13 August 2015

Mis-remembering Vietnam

You know those stories you hear about hippie Vietnam War protestors spitting on military veterans at airports, just as those vets were returning home from the war?


A historian named Jerry Lembcke did some digging and was unable to find any contemporaneous documentation that this actually happened. Instead we have urban legends that start turning up about ten years later. He wrote a book about it, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.

It turns out that not only is the legend untrue, it turns out to be a funhouse-mirror mis-remembering of what did happen.

Lembcke uncovered a whole lot of spitting from the war years, but the published accounts always put the antiwar protester on the receiving side of a blast from a pro-Vietnam counterprotester. 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?

Rick Perlstein describes how there was a group who may not have spat on Vietnam vets but did systematically disrespect their service: other veterans.

Jerry Lembke established that the only actual documented examples of the frequently repeated canard that Americans spat upon returning Vietnam veterans came from the kind of World War II veterans who wouldn't let their brothers back from Vietnam join local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts beause they were seen as shameful, as polluted. (The New York Times reported on the phenomenon here.)

They were the kind of veterans who - Gerald Nicosia tells the story in his history of Vietnam Veterans Against the War - greeted the antiwar veterans who had marched 86 miles from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just like George Washington's army in 1777. The World War II veterans heckled them:

“Why don't you go to Hanoi?”

“We won our war, they didn't, and from the looks of them, they couldn't.”

A Vietnam vets hobbled by on crutches. One of the old men wondered whether he had been “shot with marijuana or shot in battle.”

Digby has a sharp commentary on Perlstein's article that garnered such surprising comments that I tucked them away, which is a good thing since the old comment system Digby used has been linkrotted away. Here are the two I saved:

When I returned from the Mekong Delta in 1972 (Navy, Binh Thuy) my dirty hippy friends were glad to see me. They welcomed me home and were very accepting of my hyper-vigilance and other quirks. I stopped in at an American Legion post just once. I had to leave before it was necessary for me to beat down those who told me that we, the troops, had lost Vietnam.

I never heard it from the hippies but, I sure as hell caught crap from any number of solid citizens with American flag pins in their lapels.

I have a close friend who served in the Vietnam war during Nixon's illegal invasion of Cambodia. He returned home on a chartered commerical flight that landed at a public airport. As the vets came into the airport they saw a small group from the VFW who they thought were there to welcome them home. Wrong. The VFW assholes were carrying signs that accused them of “losing the war” and being drug addicts. They shouted insults at the Vietnam vets. My friend responded in kind and one of the old farts spat on him. He is very fond of telling this story when some right wing barfly starts ranting about hippies spitting on troops.

I was reminded of all this because of something else from Rick Perlstein: The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag, which reveals a similar kind of mis-telling of history.

.... Nixon invented the cult of the “POW/MIA” in order to justify the carnage in Vietnam in a way that rendered the United States as its sole victim. It began, as cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin has documented, with an opportunistic shift in terminology. Downed pilots whose bodies were not recovered—which, in the dense jungle of a place like Vietnam meant most pilots—had once been classified “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.” During the Nixon years, the Pentagon moved them into a newly invented “Missing in Action” column. That proved convenient, for, after years of playing down the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam, in 1969, the new president suddenly decided to play them up. He declared their treatment, and the enemy’s refusal to provide a list of their names, violations of the Geneva Conventions—the better to paint the North Vietnamese as uniquely cruel and inhumane. He also demanded the release of American prisoners as a precondition to ending the war.

This was bullshit four times over: first, because in every other conflict in human history, the release of prisoners had been something settled at the close of a war; second, because these prisoners only existed because of America’s antecedent violations of the Geneva Conventions in bombing civilians in an undeclared war; and third, because, as bad as their torture of prisoners was, rather than representing some species of Oriental despotism, the Vietnam Communists were only borrowing techniques practiced on them by their French colonists (and incidentally paid forward by us in places like Abu Ghraib): see this as-told-to memoir by POW and future senator Jeremiah Denton.

And finally, our South Vietnamese allies’ treatment of their prisoners, who lived manacled to the floors in crippling underground bamboo “tiger cages” in prison camps built by us, was far worse than the torture our personnel suffered. (Time magazine quoted one South Vietnamese official who was confronted with stories of released prisoners moving “like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms,” and responded with incredulity that such survivors even existed: “No one ever comes from the tiger cages alive.”)

Be that as it may: it worked. American citizens enacted a bizarre psychic reversal.

Another false memory: during the Vietnam War, young people opposed it while older people supported it. Again, this turns out to be backwards.

There were many polls on public opinion during the war, and they show a consistent pattern by age. Young people were more likely to support the war at the beginning, when it was popular, and more likely to support it at the end, when it was not.

And of course, the greatest false memory of them all, the dolchstoƟlegende that the US lost the war because political opposition to it in the US somehow undermined military effectiveness, which I have written about repeatedly.

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