Along with motherhood and apple pie, there are few pieces of Americana more revered than the veteran of our armed forces. Every election season you will see politicians compete to pander to veterans’ groups of various sorts. Their service is lauded at pancake prayer breakfasts, Independence Day parades and professional sports championships. Freedom isn’t free, […]
Along with motherhood and apple pie, there are few pieces of Americana more revered than the veteran of our armed forces. Every election season you will see politicians compete to pander to veterans’ groups of various sorts. Their service is lauded at pancake prayer breakfasts, Independence Day parades and professional sports championships. Freedom isn’t free, and these folks paid the price so the rest of us can rest easy, watch the game on TV and complain about life in general.
Embedded in this narrative of veteran as universal patriot, however, is the notion that one cannot question the legitimacy of the foreign adventures that, you know, produces veterans. Attacking the mission, in other words, cannot be done without simultaneously attacking the troops sent on that mission. As a result, both sides of the political spectrum in the United States have come to treasure our veterans rhetorically while, at the same time, unquestionably accepting the acts of imperial policing they are increasingly used for.
This pattern emerged out of the tragedy of the Vietnam War when “good veteran” myths were created by the American right to delegitimize critiques of that war. The most powerful of these myths argued that the American anti-war movement was implacably anti-veteran, thus explaining their anti-war position as being anti-American soldier, not anti-war per se. The trope trotted out to support this narrative is the popular account of returning American veterans being confronted by mobs of hateful hippies who proceed to scream epithets at and spit upon our returning warriors. It is a powerful image that eternally symbolizes the alienation of veterans of an unpopular conflict returning home to a country caught in the turmoil of the ‘60s counterculture.
The problem with this image, however, is that it isn’t true, or, at the very least, vastly exaggerated by intellectually dishonest forces on the American right who use it as a political cudgel against the anti-war left. As documented at length in “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam,” the idea that vast numbers, if any, Vietnam veterans were spat upon is preposterous. In the book, author Jerry Lembcke, an associate professor of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and himself a Vietnam Veteran, investigates the history of the spat-upon myth and finds it originates in then President Richard Nixon’s attempts to counter veteran-led opposition to the war. Those few cases where spitting can actually be documented in media accounts were actually political in nature – anti-war protesters, including veterans, were protesting against war supporters – some of whom also happened to be veterans.
Instead of giving an account of these incidents that honestly called attention to the division of opinion among American service members on the subject of the legitimacy of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, what emerged was a dolchstoss myth propagated by pro-war political actors who airbrushed from popular memory veteran-led opposition to the war. Indeed, by any honest account, it was not the Haight-Ashbury, free-love-and-drugs crowd that led opposition to the war, but returning veterans, like current Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who saw in the conflict nothing but futility and human misery.
Indeed, the war was so divisive and unpopular that even the military itself was in danger of falling apart due to war fatigue and disaffection in the ranks. By the early 1970s, for instance, historical research documents that revolutionary newspapers printed were being distributed on every aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, how nearly 1,500 crew members of the USS Constellation signed a petition demanding that anti-war actress Jane Fonda’s film be shown onboard, and how tens-of-thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen actively resisted Nixon’s continuation of the war. Far from being isolated on the far-left, anti-war sentiment and protest was both deep and widespread throughout American society – including the military.
If the “spitting myth” is the most insidious lie propagated by the dolchstoss right, then perhaps the saddest one is mythology surrounding American prisoners of war. This myth, epitomized today in the POW-MIA flag often found flying alongside Old Glory, is idea that the government, under pressure from the anti-war left, expedited the U.S. exit from Southeast Asia on the backs of American prisoners held captive in secret North Vietnamese prison camps. The idea is profoundly absurd and easily deconstructed in academic examinations of the subject, such as Bruce Franklin’s “M.I.A. Or, Mythmaking In America,” but the cultural belief is a strong one that nonetheless lives on forever on cable TV in the form of cheesy ‘80s action flicks like “Missing In Action and Rambo.”
The POW-MIA trope, like the spitting myth, was also used by the pro-war right and the Nixon administration to delegitimize opposition to the war, but it has also evolved into a standing myth that our honorable fighting men were defeated not on the battlefield, but at home by corrupt politicians and an uncaring public. If only Americans had been willing to sacrifice, goes the refrain, then Vietnam could have been won. The left, in other words, had not only spat on America’s fighting men, but had also abandoned them in the jungles of Vietnam after stabbing America in the back at home.
In various forms, these myths remain powerful narratives that continue to haunt public discourse, and political calculations, around issues of war and peace to this very day. The right’s framing of the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, for instance, heavily leverages the POW-MIA myth by suggesting the Obama administration was somehow complicit in the attack – ignoring it, for some reason understood only on the right – for partisan political purposes. Likewise, Democrats’ lukewarm opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq can be traced to not wanting to be caught on the wrong side of political popularity by siding with an unpatriotic and possibly anti-American anti-war movement. Both can be seen in the Obama administration’s ducking of reality in Afghanistan, where nearly every analyst believes victory, like in Vietnam, is impossible to achieve.
Failing our veterans
While these myths continue to be relevant in hobbling the left in its campaign against American imperialism, they also often distract the public from the real issues confronting our young men and women coming home from war.
Politicians are eager to shake hands with vets, but are often reluctant to fund the programs they need to successfully reintegrate into civilian life. The results for our vets are stories, like one recently produced by Mississippi Public Radio, that show how some veterans, unable to reintegrate, can be found in homeless communities living along the Gulf Coast.
The issues of real-life veterans, as opposed to mythological ones, often get ignored because acknowledging how America has failed its needy warriors casts an uncomfortable light on our misplaced priorities – like why we fund a vast military machine so large that it dwarfs the military might of any combination of possible enemies while many Americans, veterans included, fall between the cracks of our increasingly frayed social safety net.
Questions like that, however, are politically dangerous, unpatriotic even – and might get you accused of spitting on a veteran. Since Vietnam, no politician has been brave enough to risk that.