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Obama takes sides in the 'spitting on vets' debate

May 30, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • The first lady and President Obama at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day.
The first lady and President Obama at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial… (Kristoffer Tripplaar /…)

President Obama has sided with those who argue that returning Vietnam veterans were spat on by ungrateful opponents of that long-ago war. In a Memorial Day address at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the president didn't literally endorse the spitting scenario, but he gave it figurative support.

Addressing Vietnam vets, he said: "You were often blamed for a war you didn't start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor.  You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised. You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened."

Even with the qualifiers "often" and "sometimes," Obama's comments ratified a meme that entered the popular consciousness decades ago.  As Jack Shafer described it in an article in Slate in 2007: 

"As with most urban myths, the details of the spat-upon vets vary slightly from telling to telling, while the basic story remains the same. The protester almost always ambushes the soldier in an airport (not uncommonly the San Francisco airport), after he's just flown back to the states from Asia. The soiled soldier either slinks away or does nothing."

The problem, Shafer said, was that there was no evidence that the iconic humiliation ever occurred. Shafer cited a 1998 book by Jerry Lembcke, himself a Vietnam veteran, in which Lembcke was unable to document reports of spat-upon vets. Lembcke did, however, "uncover ample news stories about antiwar protesters receiving the saliva shower from anti-anti-war types."

Shafer's article drew denunciations from readers who insisted that they, indeed, had been spat on for their service in Vietnam, but after a second spelunking into the question Shafer remained skeptical, though he didn't rule out the possibility. Which is where I come down too. I remember being suspicious of the spitting accounts long before reading about Lembcke's book. Like the notion that returning veterans were denounced as "baby killers," the spitting story fitted too neatly into conservative denunciations of the antiwar movement.

True or not, the story seems to have impressed on Americans the importance of separating "support for the troops" from support for a particular military adventure. (That distinction inspired a classic spoof in The Onion.) But even an edifying myth is still a myth.

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On Memorial Day, Obama talks of closure

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