Jim Slotek , The Toronto Sun (found via Lexis Nexis)
I"I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer."
-- Sylvester Stallone, First Blood (1982)
Over-the-top conservative pundit Ann Coulter and I don't have much in common besides being bipeds. But we share a conundrum -- the moral weight of the people who are mad at us.
She recently complained about the flak she takes when categorizing politically active 9/11 widows as "self obsessed" and "harpies" who "enjoyed their husbands' deaths." She feels they have an unfair advantage in a mud fight because they're, y'know, widows.
In my case, I've been unwillingly at odds with Vietnam veterans who claim that 35 years ago they were spat on at by anti-war types. The problem arose when I reviewed a compelling documentary called Sir! No Sir! about the Vietnam anti-war movement within the U.S. military.
The film quoted Jerry Lembcke, author of a book called The Spitting Image, as calling it a fabrication -- a convenient myth that serves to obscure the fact U.S. soldiers once marched side by side with "hippies" to help end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
(Again, please note, I am reporting what someone else says!)
One of his arguments: Returning servicemen would have been processed on base, not sent home directly to San Francisco Airport (where most incidents are said to have occurred).
No sooner than you can say "kill the messenger," I received a string of angry e-mails (10 in total), all ostensibly from Vietnam vets who had been spat on at either San Francisco or Seattle-Tacoma airports, and who to a man wanted me courtmartialed in the most painful way allowed by military law.
The difference between Ann Coulter's position and mine, however, is I do ascribe moral weight to another's experience and respect him for it.
I am loath to tell a war veteran I don't believe his story (especially since I was 12 at the time).
At the very least, 10 different people telling me similar stories leads me to believe there could be smoke there.
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Had I been conned? I have to admit, there's an aspect to the story of the military's anti-war movement that made me feel better about soldiers in the light of atrocities like My Lai and Haditha.
I like to think of our fighting men and women as human beings, people who, when faced with an unconscionable situation, might act with a conscience -- right up to and including the last resort of disobeying orders.
Hey, we asked as much of German soldiers after the fact.
- - -
"I'm guessing they were all pretty right-wing, pro-war types," says David Zeiger, director of Sir! No Sir! when I informed him of the responses.
In fact, they seemed that way -- which was dismaying. I hate political namecalling. People's beliefs aren't Chinese menus that obligate you to take every entree in a conservative-or-liberal dinner-for-five. You can be against one war and for another. You can be pro-life and anti-death penalty (that's at least consistent). You can be for beefed-up policing against gangs and for building more community centres.
My philosophy is "whatever works" -- or as John Maynard Keynes said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"
"I'm just saying it's kind of funny that only right-wingers got spat on," Zeiger says. "How does an anti-war demonstrator know one guy in uniform is a right-winger and another is not?"
In any case, I was in good company. My 10 e-mails seems to have beaten the "several" Zeiger says Ebert and Roeper got for their two-thumbs-up review of Sir! No Sir!
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Which took me to Jerry Lembcke, a professor of sociology at Holy Cross College, a Jesuit college in Worcester, Mass. He is a Vietnam veteran himself -- an Army chaplain's assistant and artillery man "in country" for 13 months ending February, 1970.
Um, does this mean I have to cut him slack too?
"No," he says, "I don't want to use that as a trump card because just because it didn't happen to me doesn't necessarily mean it didn't happen to somebody."
And my 10 is squat to Lembcke.
"This fall, I finally have an undergrad research assistant who'll be listing by name all the people who claim to have been spat on and the circumstances. And my guess is it's going to run into the high hundreds."
They say you can't prove a negative. Lembcke doesn't claim the spitting story never happened -- just not the way it's described and not in the numbers claimed. He has a similar response to claims of returning through San Francisco airport.
"I was processed at Oakland Army Terminal, bused through Travis Air Force Base and shipped to Vietnam. Came home at McChord AFB near Seattle, shipped to Fort Lewis, and finally home through Seattle-Tacoma Airport."
Uneventfully, he adds.
"But the thing is for years I never heard of anybody coming in through a civilian air base. And for years, nobody claiming he was spat on ever claimed to have been at San Francisco Airport. A few years ago, Oakland Airport started popping up in the stories, and that's even less likely."
"I've had, as you can imagine, many conversations over the years. It starts out the guy says he was spat on, then it quickly turns out, 'It wasn't really me but a friend of mine' -- and they sort of slide off. But not always. Maybe half-a-dozen over the years say it's their story and stick to it."
Lembcke's is an academic, macro view. "My book is about how a myth gets created, and how it works in the culture.
"So let me get to that word 'myth.' In the book, I allow it may have happened to somebody, sometime, someplace. But there's no evidence, no documentation.
"And even if there was one or two or a half-dozen spitting incidences somewhere, it wouldn't account for the fact that today there are hundreds, and maybe more than hundreds, of men of that generation claiming they were spat on. That's why it's a myth. It's a story people believe to be true about them, or about others, when there's no empirical evidence it happened.
"I discovered stories like this proliferate after lost wars. The two that come to mind are Germany after World War I, when soldiers came home and said they were treated hostilely by women -- spat on by women and young girls -- and in France after their defeat in Indochina in 1954. No spitting stories, but stories of women tearing the epaulets off uniforms."
Interestingly, Lembcke says about half the U.S. Vietnam vet stories mention the assaulter's gender, and of those that do, he says almost all the spitters were said to be women.
And so emasculation enters the debate as a theme.
All of which will not comfort the e-mailers. My sense is they believed what they were saying. And whether or not, as Zeiger would have it, the "spitting story" has been encouraged by right-wingers years after the fact as an "excuse" for the loss in Vietnam (treason at home that undermined the war effort), in my review I could have taken a cue from the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips (who also reviewed Sir! No Sir! positively).
"None sounds as dubious as countless," he wrote of the spits.
And if you still feel this is all liberal b.s., don't tell me, tell Lembcke (jlembcke@ holycross.edu). He wants your story.