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Book Review: The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembcke

February 23, 2015

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of VietnamThe Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembcke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“In the fall of 1971,” Jerry Lembcke writes, “I was part of a group of VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War] members leafleting against the war outside the football stadium at the University of Colorado. A Nebraska football fan stepped off the bus from Lincoln and charged at me, throwing a drink in my face and shouting an anti-communist epithet. An observer unaware of my anti-war activities might have seen this incident as, simply, a Vietnam veteran being attacked. Recalled twenty years later, it is easy to imagine how the incident could be turned into grist for the myth” (78-79).

Lembcke was inspired to write this book in the wake of George H.W. Bush’s invocation of spat-upon Vietnam veterans to demonize those who opposed his war in Iraq. The first chapter of this book rips apart the dubious public relations campaign to make Gulf War I about the soldiers rather than about the objectives, then he ties it to the Nixon-Agnew disinformation campaign to discriminate “Good Veterans” who support the Vietnam war, from “Bad Veterans” who allied themselves with the antiwar movement. With the distortion of time and popular culture, the cultural myth has planted the antiwar protestor at odds with the Vietnam veteran, which is completely contrary to the historical record, which shows that there was a large antiwar movement of both current and returning soldiers from Vietnam. As of this writing, there are forty reviews of this book on, including 17 one-star reviews, of which 15 are illegitimate, giving no indication that they have read the book, but simply attack Lembcke’s thesis, or that are wildly seething rants against the antiwar movement in general. Highlander Fan, a verified purchaser of the book, suggests that Lembcke lionizes John Kerry, whose 2004 presidential campaign was marred by right-wing liars calling themselves “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” This suggests that he merely thumbed through it, since Kerry rates only two mentions, one of which decrying the lies of Spiro T. Agnew–“terrible distortion”–as a member of VVAW (63), and the other a reference to a photograph of Kerry in the The New York Times September 16, 1990, depicting him next to a photograph of the boat on which he served (21). The distortion in Highlander Fan’s review suggests that he primarily looked at the pictures–the photo section contains a dramatic photo of Kerry leaving a bus after he and other activists were arrested for antiwar activities in Lexington, Massachusetts on Memorial Day, 1971, and on the very next page a photo of Kerry sitting on the end of a piano bench, one foot on the sitting surface, talking with the Youth Caucus at the Harvard University Freshman Union on January 9, 1972. Considering that Kerry appears on two of eight tipped-in pages of photographs, it might create the illusion that John Kerry is somehow portrayed by Lembcke as a hero of the book.

The enduring message of the book seems to be that the right-wing ruling class will say anything to their advantage, creating myths that uphold their point of view, no matter how contrary they may be to actual fact. This eternal relevance was clear to me in some of the Twitter arguments I had while I was reading this book, including with Officer Sasquatch (, who insists that Eric Garner can be seen in his death video assaulting a police officer, and thus deserved to die, and with Cajun Dave (, who told me that I’m an idiot for not knowing that Jane Fonda personally spat on Vietnam veterans. A quick Internet search showed that Fonda herself was spat upon by a pro-war veteran on April 21, 2005, but nothing in the reverse.

The reality is that Vietnam veterans mostly took abuse from pro-war demonstrators. This is a documented fact, of which chapter five, of which details the core issue of the evidence, is full. Lembcke cites numerous accounts of antiwar demonstrations, predominantly led by Veteran-activist organizations such as Veterans for Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, including a day of action reported in various newspapers on March 27, 1966. Lembcke notes that the Chicago Tribune article on that day noted spitting among the actions of the pro-war counterprotesters. I found an article on page three of that issue in their online archive noting physical attacks on protesters led by such organizations as the American Nazi Party. I couldn’t find the reference to spitting, but the atrocious behavior of the pro-war right is right there in black and white that supports Lembcke’s descriptions of right-wing attacks on Vietnam veterans on pages 76-79. He also notes numerous polls of returning Vietnam veterans conducted by Gallup, Roper, Harris, and others that contained no references to ill treatment upon return. The Harris poll, conducted for the U.S. Senate, had only 3% of returning Veterans describe their reception as “not at all friendly,” with no supporting details provided that the unfriendly reception had anything to do with antiwar protesters. (75)

The earliest reference Lembcke was able to find to spitting anti-war activists was in John J. O’Connor‘s A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam (1966). O’Connor refers to “‘unreasoned hatred such as that displayed by those spitting in the faces of soldiers guarding the Pentagon’ (xiii)” (81). Lembcke wrote O’Connor a letter when the latter was Archbishop of New York, but received a letter from an aide to the archbishop named Mustaciuolo stating that his employer refused to comment on memories that old. The incident is well documented with photographs showing activists solemnly placing flowers in the rifles of the soldiers guarding the Pentagon (2018 edit: this image was recently featured in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Album, The Beatles, and the World in 1967 by Brian Southall), and it seems unsurprising to me that an archbishop would be so deeply self-entrenched in mythmaking. The October 24, 1969 issue of Life had a feature story in which David Moss, at an October 12 rally against the war in Dallas, read the names of Texas men killed in the war. Life reporter that hecklers yelled, “Spit at those people, spit on ’em,” as well as calling them “hippies” and “dirty commies.” The story never says that anyone spat, but Lembcke asserts that it would be easy enough to make a mental association with the spitting with the side that had nothing to do with it, if one was so inclined (78).

