So wrote the noted psychologist Rollo May. Aware that nature abhors a vacuum, his 1992 book The Cry for Myth looked at how rootless American society had become by the early 90’s and how that coincided with a rise in fads like ufology and psychiatric care. He believed that myths acted as moral guidance and as a continuation of the tapestry of life.
However, myths can also be used to push political agendas and can be so powerful, they defy logic and remain embedded in our collective conscience half a century later.
Like the ‘spat upon Vietnam vet’ myth.
We’ve all heard some variation of it: returning soldier coming home to San Francisco is spat upon by a female heckler, usually with the phrases “baby killer” and “murderer” being chanted by other protestors. All of them are hippies. Stoically, the soldier continues his journey home before he slowly unravels and begins acting out his trauma.
It’s such an evocative image, one that reflects the deep political divisions in American society at that time but also societal (the rise of feminism, leaving men who had fought in various wars blindsided and unable to adapt to this shift) and cultural (the degenerate children of Charles Manson verses the ones who defended America).
There’s just one problem: it’s a myth.
Drafted into the US Army in 1968 and serving in Vietnam as a Chaplain’s Assistant, Jerry Lembcke is to be commended for this exemplary tone which examines how such a lie was formulated, how it developed over the years thanks to mass media and how it was used by the Bush administration during the first Gulf War as a way of suppressing dissent.
When discussing the protests, Lembcke makes it abundantly clear that “Veterans’ groups led some of the earliest protest marches against the war, and tactics such as draft card burning, which became emblematic of the anti-war movement, and the turning-in of service medals as an act of protest, which became the hallmark of anti-war Vietnam veterans in the early 1970’s, may have been foreshadowed by similar actions taken in the mid-1960’s by veterans of previous wars.” Such actions would then lead to the formation of Veterans for Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Of course, there were WWII vets who were hostile to the anti-war movement and there was a concerted effort by the Nixon administration to differentiate between ‘good’ veterans and ‘bad’ veterans. But it still remains the case that the protestors had a cordial relationship with veterans.
So where does the spitting motif come from?
Lembcke attributes it to a combination of misremembered incidents (there are contemporary accounts of pro-war activists spitting on protestors), the ‘stabbed in the back’ myth that festered after the war, mass media that featured the ‘crazed Vietnam vet’ caricature and a belief among some that the 60’s marked the end of America. After all, if the Viet Cong could take on the US Army and come up trumps, then what did that say about America?
Examining the various films that emerged at the end of the 70’s - Coming Home 🎥 The Deer Hunter 🎥 First Blood - it’s obvious that a myth was beginning to form. One that portrayed shellshocked veterans struggling to blend back into society and having to fight another war at home with the mediocre donkeys who held back these brave lions. The classic example is Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, who says in Rambo: First Blood Part II that when he came home, he found a war going on against the returning soldiers. This film, which has the MIA/POW myth as its centre point, chimed with the Regan era’s fascination with war.
It’s a shame my personal favourite of the genre wasn’t looked at: Naked Massacre, a 1976 movie where a deranged vet comes to Belfast from Saigon!
An important book looking at a pivotal moment in left wing American history and the Left’s failure to defend its own history.
Jerry Lembcke, 1998, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, New Yok University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0814751473
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.