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War Stories

Were Vietnam vets spat upon when they returned home, or is that an urban myth? Two vets who have studied the issue share their . . .

July 03, 1998|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The image is ingrained: A Vietnam veteran, arriving home from the war, gets off a plane only to be greeted by an angry mob of antiwar protesters yelling "murderer!" and "baby killer!"

Then, out of the crowd comes someone who spits in the veteran's face.

Over the years, this vivid scenario of rage and betrayal has become a metaphor for the deep divisions caused by Vietnam. The only problem, according to Holy Cross University sociologist Jerry Lembcke in "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam" (NYU Press, 1997), is that no such incident ever has been documented. It is instead, Lembcke says, a kind of urban myth that reflects our lingering national confusion over the war.

"I think the country is still trying to come to terms with the fact that we lost to this small, underdeveloped nation of Asians," says Lembcke, himself a Vietnam veteran who eventually joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. "So the alibi is that we were not defeated by the Vietnamese, but we were defeated on the home front. We were betrayed by the antiwar movement. The story of the spat-upon veterans fits as part of that."

Shad Meshad is president and founder of the National Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles serving more than 150,000 veterans and their families. A former social work psychology officer in Vietnam, he has spent the last 27 years working with veterans. When he and Lembcke spoke this week about "The Spitting Image" and the lingering ramifications of the war on American society, Meshad argued that spitting and other forms of abuse indeed took place--but said that antiwar protesters were far from the only ones at fault.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 7, 1998 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Vietnam War book--"The Spitting Image," by Jerry Lembcke, a sociologist at Holy Cross College, was published this year. A story about the book in Friday's Life & Style included an inaccurate publication date and misidentified the author's academic affiliation.

Jerry Lembcke: I got interested in this during the Gulf War period, when references to the spat-upon Vietnam veterans proliferated in the press. Those stories just didn't resonate with me as being true. I didn't know of any historical material in which one would find this. The first question I went after when these stories surfaced was: Where and when did these things begin to be said? It was very elusive. I wasn't able to pin it down.

But the key finding was that when I went back to the late 1960s or early 1970s, when these incidents are supposed to have happened, I found no reports. There are no reports in newspapers, for example, of antiwar people spitting on Vietnam veterans. There's nothing I found in historical accounts or secondary accounts. So sometime between the end of the war and roughly 1980, these stories began to come out. They're all past tense. Why is it that by roughly 1980, so many people believed them?

Shad Meshad: I've had conversations with over 15,000 of our brother and sister vets, and for many of them, part of the returning home process involved spitting and cursing and blaming and scapegoating.

I interviewed vets who were having severe readjustment problems. This is 1971 to 1979, up to 1980, the time you're talking about. By 1980, you were hearing these stories. But my vets were mostly combat vets who came back, and in their therapy, they talked about spitting, particularly in the first year. I don't just want to use the word "spitting," but spitting is the ultimate negative insult. There are other ways of spitting, which were common, too. But you're speaking to one who was spat on twice his first month back--by people my parents' age.

JL: Were these antiwar people who spit on you?

SM: No. It was just the way I looked. I had come back and I was wearing my Vietnam gear, and I looked kind of scruffy, I was growing my hair long. It was just general anger.

Whether we agree or don't agree on the spitting, it was part of the anger and frustration by Americans, whether they were World War II vets, Korean vets or non-vets who spat on us, or people who spat words of degradation or scapegoating. I experienced it, and it was reported to me by so many, this negative attitude toward veterans, particularly in their vulnerable years, the first three to four to five years back. It seemed to be very common in interviewing / counseling sessions. Not necessarily the spit per se coming out of the mouth, but things like "Get a job" or "Why didn't you do this?"

JL: On the reentry question, whatever we could agree on as having been problematic for Vietnam veterans coming back, you can't attribute that to the antiwar movement. That's part of the mythology that gets created.

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