Spit and polish

It was the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran that galvanized the sentiments of the American people sufficiently to discredit peace activists and give George Bush [Sr.] his war.”

– Sociologist Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image

A couple of months ago, says Asheville photographer Kermit Sprinkles, a pair of soldiers wearing dress uniforms came into his Biltmore Square Mall portrait studio in a very agitated state. They told him they’d just been taunted and spat at by “some people” in downtown Asheville’s City/County Plaza, he recalls.

As Sprinkles tells it, “They came out of the courthouse, and as they was going to their car, they got harassed. And whether it was two, three, 50 people, I have no idea. I have no idea if there was an event going on. But I do know they got harassed, they got called names, they got called ‘baby killers,’ ‘did they get off on killing babies,’ stuff like that. Then people started spitting in their direction. They didn’t spit on them, they spit in their direction.

“The boy [the younger soldier] was really tore up,” continues Sprinkles. “He said, ‘I’m supposed to be risking my life and putting my family through this stuff and that’s the way I’m treated, and this is the way they talked to me.’”

This tale became the rallying cry for the March 1 Support Our Soldiers event in downtown Asheville, and Sprinkles says he’s been called “a warmonger … a baby killer” for helping organize it.

It’s a powerful story, the kind that might inspire a nation on the brink of war to rally behind its men and women in uniform. Attempts to verify it, however, have yielded no hard evidence, while uncovering a number of apparent contradictions. The story also bears a striking resemblance to what sociologist Jerry Lembcke has called “the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran.” Despite the lack of evidence to support it, that tale, says Lembcke, played a crucial role in justifying the Gulf War to an ambivalent American public.

Just the facts, sir

“I never seen anything like that. … This is the first I’ve heard of it,” exclaimed Charley Clemmons, the security guard who’s posted at the Buncombe County Courthouse exit every day and who enjoys a good view of City/County Plaza through the main exit’s wide glass doors. “A lot of people come through here in uniform. I speak to them, other people speak to them — I’ve never seen anybody abuse them” or treat them with anything but respect, said Clemmons.

A call to the Asheville Police Department yielded similar results. “We don’t have any reports [of such an incident] on file,” said Capt. Tom Aardema.

“We have no incidences of this happening,” reported Staff Sgt. Thomas Mills of the Public Affairs Office at Fort Bragg, when asked whether North Carolina’s U.S. Army base had had any reports of soldiers being taunted or spat at by civilians.

“The SOS event took Kermit’s word for this,” co-organizer/local talk-radio host Bill Fishburne told this reporter after the rally. During the event, however, Fishburne had told the crowd that the story “has been validated; it’s true, it happened … right over here on the courthouse steps.”

It all began, said Fishburne, when Sprinkles showed up at a meeting of the grassroots political group Citizens for Change back in February and told this story “nearly in tears.” According to Fishburne, Sprinkles was so torn up “he had to have [a friend] with him for emotional support.” The tale, says Fishburne, had a potent impact on many people at the meeting. “A lot of us … had flashbacks to those bad old days of ’68, ’73 … and said: ‘Can we be doing this again? Can this be starting yet again? What can we do about it?’” (CFC was not involved in organizing the rally.)

From there, however, the story seems to have taken on a life of its own. As in a game of “telephone,” the specifics have kept changing as the tale has been repeated. Take, for example, the men’s service branch and what sort of uniforms they wore:

“Two members of the United States Marine Corps, in full dress uniform” goes the version told both in SOS rally organizers’ press releases and at the event.

According to current military regulations posted on government Web sites, dress uniforms for both the Marines and the Army are blue or white.

Sprinkles, however, told this reporter: “The color [of their uniforms] was green. That’s National Guard and Army,” though he wasn’t sure to which of these branches the two men belonged.

Fishburne, meanwhile, insists the men were Marines, though he admits he never saw them. “Kermit said, ‘I never said they were Marines.’ Indeed they were Marines, but at that point Kermit never said they were.” Asked how he knew they were Marines, Fishburne paused, then chuckled, “Because later Kermit said they were Marines. … He told me they were Marines.”

According to the government Web sites, however, green is used only for workaday “service” uniforms — accented with gold buttons for Army, but drab black buttons for Marines.

The two men’s names have proven equally elusive.

“I did their thing [taking their photos],” said Sprinkles, “but that’s basically it. I didn’t really get their names and stuff like that.”

When another Mountain Xpress reporter asked rally co-organizer Chad Nesbitt for the men’s names, however, he said he wouldn’t divulge them because the men are now deployed, and the organizers want to protect the families’ privacy.

Myth and memory

It’s become an article of patriotic faith: When our boys came wearily home from America’s failed involvement in Vietnam, longhaired protesters in the airports spat on them and called them “baby killers.” Today, countless veterans insist they remember this happening to them.

But according to Vietnam vet Jerry Lembcke — a sociology professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York University Press, 1998)– there’s no documentary evidence that it actually did.

“If you go back and look at the historical record, like I did — newspaper accounts, police records, and also just things historians have written,” Lembcke told this reporter, “you don’t find any record or any evidence that these things happened — or even that they were being claimed as happening — in the late ’60s and early ’70s.” A number of other scholars cited by Lembcke have also combed contemporary records in vain. Not so much as a letter penned by a GI writing home at the time has turned up that describes being spat on, he says.

