripesgave the following account of your speech at the 25th anniversary meeting of the Veterans Administration Volunteer Service:

    Vice President Spiro T. Agnew accused Indochina war critics Thursday of demoralizing American soldiers in the front lines and scorning those who return home. … They have been told almost daily … that they are fighting in a “worthless” and “immoral” cause.

    Agnew … said American soldiers in no other war “have had to...

  7. FOUR The Nixon-Agnew Counteroffensive: “Good Veterans” vs. “Bad Veterans”
    (pp. 49-70)

    The keystone of the right wing’s strategy was to split the liberal and radical elements within the anti-war movement and to split Vietnam veterans from the movement. At one level, the effort to split the movement involved a propaganda campaign to discredit the anti-war movement by portraying it as an alien, un-American, and violent phenomenon. Waged from the White House with Vice President Agnew acting as the mouthpiece, the propaganda campaign was fortuitously assisted by the North Vietnamese.

    On October 14, Hanoi Radio broadcast an open letter addressed to “Dear American Friends” that encouraged U.S. citizens to participate in the...

  8. FIVE Spat-Upon Veterans: The Evidence (or Lack Thereof)
    (pp. 71-83)

    Upon announcing that one is writing a book on the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran, the researcher is met with either approval—“Good, it’s about time that someone did it”—or disbelief—“Myth? It’s not a myth. It happened.” At a conversational level, the safe approach to take with disbelievers is to acknowledge that it is possible, even likely, that some Vietnam veteran, someplace, at some time, endured this humiliation. But that is not the issue any more than whether or not the central myth of feminist bra burning relates to the throwing of a bra into a trash...

  9. SIX From Odysseus to Rambo: Coming-Home Stories
    (pp. 84-100)

    The classic tale of military victory through subversion is the story of the Trojan Horse in Homer’sOdyssey. But when Odysseus, the hero, returns home, he finds his house occupied by a horde of young men eating his food and courting his wife. Has his trickery in war while abroad been matched by the duplicity of his wife at home? He can’t be sure, of course, but Odysseus takes it as a sign that all is not as it should be. He disguises himself as a beggar and sneaks out to organize his friends for a revolt that will reestablish...

  10. SEVEN From Badness to Madness: The Mental Labeling of Vietnam Veterans
    (pp. 101-126)

    Ron Kovic spoke too soon.¹ A Marine Corps veteran who had lost the use of his legs in Vietnam, Kovic was speaking in Miami Beach, Florida, site of the 1972 Republican Party’s national convention. He and thirteen hundred other Vietnam veterans were there with thousands more anti-war activists to protest the Nixon administration’s continuation of the Vietnam War and the almost certain renomination of Nixon as the Republican Party’s candidate for president in the fall elections. By the time Kovic spoke, his charge that the government had lied about the war and that the U.S. military was responsible for the...

  11. EIGHT Women, Wetness, and Warrior Dreams
    (pp. 127-143)

    The perception that Vietnam veterans were treated badly by members of the anti-war movement is wholly incongruent with the historical record. Nevertheless, when we consider that the government, the press, the entertainment industry, and mental health professionals all contributed in one way or another to the construction of that idea, it becomes understandable that a quarter-century later large numbers of people believe that veterans were spat upon.

    Myths, however, are more than widely believed stories containing elements of fiction. Particular types of stories that reappear throughout history, myths also share certain structural characteristics. Even though they reappear in disparate times...

  12. NINE Myth, Spit, and the Flicks: Coming Home to Hollywood
    (pp. 144-182)

    The preceding scene is from the 1978 movieComing Home. The film won four Academy Awards and contributed mightily to American interpretations of the Vietnam War. But there are a number of things wrong with this scene.

    First, it inverts the historical reality: anti-war activists protested the dispatching of GIstoVietnam, not the return of veteransfromVietnam. At the entrance to the Oakland, California, army terminal, for example, protestors would sit down in front of the buses carrying soldiers into the base from which they were to be transferred to Vietnam. Their protests were couched in rhetoric that...

  13. TEN We Are What We Remember
    (pp. 183-188)

    This or any other attempt to rethink our history produces additional challenges.¹ The new perspective on post-Vietnam America presented in this book reopens questions that for many people have been closed and filed away. One of those questions concerns the well-being of the men and women who fought the war. There is no gainsaying the fact that wars exact an enormous price from those who fight them. Fifty-eight thousand Americans were killed and three hundred thousand wounded in the Vietnam War. The families and communities who lost their loved ones and friends in the war continue to bear that burden....

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 189-198)
    (pp. 199-206)
    (pp. 207-210)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 211-216)
    (pp. 217-217)