The other day on the radio I heard for the umpteenth time a Vietnam veteran claim to have been spat upon when he returned to the states from his tour of duty in Vietnam. It finally struck me that this phenomenon has taken on the weight of urban legend--in truly mythical proportions. If I had a nickel for every alleged lugie that met its mark I'd be able to retire from my job as a cynic and run for office.
I have nothing against those who served in Vietnam. This is not a criticism of them. But so filled with bitterness and resentment were some soldiers returning in the 70's, at the height of the anti-war movement, that I suspected being spit upon has become an urban myth that, because of its repetition, distorts American history. So, I set out to do some research and this is what I found.
In the late 80s Bob Greene, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, bothered by the same suspicions about the authenticity of spitting-on-soldiers stories, asked his readers to send him personal statements about the treatment they received returning from Vietnam
Greene writes in the introduction to his 1989 book, Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned From Vietnam, (an edited compilation of the nearly one-thousand replies he received to his query) about odd similarities in the recollections and descriptions of being-spat-on experiences. For instance, invariably the incident occurs in an airport, the spitters are 'hippies," the spit is directed at medals and ribbons on uniformed chests, the hippies call them 'baby killers" and then run away.
Greene claims to have carefully screened the " I was spat on" replies by following up by letter to try to weed out pranksters. Ultimately he included 63 of these stories in the first "I was spat on" section of his book. His book also presents a far greater number of veterans who tell of happy experiences returning where no spit was involved. Cleverly, Greene titles that section, " I was not spat on."
But I remained skeptical, in large part because of the similarity in structure, setting, perpetrator, epithets used, target of spittle, etc. Is it possible, even probable that some anti-war protestor spat on a returning soldier? Of course. Sadly so. But often enough to justify the questionable myth?
A Google search for "I was spat on" turned up a May 2000 Slate article by Jack Shafer timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
Shafer cites, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. a book by Jerry Lembcke, a professor of sociology at Holy Cross and a Vietnam vet, who investigated hundreds of accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets.
Shafer writes, "every time Lembcke pushed for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story collapsed--the actual person who was spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend. Or somebody's uncle. He writes that he never met anybody who convinced him that any such clash took place and argues that the whole story is bunk.."
What could explain the continued persistence of this urban myth? Lembcke says, "Soldiers returning from lost wars have long healed their psychic wounds by accusing their governments and their countrymen of betrayal."
Vietnam surely was the most contentious, most opposed, most divisive use of military power in American history. Returning vets knew many Americans did not support what they were sent to do, and they certainly were not welcomed home with parades and ceremonies as some thought they deserved for serving their country. Could bitterness and resentment about anti-war America be enough to motivate false I-was-spat-on stories?
Lembcke says, "the spitting story resonates with biblical martyrdom. As the soldiers put the crown of thorns on Jesus and led him to his crucifixion, they beat him with a staff and spat on him."
Published accounts at the time, according to Lembcke, always put the anti-
war protester on the receiving end of a saliva blast from a pro-Vietnam counter protester. Surely, he contends, the news pages would have given equal treatment to a story about serviceman getting the treatment. Then why no stories in the newspaper morgues, he asks?
Lastly, there are the parts of the spitting story up that don't add up. Why does it always end with the protester spitting and the serviceman walking off in shame? As Greene points out in his book, hippies were not known for their aggressive behavior, on the contrary, the movement was characterized by peaceful non-violence.
Wouldn't most servicemen have given the spitters a knuckle sandwich instead of turning the other cheek? At the very least, wouldn't the altercations have resulted in assault and battery charges and produced a paper trail retrievable across the decades?
Jack Shafer concludes his Slate article by suggesting the myth persists because:
1) Those who didn't go to Vietnam--that being most of us--don't dare contradict the "experience" of those who did;
2) the story helps maintain the perfect sense of shame many of us feel about the way we ignored our Viet vets;
3) the press keeps the story in play by uncritically repeating it, and
4) because any fool with 37-cents and the gumption to repeat the myth in his letter to the editor ( or call to a radio talk show) can keep it in circulation.