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Holding Together Myth and Memory with Spit and Politics

February 14, 2008, 4:48 pm

When I used to teach a course on the history of 1960s at my old job, I always asked students how many of them believed that anti-war protesters had spat upon Vietnam veterans when the latter returned home from tours of duty. The point was to introduce the idea that politics underlies collective memory and mythology.

Every time I did this, at least 75 of the 100 or so people taking the class would raise their hands, indicating that they had heard about activists spitting on vets. Then I would talk to them about Jerry Lembcke’s work, noting that Lembcke, a sociologist, had done extensive research and found that there’s no — as in zero — actual evidence supporting the spitting stories. I’d then talk to them about why and how this myth has nevertheless endured, what, in other words, nourishes a lie.

And, finally, I’d ask how many of them were ready to believe Lembcke. To their credit, my students were always honest with me; none of them tried to curry favor. Only a very few, 6 or 7, would allow that Lembcke’s research sounded convincing. After pulling my head out of the oven — I was, then as now, teaching home economics — I’d wonder why I couldn’t deflate such a an enduring canard, usually deciding that a single lecture from a history professor can’t stand up to hundreds of repetitions of a compelling story and a few frames in a Sly Stallone film.

Anyway, while tooling around on Tenured Radical’s site earlier today, I saw that she linked to this article, in which Lembcke updates his research, connecting it to the current climate of hyper-patriotism. Here’s a short excerpt from the short piece:

Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans are bogus. Born out of accusations made by the Nixon administration, they were enlivened in popular culture (recall Rambo saying he was spat on by those maggots at the airport) and enhanced in the imaginations of Vietnam-generation men — some veterans, some not. The stories besmirch the reputation of the anti-war movement and help construct an alibi for why we lost the war: had it not been for the betrayal by liberals in Washington and radicals in the street, we could have defeated the Vietnamese. The stories also erase from public memory the image, discomforting to some Americans, of Vietnam veterans who helped end the carnage they had been part of.

Tenured Radical also has a challenging post up about “supporting the troops.” I’m still deciding what I think about that piece, its specifics and broad contours. But it was nice to be reminded of Lembcke’s work and to see that he’s still at it. I wonder if he has more success convincing people than I did. Probably. Though, the fact that he’s still writing about this issue suggests otherwise, that the myth lives.

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