The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam / Edition 1

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One of the most resilient images of the Vietnam era is that of the anti-war protester — often a woman — spitting on the uniformed veteran just off the plane. The lingering potency of this icon was evident during the Gulf War, when war supporters invoked it to discredit their opposition.

In this startling book, Jerry Lembcke demonstrates that not a single incident of this sort has been convincingly documented. Rather, the anti-war Left saw in veterans a natural ally, and the relationship between anti-war forces and most veterans was defined by mutual support. Indeed one soldier wrote angrily to Vice President Spiro Agnew that the only Americans who seemed concerned about the soldier's welfare were the anti-war activists.

While the veterans were sometimes made to feel uncomfortable about their service, this sense of unease was, Lembcke argues, more often rooted in the political practices of the Right. Tracing a range of conflicts in the twentieth century, the book illustrates how regimes engaged in unpopular conflicts often vilify their domestic opponents for "stabbing the boys in the back."

Concluding with an account of the powerful role played by Hollywood in cementing the myth of the betrayed veteran through such films as Coming Home, Taxi Driver, and Rambo, Jerry Lembcke's book stands as one of the most important, original, and controversial works of cultural history in recent years.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The image is ingrained: A Vietnam veteran, arriving home from the war, gets off a plane only to be greeted by an angry mob of antiwar protesters yelling, 'Murderer!' and 'Baby killer!' Then out of the crowd comes someone who spits in the veteran's face. The only problem, according to Jerry Lembcke, is that no such incident ever has been documented. It is instead, says Lembcke, a kind of urban myth that reflects our lingering national confusion over the war."

-Los Angeles Times

"The best history I have seen on the impact of the war on Americans, both then and now."

-David Dellinger

"Lembcke builds a compelling case against collective memory by demonstrating that remembrances of Vietnam were almost at direct odds with circumstantial evidence."

-San Francisco Chronicle

"The myth of the spat-upon veteran is not only bad history, but it has been instrumental in selling the American public on bad policy."

-Maurice Isserman,Chicago Tribune

"Well-argued and documented"

-Berkshire Eagle

Library Journal
Images of antiwar protesters, almost always women, spitting on returning Vietnam veterans have become a shameful part of America's collective memory. Lembcke sociology, Holy Cross University, a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, here presents a stunning indictment of this myth -- an illusion created, he maintains, by the Nixon-Agnew administration and an unwitting press to attribute America's loss in Vietnam to internal dissension. In fact, the antiwar movement and many veterans were closely aligned, and the only documented incidents show members of the VFW and American Legion spitting on their less successful Vietnam peers. But Lembcke's most controversial conclusion is that posttraumatic stress disorder was as much a political creation -- a means of discrediting returning vets who protested the war as unhinged -- as it was a medical condition. The image of the psycho-vet was furthered through such Hollywood productions as 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Coming Home.' This forceful investigation challenges the reader to reexamine assumptions about the dark side of American culture that glorifies war more than peace. -- Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Township Library, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814751473
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 217
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at Holy Cross College. In 1969 he was a Chaplain's Assistant assigned to the 41st Artillery Group in Vietnam.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: The Spitting Image 1
2 Yellow Ribbons and Spat-Upon Veterans: Making Soldiers the Means and Ends of War 11
3 Dear Spiro Agnew: About Soldiers, Veterans, and the Anti-war Movement 27
4 The Nixon-Agnew Counteroffensive: "Good Veterans" vs. "Bad Veterans" 49
5 Spat-Upon Veterans: The Evidence (or Lack Thereof) 71
6 From Odysseus to Rambo: Coming-Home Stories 84
7 From Badness to Madness: The Mental Labeling of Vietnam Veterans 101
8 Women, Wetness, and Warrior Dreams 127
9 Myth, Spit, and the Flicks: Coming Home to Hollywood 144
10 We Are What We Remember 183
Notes 189
References 199
Filmography 207
Index 211
About the Author 217
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2001

    Vietnam Veterans Say This Is A Must Read

    The Spitting Image : Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembcke-July-1998-New York Univ. Press. Lembke dissects dozens of stories of `Nam vets being spat on by the anti-war movement at home, (usually, legend has it, by a young woman in the San Francisco airport). But even more importantly he eloquently exposes and breaks down who the myth serves, and the importance of accurate recollection; ¿¿Ironically if the real [emphasis added] Vietnam War had been remembered, the Gulf War might not have been fought. We need to take away the power of political and cultural institutions to mythologize our experiences. We need to show how myths are used by political institutions to manipulate the decision making process. And we need to dispel the power of myths like that of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran by debunking them.¿ ¿¿instances of attacks of U.S. officers by their own men are all but forgotten in the popular remembrances of the Vietnam War. Many Americans today ¿know¿ that GIs were mistreated upon their return from Vietnam. Their images of Vietnam veterans run from the hapless sad sack to the freaky serial killer; for them post-traumatic stress disorder is a virtual synonym for the Vietnam veteran. But they have never heard of ¿fragging,¿ the practice of soldiers killing their own officers. The true story of the widespread rebellion of troops in Vietnam and the affinity of GIs and veterans for the politics of the left has been lost in the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran.¿ This is a must read for anyone fighting to keep the real legacies of the Vietnam War alive. Lembcke goes into the history of how important past wars, their veterans, and the common summation of the public, are invaluable in building for support for the next war. He¿s also got a great filmography and references for further study. ¿¿ How Vietnam is to be remembered looms large on the agenda of the turn-of-the-century legacy studies. Remembered as a war that was lost because of betrayal at home, Vietnam becomes a modern day Alamo that must be avenged, a pretext for more war and generations of more veterans. Remembered as a war in which soldiers and pacifists joined hands to fight for peace, Vietnam symbolizes popular resistance to political authority and the dominant images of what it means to be a good American. By challenging myths like that of the Spat-upon Vietnam veteran, we reclaim our role in the writing of our own history, the construction of our own memory, and the making of our own identity.¿ *****

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