Spitting Image

You know. A lot of people joke about how stiff and uninspiring John Kerry is. Courtesy of Erik, I read Michael Kinsley in a piece on Slate last week:

Some Democrats cheated and looked into their hearts, where they found Howard Dean. But he was so appealing that he scared them. This is no moment to vote for a guy just because he inspires you, they thought. If he inspires me, there must be something wrong with him. So, Democrats looked around and rediscovered John Kerry. He’d been there all along, inspiring almost no one.

Read the whole piece: it’s funny because it’s true. But honestly, the more things from John Kerry’s past the opposition keeps trying to dig up and throw in his face, the more I find him inspiring. (Also, why does he inspire so much wrath in conservatives? I smell fear.) For example, Alphapatriot opines on John Kerry:

When he returned, Kerry accused his “brothers in arms” of routinely engaging in the most horrific of atrocities.

When he returned, Kerry attended protests and hurled “his” medals over a wall, as if ashamed of his actions. He gave aid and comfort to the enemy, even to the point that his pictures and antics were used in North Vietnamese communist propaganda materials.

When he returned, Kerry published a book with a cover picture that mocked the bravery of soldiers on Iwo Jima.*

First, I want to address this. I think AlphaPatriot is wrong in characterizing the cover of Kerry’s book as mockery. I can only assume that the picture is designed not to mock the soldiers that fought at Iwo Jima, but rather to highlight the differences between that war and Vietnam. Hence the title: “The New Soldier”. That’s not mockery. But, I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t read the book, like AlphaPatriot clearly has. Maybe he’ll let me borrow his copy – I understand it’s hard to find. Ahem.

AlphaPatriot continues:

When he returned, Kerry plugged into and rode – nay, lead – an anti-war movement that became so hateful that soldiers returning from the horror of war were subjected to the most horrendous of behaviors. They were called “baby-killers” and spat upon. They were screamed at by people they didn’t know.

All for wearing a uniform that should be a source of pride.

Hateful? “baby-killers?” Spitting? Here we have the furthering of an unfortunate myth, used to back up an unfortunate falsehood. War protesters do not hate veterans, and they do not “hate America”. Further, no documented case of a Vietnam veteran ever being spat on or defiled in any other way has ever been documented. Jerry Lembcke wrote a great article on tompaine.com about this:

I faxed a letter to the Times letters’ editor saying that, “in research for my book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, I found no evidence that such incidents ever took place. It would have been impossible for protesters with rotten vegetables to get close to a wounded soldier returning from Vietnam.” I pointed out that, “stories of spat-upon veterans are apocryphal. They discredit the Americans who opposed the war and help construct an alibi for why we lost, namely, that we were betrayed on the home front by disloyal fifth columnists.” My letter was never printed.</p>

The image of spat-upon veterans is an icon through which the country constructs its memory of what the war was about and the fictive nature of that icon suggests that America has never come to grips with the war itself. Screened out by the accounts of forgotten warriors and spat-upon veterans are the politics that got us into the war and the history that thousands of GIs joined the effort to end the war; buried beneath the images of protester’s animus for veterans is the history of the real war in which 3,000,000 Vietnamese died fighting for national independence.

Fictive, eh? Lembcke contends that there’s really no evidence that veterans were badly mistreated, much less physically spat-upon on returning home:

Had a small number of spitting incidents really occurred, there would have subsequently been press attention to them and security at locations where GIs returned from Vietnam would have been tightened. In fact, there are no reports of such incidents happening. A search of newspaper stories about demonstrations, marches, and rallies where hostile encounters may have occurred produced no reports of activists spitting on veterans. Reports filed by demonstration observers working under the sponsorship of the Bar Association of New York City during the 1970s, likewise, contain no evidence that veterans were mistreated by protesters.</p>

Ironically, the newspapers themselves are troves of evidence that relations between veterans and anti-war activists were mutually supportive and that thousands of GIs and veterans had joined the opposition to the war by 1970. Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) was the largest of all the organizations for vets of that generation and its activities are richly recorded in the pages of the very newspaper that Holson, Haberman, and Kifner now write for. And that raises interesting questions about the apparent suspension of disbelief that surrounds current journalism on the war period. Why are these tales believed by people who should know better?

This myth serves a useful purpose. It paints protestors as anti-American and heartless. It, as evidenced by AlphaPatriot’s mention of North Vietnamese propaganda, serves as “irrefutable evidence” that we lost the war because of traitors back home. Ridiculous, and yet pervasive. Why does this myth persist?

One answer might be that the stories have been with us for a long enough time that younger writers have, in a sense, grown up with them. The origin of spat-upon veteran stories lies in the popular and political culture of the 1980s. Film played a large role in shaping the beliefs about what had happened during the war years. The trigger for John Rambo’s rampage in the widely viewed First Blood (1982) was set by his homecoming experience: “I came back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer. Who are they? Huh?” Films like those in the Rambo series resonated with a right wing political culture that held leftists and liberals responsible for the loss of the war. The stories of spat-upon veterans helped construct a betrayal narrative holding that the war was lost on the home front, not in Vietnam.

Sounds familiar. So, the accusations fly that John Kerry, the hypocritical liar, is a walking contradiction, protesting the war he claims to have fought so valiantly for. Why does he hate veterans? Why does he hate America?

The truth is that John Kerry doesn’t hate veterans. He is a veteran – a veteran that fought in a terrible, terrible war, and felt used and mistreated by his government. He came back to do what he could to represent his fellow veterans and stop the killing. The speech he gave to the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations is available online and portrays much more than the brief paragraph of atrocities he describes that you may read in the media. (Which his opponents somehow construe as “betrayal”.) From the speech:

Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, “the first President to lose a war.”</p>

We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Do these sound like the words of someone that hates veterans enough to spit on them? No. It sounds like someone who wanted them to stop people from being killed. And there’s no shame in that.