Friday, February 23, 2007

Salivating About the Past, Ignoring the Present

William Faulkner noted that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That statement rings true for so much in America these days. Most recently, the image of anti-war protesters spitting on soldiers during the Vietnam war was resuscitated in a Newsweek article about Senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel, two Vietnam veterans now on opposite sides of the debate about the American occupation in Iraq. Jack Shafer is skeptical about this claim in several columns posted at Slate about anti-war protesters spitting on soldiers. His skepticism is based on Jerry Lembecke’s book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam to challenge the assertion that spitting on soldiers was a common practice among opponents of the Vietnam war.

Shafer and Lembecke question the assertions based on the lack of documentation for any of the claimed incidents. Shafer writes,
… if vets were being spat upon with such abandon as my e-mail correspondents claim, at least one documented case should exist in which a cop or a reporter was called after a fistfight broke out after one of the many alleged spit assaults on a vet by protesters at San Francisco International Airport.

The timing of veterans reporting incidents also seems questionable. Shafer quotes Lembecke that the reports of spitting on soldiers did not begin to appear until the 1980's. Shafer’s initial column produced a strong reaction from veterans who claimed that they were spat upon. Shafer concedes that isolated incidents may have occurred but he cites the lack of documentation to question the idea of widespread hostility to Americans who served in Vietnam.

Like the Vietnam war itself, Shafer is engaged in a no-win contest. So is Jerry Lembecke. The spitting stories are part of the “stabbed in the back” story that Americans betrayed their soldiers by turning against them. The American traitors in this case are the anti-war protesters, media elites and intellectuals who opposed the war. The image of protesters assaulting returning GI’s with saliva is used to discredit all who opposed the war. Even opponents who didn’t actually spit on soldiers were in league with those who did. Three decades after America was driven out of Vietnam, the debate about who lost Vietnam has not ended, nor has the attempt to blame the war’s opponents for the loss.

The whole issue of spitting is akin to a theological debate. Nothing will convince the wronged warriors that they weren’t betrayed by anti-war protesters. As one who was both an anti-war protester and soldier (in that order), I am unaware of any hostile actions toward soldiers. I don’t doubt that some occurred. Passions were high in those days and I’m sure that some of my fellow protesters were assholes and could have done something stupid like spitting on a fellow American. My own attitude toward soldiers was that, with the exception of senior officers, they were simply caught in a difficult situation and got by as best they could. That is certainly how I dealt with the issue when my time came. I wasn’t willing to say no to my country, even when America asked me to kill. Hell, I had a college degree and was pretty knowledgeable about the war and the policies surrounding it and I couldn’t say no so it’s easy to see how men with fewer advantages acquiesced to the war.

As a soldier I was rarely in public in uniform. I only got one pass during basic training and during infantry school I wore civilian clothes on pass. Even then I felt uneasy , my military haircut marked me in those days of long hair. I mainly wore my uniform to qualify for military fares while traveling. My unease had nothing to do with the way anyone behaved toward me, it was more my uncertainty about knowing that I would kill and maybe die in a war I did not believe in. My return from Vietnam was uneventful. Unlike most returning soldiers, my flight from Vietnam landed at the San Francisco airport because of bad weather at Travis Air Force Base but no protesters were around to harass us. Nor were there any when I showed up back at the airport with other newly discharged veterans to fly home. We spent a good ten hours at a bar celebrating and sending each other off to our flights. No one bothered any of us.

Rather than hostility, what I experienced was indifference. Nobody bought me a drink. Or welcomed me home. I was just a faceless GI with a few medals and a ticket home sitting with other GI’s waiting for our flights. That was pretty much the pattern. When I got home few people wanted to hear me talk about Vietnam, which I needed to do. The friends who did listen must have gotten pretty tired of it after a while but at least they listened. That helped me decompress somewhat.

So this whole argument about who treated Vietnam veterans how is pretty pointless to me. I know anti-war protesters didn’t stab me in the back. They didn’t reach out to me but neither did the war supporters. Everyone just seemed to want to forget. I can’t blame anyone in particular for the lack of support; Vietnam was a major clusterfuck that did nobody any good. I think spitting and other examples about mistreatment of GIs were isolated incidents and don’t support the idea that those who opposed the war were hostile to returning soldiers. I think the nation as a whole pretty much swept us under the rug.

Fast forward four decades and nobody is spitting on the troops. Everyone LOVES the troops. The troops are our heroes, our pride, our cause. We plaster our cars with yellow ribbon magnets and cheer our the soldiers as they return. And then, just as we did 40 years ago, we forget about them. Not everyone, though. Family members worry as the men and women who went to war come back different, uneasy and on guard. Sometimes the rest of us hear news of a veteran causing some sort of “disturbance”. But mostly, we hide behind our expressions of support and continue on with our lives. The war, the troops and their families are an abstraction that is not particularly relevant for most of us.

Meanwhile, the troops that we profess to support and their families are left to deal with war’s ugly aftermath, with the nightmares and paranoia, with an overwhelmed and often indifferent bureaucracy that seeks to limit the long term cost of the war by leaving veterans and their families with few or no resources. Yeah, we support our troops with words but when it comes to turning those words into action, we may as well be spitting on them for all the good it does.


Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

yeah, i saw lots more indifference than anything else myself. i took about three months in the white mountains. just getting used to the idea that there weren't people out there hunting me. then i went to ASU to major in collecting my G.I. Bill checks and playing the occaisional weekend at the blue goat or some college club in tempe. didn't get a lot of flack from the "leftist" professors, i was older, far more focused and mature. i did rattle a few cages with my own opinion (which i still mostly hold) that the main factor in our withdrawal was not the protests or the loss of political will at home but the slow inevitable realization that we no longer had the capability to continue the fight in any effective way. the army was having problems of race and command. the navy was having race riots on carriers. the air force was having both normal equipment fatigue and sabotage. the military just wasn't able to successfully carry the fight. midranking officers and petty officers were becoming almost non-existant and the ones that did stay were dreadfully incompetent. the protests had their part, nixon's squandering of his political life, congress pretending to have a spine for a few months, all of that played a part. what i saw that trumped all of that was the utter collapse of the military itself.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Rez Dog said...

MY tour was in 1971, which is when the Army command and control was collapsing. None of the enlisted men were at all enthusiastic about the war. Officers and NCO's mainly kept their heads down and walked a line between following orders and getting fragged. Mostly we just walked around the jungle hoping nothing would happen, not running from contact but not aggressively pursuing contact either. Everybody knew the war was winding down, so why be the last guy killed. By the time I got back to campus, the draft had ended and American ground troops were all gone, so protests died down considerably.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found your post of interest. I was one of those antiwar hippies. I never spit on a Vietnam veteran nor did anyone I knew in those days. We hated the war but had nothing but respect for the warriors who did their best in a war that was the creation of others who had a financial interest and no personal stake in the outcome. Indeed, many of us who wanted to end the Vietnam were veterans like yourself.

As to the indifference you experienced, to quote my Mother-In Law, who died at the age of 90:, "Twas always thus". Please review the poem, "Tommy" by Rudyard Kipling. I think you will find a kindred spirit in another veteran of a long ago foreign war who understood the plight of the ordinary soldier after war has ended.

10:08 PM  

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