Friday, July 27, 2007

Review: Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image

As Jerry Lembcke concedes, it is more difficult to prove something "didn't happen" than it did. Dispelling widely believed popular myths is even more difficult, particularly when they pertain to controversial issues surrounding a group whose word is supposed to be sacrosanct. Nevertheless, Lembcke offers a compelling argument that it was not common, nor is there any documentary record that anti-war protesters spat upon returning vets. Moreover, he argues that the myth of the spat upon vet is a product of a concerted effort by the Nixon Administration to distinguish between "good vets" (silent majority, did their job, got spat on) and "bad vets" (committed war crimes, grew long hair, joined the anti-war movement) as a means to isolate the anti-war movement and capture the "middle," which wanted "Peace with Honor."

To prove his point, Lembcke examined the historical record from 1965-1973 and found not a single documented instance of an anti-war protester spitting on a soldier. No arrests, no news reports, no photographs, no reference in any FBI file (protests groups were often infiltrated). Nothing. So if it was happening, virtually no one was reporting it or talking about it.

Moreover, the earliest examples of "spitting" being referenced during the war pertain to pro-war folks threatening to spit on anti-war protesters. The point that Lembcke is trying to make here is that it would not be difficult to imagine people interpreting the phrase "Vietnam Vets spat on at Anti-War Rally" to mean that anti-war protestors were doing the spitting when in actuality it was pro-war protesters spitting on anti-war vets.

According Lembcke, first hand accounts of being spat on began to emerge about 15 years after the war and share many of the characteristics of "urban myths"--peculiar similarities that don't add up--why always an airport? why is the spitter typically a female? Why did airport security allow protesters to "lineup" at a gate to spit? Why does the soldier always slink away rather than fight?

The shortcomings of the book are primarily that it is repetitive. It reads like it was originally a set of discreet articles which were later merged into a book, and therefore many chapters make the same point with the same facts. Also, the chapter on the nature of spitting and its psycho-cultural significance sounds like psycho-babble.

Beyond this it is an interesting and well researched account of a controversial subject.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lembcke's whole thesis is based on poor research and has been effectively discredited, even by one of his erstwhile fans.
Here
http://www.slate.com/id/2161038/
Here:
http://www.slate.com/id/2161383/
Here
http://www.slate.com/id/2159470/
And by Jim Lindgren of the Voloch conspiracy.

goffchile said...

Thank your for your comment.

I don't know if you've read Lembcke's book, but I am familiar with the evidence you posted. However, none of it undermines his thesis. Lembcke states that there are handful of references to spitting in the documentary record, but the identity of the spitter and the reason for the spit (which are very important) are either not present or nebulous at best (nor did it seem to be a common concern for vets returning home.)

For example, Ron Kovic has claimed he was spat upon, but by pro-war people at the Republican national convention. We have no documentation of it, but it may very well be true. Why don't we simply assume then that people who support wars spit on returning vets as a matter of routine?

And, even if we can find one incident of an anti-war protestor spitting on a soldier (Lembcke never says that it never happened), how does that account for the perception that this was a common occurence and tactic of the anti-war movement, when there is scant evidence that it was?

Linda said...

I know for a fact spitting on GI's did occur. I lived in Portland, Oregon all through high school and saw it on far more that one occasion. My first experience with it was when I was with my cousin in downtown Portland in the fall of 1967, when he was home on leave from bootcamp, just prior to going to Vietnam. He was in civilian clothes, but had the tattletale short military haircut. A group of about 6 people surrounded us and where screaming baby killer and spit on him. He had at that point had not even been to Vietnam yet. He didn't go to Vietnam until October of 1967 and was kill in Vietnam on March 31, 1968. I was anti-Vietnam too, but never once treat a soldier with disrepect. I was well aware the many of my friends and the young men in my family where not given a choose, they where drafted.

Mark said...

Jerry Lembcke is such a genious and I can't speak bad stuff of him, but sometimes he speaks more than he should, like the day he said generic viagra was for losers. I mean, that's not a proper thing to say.