8/20/2005

The Mahablog: The Persistence of (False) Memory - Spit on Vets legend

The Persistence of (False) Memory

Once again, a brave soul comes forward to debunk the protesters-spat-on-soldiers-in-airports myths of the Vietnam War era. Jerry Lembcke writes in the Boston Globe:

GIs landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops. There may have been exceptions, of course, but in those cases how would protesters have known in advance that a plane was being diverted to a civilian site? And even then, returnees would have been immediately bused to nearby military installations and processed for reassignment or discharge.

I'm going from memory here, which is perilous, but I do remember seeing a lot of soldiers in airports in those years. Soldiers left Vietnam in military aircraft, but at some point very often they transferred to commercial airplanes and traveled alone for the final part of the journey home. I occasionally wandered through airports during the Vietnam War era, and I never once saw a war protester in them, spitting or otherwise. Protesters just didn't hang out in airports all day long looking for a soldier to spit on. It's possible people saw Hare Krishna devotees, who used to hang out in airports to sell books and flowers, and mistook them for "hippies." But the HKs, however annoying they could be, were not spitters, either.

The exaggerations in Smith's story are characteristic of those told by others. ''Most Vietnam veterans were spat on when we came back," he said. That's not true. A 1971 Harris poll conducted for the Veterans Administration found over 90 percent of Vietnam veterans reporting a friendly homecoming. Far from spitting on veterans, the antiwar movement welcomed them into its ranks and thousands of veterans joined the opposition to the war.

As Lembcke says elsewhere in his article, the spitting protester stories didn't begin to circulate in earnest until well after the war. "I looked back to the time when the spit was supposedly flying, the late 1960s and early 1970s," he says. "I found nothing. No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on." This is not to say that no soldier was ever spat upon in an airport, or out of an airport for that matter. But if it happened it was a spontaneous thing, and the spitter was just as likely to have been a hawk as a peacenik. In the 1970s, it was hawks who spread the story that returning Vietnam vets were mostly drug-addled psychos and bums. Hawks blamed the soldiers (along with the antiwar movement) for "losing" Vietnam and spoiling what had promised to be a splendid little war and the inspiration for a great many flag-waving, shoot-'em-up Sal Mineo movies.

That's how I remember it, anyway.

I am more inclined to believe that once in a great while a soldier might have been called a "baby killer," and by peaceniks, because there was an element of assholeness in the antiwar movement. This is not to say that all war protesters were assholes, but that there always seemed to be a few assholes in the crowd who acted out and made the whole group look bad. These were the jerks who showed up at marches waving North Vietnamese flags. Somebody should have taken their flags away from them and explained to them that they were being assholes, and to cut it out. Of course, some of these guys were probably paid asshole agents of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (you do remember CREEP?).

Anyway, I never personally witnessed a soldier being called a baby-killer, nor was I aquainted with anyone who opposed the war who would have done such a thing. And I certainly don't believe this was a common occurrence. I'm just saying it could have happened. But the person making the baby-killer accusation might just as easily have been a hawk, also.

The persistence of spat-upon Vietnam veteran stories suggests that they continue to fill a need in American culture. The image of spat-upon veterans is the icon through which many people remember the loss of the war, the centerpiece of a betrayal narrative that understands the war to have been lost because of treason on the home front. Jane Fonda's noisiest detractors insist she should have been prosecuted for giving aid and comfort to the enemy, in conformity with the law of the land.

Jane was one of the assholes I mentioned earlier.

But the psychological dimensions of the betrayal mentality are far more interesting than the legal. Betrayal is about fear, and the specter of self-betrayal is the hardest to dispel. The likelihood that the real danger to America lurks not outside but inside the gates is unsettling. The possibility that it was failure of masculinity itself, the meltdown of the core component of warrior culture, that cost the nation its victory in Vietnam has haunted us ever since.

Many tellers of the spitting tales identify the culprits as girls, a curious quality to the stories that gives away their gendered subtext. Moreover, the spitting images that emerged a decade after the troops had come home from Vietnam are similar enough to the legends of defeated German soldiers defiled by women upon their return from World War I, and the rejection from women felt by French soldiers when they returned from their lost war in Indochina, to suggest something universal and troubling at work in their making. One can reject the presence of a collective subconscious in the projection of those anxieties, as many scholars would, but there is little comfort in the prospect that memories of group spit-ins, like Smith has, are just fantasies conjured in the imaginations of aging veterans.

I believe that false memory syndrome is a real and common phenomenon. It's possible most of us are dragging around memories of things that never happened, or didn't happen the way we remember them. This doesn't (necessarily) mean we're all crazy. I don't understand how something soft and squishy and organic like a brain can store memories anyway, but however it's done memories are not exactly engraved in granite. Our brains and neurological systems change (and deteriorate) over time. Memories can get mixed up with other memories, or even with dreams. I think it's probable that memories of events we review frequently, like weddings or births of children or disasters, remain fairly stable, but memories that we allow to sink out of consciousness for long periods of time can be pretty garbled when we try to retrieve them.

Further, I think memory is very susceptible to suggestion. If we hear over and over again that a certain event happened a certain way, eventually that's what most of us will remember, even if the event happened some other way, or never happened at all.

I think the Swift Boat episode had false memory syndrome written all over it. The ringleaders are just liars, of course, but a lot of the vets who got sucked into it probably believed that their accounts of what John Kerry did in Vietnam were true, never mind that all the documentation said otherwise. The fact that many of these memories were "retrieved" after talk sessions with the organizers is highly suspicious.

The Mahablog: "Lembcke continues,"

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