Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Spitting Image

A brief foray away from China, for a moment, to talk about The Spitting Image, a book by Jerry Lembcke about myth-creation around the returning Vietnam veteran. This is a slim book and a quick read—and while I’m not in love with the writing, I think Lembcke has a point which has eluded a lot of Americans. For this reason alone, it’s worth reading and assigning to students (especially high schoolers and undergraduates).

The main premise behind the title is that the idea of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran is a myth, of sorts. The myth has many origins, and several intents. But Lembcke’s most important point is that the portrayal of ill-treated veterans took the emphasis away from the US losses in Vietnam. Furthermore, it placed the guilt for the loss squarely upon the American public, and away from government or military decisionmaking. Lembcke has the right credentials to write this book, which might be considered incendiary from a civilian. Lembcke is a Vietnam veteran, however.

The myth of the spat-upon veteran comes from a couple arenas. First and foremost, it seems to be a political invention, meant to bring people in line with policies they don’t agree with—by suggesting that the people fighting the war have been demoralized by protest. It also may have arisen from misunderstandings—such as the egging (by pro-war demonstrators) of veterans participating in anti-war marches. Lembcke finds no evidence of spitting incidents, save in second-hand reports, films, and dubious claims.

He suggests that this doesn’t mean it never happened, only that it’s been inflated to encompass the entire experience of homecoming for the Vietnam vet, just as homecoming for the WWII vet is pictured, erroneously uniformly, as the tickertape parade with the kissing, etc!

Lembcke spends a chapter talking about veteran homecoming as portrayed in film (from the early years of the war through the 1990s). In most of these examples, the veteran is portrayed as: hated or downtrodden, incapacitated, or mentally unstable. He includes a discussion of PTSD, as it emerges in the DSM, to accompany this analysis. While he’s very, very right about portrayal in film, I wish he had looked at a couple of television programs as well. Specifically, “Barney Miller,” and “Hill Street Blues.” As you may recall, Wojciehowicz and Lt. Calletano are both well-adjusted Vietnam vets on these two shows. Possibly there are more examples like this.

What colors the conclusions of the book is Lembcke’s association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. While it’s true that many veterans were at least skeptical of our intentions, and at most outright protestors, veterans still would have felt the class tensions at work in society. While spitting seems to be mostly an invention, surely there were divisions even between protesting veterans and protesting civilians.

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