What the researchers did find, however, were numerous contemporary accounts of anti-war protesters being spat on and labeled “traitors,” “cowards” or “commies” by pro-war demonstrators. Civilian peace groups and veterans’ groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War worked together closely, Lembcke documents, and vets initiated such dramatic protest actions as burning draft cards and throwing their medals back at the Pentagon. “Most actual hostility toward Vietnam vets emanated from other, older vets who despised their long hair, love beads and peace symbols,” Lembcke writes.

The myth, he maintains, began circulating in the 1970s in oral form; it was most commonly set in the San Francisco Airport. By the 1980s, movies such as Rambo: First Blood were helping cement the story in the public’s consciousness. And in the early ’90s, the tale gained prominence along with yellow ribbons, as promoters made “supporting the troops” an emotional justification for another controversial conflict.

Lembcke’s book documents the shifting rationales offered by the Bush Sr. administration during the months leading up to the Gulf War which, the author says, “paralyzed rational discourse” about the crisis and initially raised widespread public skepticism. That, says Lembcke, prompted a shift to emotional rationales.

Besides helping shift the blame for America’s most notorious military defeat from those who led the nation into it to those who opposed it, the tale of the abused soldiers also equated any opposition to war with disrespect for those in the trenches.

“It was the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran,” Lembcke writes, “that galvanized the sentiments of the American people sufficiently to discredit peace activists and give George Bush his war.”

Deja vu all over again?

This isn’t the first time, writes Lembcke, that a military defeat has spawned tales of soldier abuse.

“Very similar stories appeared after German soldiers came home from [defeat in] World War I” — but not right away, the author reports. “Years after [the war], they began to write in poetry and diaries how they were treated disrespectfully by civilians. The stories often took the form of spitting.” That image, he writes, “played a major role in mustering the patriotic German sentiments that fed Nazism.” Stories of spat-upon veterans also surfaced in France after its defeat in Indochina, Lembcke found.

Spitting has a lengthy history as a gesture of contempt. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark, notes Lembcke, depict the Jews who betrayed Christ as spitting on him. In this contemporary cross-cultural myth of military betrayal by civilians, however, the author also sees “a Freudian … element of male fantasy,” especially since the spitter is often depicted as a woman or a long-haired man. And the “baby killer” insult that appears in most of the post-Vietnam versions, he theorizes, may be a distorted remembrance of the anti-war chant so many Americans heard on the TV news: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

All well and good — but if this is a myth, why do so many veterans now claim to remember it having happened to them?

“Memory is very unreliable,” remarks Lembcke, ” to say nothing of memory that is 30 years old. The more an issue or story is revisited for you, the more your memory gets revised.”

Lembcke confirmed the relevance of a recent study by University of Washington memory researchers Jacquie Pickrell and Elizabeth Loftus, who found that about a third of the 120 people exposed to a fake ad featuring Bugs Bunny at Disneyland were certain they “remembered” meeting and shaking hands with the wascally wabbit during their visit to the Magic Kingdom. Of course, that couldn’t really have happened, since Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. cartoon character. Their results confirmed the findings of other studies on the effects of advertising and on what’s now called “recovered-memory syndrome.”

“The frightening thing about this study is that it suggests how easily a false memory can be created,” observed Pickrell about their results.

The abused-soldier tale, notes Lembcke, also provides “a kind of war story” for those vets not among the 15 percent who actually see combat in any war.

“It’s often said that men inflate their war experiences,” he observed in an interview.

Not that someone couldn’t have had such an experience at some point, Lembcke takes pains to note. “I’ll even go so far as to say that I’m surprised if it didn’t happen … at some demonstration or other across this 10-year time” that the Vietnam War lasted, he told this reporter. “I mean, it’s almost inconceivable to me that some anti-war protester, or somebody claiming to be an anti-war protester (there were a lot of mischief makers and trouble makers, you know, people doing despicable things in order to discredit the anti-war movement, too), … didn’t walk up to a soldier sometime or other and spit. But, that said … there’s just no real documentation” to support the proliferation of such stories.

Meanwhile, back in Asheville…

Although Sprinkles and Fishburne say they were in the service during the Vietnam era, neither saw duty in Vietnam. Both men, however, say they were spat at by civilians.

“I didn’t go to Vietnam, but I was in the Army during that time, and I had people spit at me,” says Sprinkles. “I had people throw stuff at me.” But when asked to describe his own experience, Sprinkles repeatedly refused, angrily accusing this reporter of “trying to weasel this around,” and cut off the interview.

Fishburne, on the other hand, gave a detailed account of how, during Vietnam, he was a Green Beret “A-team leader and part-time instructor at the School of the Americas,” stationed in Panama. In 1970, he broke his ankle playing tennis on an abandoned court his unit had discovered near their base, and it healed badly. Unable to lead his men in the field, Fishburne was flown up that summer to Washington, D.C., to learn his fate from a Pentagon major. “You don’t have much of a future” in the Army, he says he was told.

While waiting dejectedly for his return flight, said Fishburne, “I went down to do some sightseeing down at the Mall, and I’m in uniform, and I got down there, and I was spat on, and I was yelled at, and I just turned around and got right out of there,” as he says he’d been told to do by superiors in the event of such an encounter. “I’ve never gotten over it; no one ever gets over it.”

The details of this part of Fishburne’s story are hazy, however — he doesn’t remember what they were yelling; what they looked like was “just people, middle-aged people … from seven to 12 that were walking down the sidewalk together” during some kind of event. “It was just one of those bright summer days, and the flags were snapping crisply in the breeze. … I don’t remember the exact words, and no one actually spat on my uniform.”

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