I’ve been following the online dialogues about whether or not Vietnam soldiers were spat upon with jaw-on-the-floor amazement. It hadn’t even occured to me (naive Polimom!) that the stories were considered urban legends in some quarters:
The myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran refuses to die. Despite Jerry Lembcke’s debunking book from 1998, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, and my best efforts to publicize his work, the press continues to repeat the fables as fact.
Slate’s Jack Schafer, evidently an early convert to the Jerry Lembcke fan club, has been a gob-story-stopper for many years, strongly supporting Lembcke’s statements that the “spit-upon soldier” is a lie:
The truth is that nobody spat on Vietnam veterans and nobody is spitting on the soldiers today. Attempts to silence opponents of the war with those figments of hostility are dishonest and should, themselves, be banished from our discourse.
All of this has floated far beneath Polimom’s radar — until that latest Slate piece, and an interesting rejoinder by Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy in which he questioned the interesting dates upon which Lembcke relies to bolster his debunking.
I’m suspicious of the coincidence between Lembke’s account and the beginning of full-text coverage in WESTLAW and LEXIS. In other words, did Lembke’s research show that such stories began appearing in the early 1980s, or did his research show that by 1981-82, when the major newspapers came online in full text, the story was already well known?
The political subtext about how to avoid the pitfalls of Vietnam while still objecting to the War in Iraq are obvious, and I’m not trying to hit anybody’s Iraq hot buttons here. However, accusations of revisionism require scrutiny, and Lindgren had a good question.
He circled back around to the entire issue today with another interesting post, but it was in the breakdown of Lembcke’s four basic arguments that Lembcke’s credibility went out the window altogether — specifically, this one:
 “Many tellers of the spitting tales identify the culprits as girls, a curious quality to the stories that gives away their gendered subtext.”
“One clue is that many of the stories have it that it was women or young girls who were the spitters. Students of gender behavior are usually quick to point out that girls do not spit, at least not as a form of communication.
That, folks, is a load of germ-laden mucous… and I’ll just say that I really do have reason to know this, and trust you to let it go at that.
However, that doesn’t mean I don’t perpetuate similar idiocy in my own small way, because I often tell Adorable Child (AC) and her friends:
Ladies don’t snort; they snuffle.
Ladies don’t sweat; they glisten.
Ladies don’t fart; they poot.
I suspect we’re creating our own little mythology. The difference here is that at ten years old, AC and her friends already know that this is all hogwash — that Polimom is simply poking fun at some of the foolish gender-games our society likes to play with itself.
If a ten-year-old knows better than to believe that kind of generalization, it doesn’t say much for the credibility of the “debunking”, does it?
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Added: Maha writes:
Righties can’t let go of the stories about antiwar protesters spitting on soldiers during the Vietnam era. There’s a new round of blog posts about it, mostly linking back to this one. Although it would be foolish to claim it never happened, I do have a few clarifications to make.
First, regarding Jerry Lembcke — the sociologist did not, I believe, claim that no antiwar protester ever spit on a soldier. His research focused on a particular spitting narrative, that of antiwar protesters lining up at airports to spit on veterans who had just returned from Vietnam. He explained this is a Boston Globe op ed in 2005.
On the Right, however, Lembcke’s claims were contorted into a claim that no soldier was ever spit on by anybody during the Vietnam era, and I see they’re still arguing with Lembcke based on this assumption.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never been thought of as a “rightie”, so I guess I should point out that one doesn’t have to land on one side or another of the political aisle to think there’s something off about Lembcke’s claims, particularly if one comes from a military background (like Polimom).
Also — while I’m sure Maha is well-intentioned in thinking Lembcke’s claims were contorted, he did, in fact, come right out and say exactly that. I quoted him above and I guess I should do it again:
The truth is that nobody spat on Vietnam veterans and nobody is spitting on the soldiers today
That really is pretty clear.