“Support the troops!” We heard it when Bush I sent U.S. soldiers to help Kuwaiti emirs reclaim their property from Saddam Hussein, we heard it a decade later when Bush II decided to outdo his dad by lying us into an invasion of Iraq, and I expect we’ll hear it again when the next president caves in to the neocons and starts dropping freedom bombs on Syria. Trees, SUVs, and TV screens will be garlanded with yellow ribbons to show we Support the Troops because we know, as surely as we know the Bermuda Triangle sucks up ships and dastardly Asians still hold American POWs captive, that during the Sixties those awful hippies spat on American soldiers when they returned home from Vietnam, and we must prove over and over that the Sixties are dead and done.
I’ve always had a hard time believing that spitting-hippies story, mainly because I have several relatives in different branches of the military, and I’m here to tell you that spitting on them simply isn’t an option unless you’re ready to test the limits of your health care coverage. If that’s true now, it would have been even more true at a time when hardhat construction workers were beating anti-war protestors in the streets, pundits and politicians were praising the National Guardsmen who shot down students at Kent State, and Ronald Reagan was openly talking about spilling blood to stop the demonstrations.
Jerry Lembcke had a hard time believing it as well, in part because he was part of the anti-war movement at the time and he remembers those dirty hippies actually went out of their way to welcome soldiers into their ranks. In The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Lembcke searches in vain for verifiable, credible evidence that returning soldiers suffered such humiliations. Ironically, the only real evidence he finds is in accounts of older veterans — World War II and Korean War veterans — who showed open contempt for Vietnam veterans, especially those who participated in anti-war activities.
Lembcke also traces the origins of the spitting myth to the Nixon administration, that spawning tank of so many culture war shibboleths, and the role played by Hollywood movies like Coming Home in fostering the image of Vietnam veterans as basket cases and victims of betrayals back home. A short, punchy, still very timely work of history and cultural analysis.