Several of the 1-star reviews on Amazon, such as “Roger”‘s, recommend readers to Bob Greene‘s Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned from Vietnam (1989), which contains 63 accounts of personal experience with spitting and 69 that were spit-free. Greene was very skeptical of the story, considering hippies too passive to spit on those they considered trained killers. He was concerned about the authenticity of the letters and admitted that the collection might contain “ringers.” “[I]n the end,” Lembcke says, Greene was “too willing to suspend disbelief. In fact, there was much more wrong with his testimonies than he acknowledged to his readers. In the first place, there is Greene’s own leading question: ‘Were you spat upon?’ Had he asked a more neutral question such as, ‘What were your homecoming experiences?’ the veterans’ responses would be much more valid” (80). He also found it extremely suspect that so many of the spitters were described as women, an act normally not associated with women in American culture, but associated with witchcraft (134), and he subsequently devotes an entire chapter to the role of women in homecoming narratives.

The second chronological example of spat-upon vietnam veterans he found was in Robert Jay Lifton‘s 1973 book, Home from the War. Only one soldier notes this, it is unclear of the spitter’s pro- or antiwar status, no names are given, and Lifton saw this as a “mythic representation of a feeling” (Lifton, 99) which Lembcke sees as “warning against a literal interpretation of the report” (81).

B.G. “Jug” Burkett is a Vietnam veteran and Dallas businessman. He has investigated more than 1,700 news stories about Vietnam veterans who were supposedly “troubled.” Using the Freedom of Information Act, he was able to prove many were total or partial frauds. It would be interesting too see him apply this technique to Greene’s Homecoming. Most of the stories he debunked contained stories of combat glory and mistreatment during homecoming. Burkett debunked a CBS documentary called The Wall Within, but CBS proved the myth of the liberal media with lack of interest in his research (115-6, citing Glenna Whitley’s “The Good Soldier” in Texas Monthly, August 1994 and Tim Weiner, “Military Combat Insignia Signify Esteem of Officers,” The New York Times, May 18, 1996).

The next chapter of the book explores coming home legends from myth to recorded history. The origin of the spat-upon veteran goes back to a story of a fragging of a German officer by his soldiers that occurred in World War I. Hermann Goering, long before founding the Gestapo, claimed that peasant women had done the act (85-86), which feeds into the myth that the anti-war spitters were women. Lembcke also shows that the French returning from the failure in Algeria also had stories of being mistreated upon their return. “The fact that we seldom, if ever, hear about stories about soldiers in winning armies returning home to abuse suggests that these tales function specifically as alibis for why a war was lost” (89).

“A hallmark of conservative ideology is its appeal to the cultural intangibles of myth and legend; while the left tends to base its arguments on science and material observation, the right appeals more often to emotion and symbolism” (90). Rush Limbaugh frequently attacks the left of “symbolism over substance,” but this is not in line with either reality or sociological theory. Reading this section on how conservatives use myth made me think I really shot a hole in my foot with my screenplay adaptation of Dwayne McDuffie‘s Monster in My Pocket, which really forced the audience to look at and analyze myth from unconventional perspectives from which it is hard to imagine a producer, let alone the owners of the Monster in My Pocket property, to want to spend money on an elaborate, special effects-filled feature film. The chapter states that John Rambo was spat upon in First Blood, but this is not depicted, only part of his backstory. Also in this chapter, Lembcke cites Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Fear of Falling, which discusses how even middle class liberals need these sorts of myth to which to cling, for fear that they may be losing their place in society. A chapter like this seriously needs reconsidering in the wake of the 2007-9 economic crisis that has left so many formerly middle class people downwardly mobile and, like me, homeless.

Maria Walles, one of my allies at Picture the Homeless, suggested that I should really look into getting Social Security Disability through the mental health route, since they keep telling me I can work a desk job, suggesting that I may have post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve been examined by numerous psychiatrists at the behest of the shelter system and not been diagnosed with anything like that. Some of my colleagues with Picture the Homeless, whose images may be seen on my blog, do have such diagnoses, and I am not willing to go so far as to say that they are wrong. Lembcke seems to think that the disorder is at best a catch-all, kind of like “colubrid” is a garbage can term referring to all sorts of snakes that aren’t particularly dangerous to humans. He finds it all the more suspect that a human interest piece about it appeared on August 21, 1972, the same day Ron Kovic spoke about how Nixon’s war hadn’t taken away the minds of veterans against the war. “[T]here was little hard research to base conclusions about the mental health of Vietnam veterans, a fact, however, that did not stop the writer from referring to ‘countless troubled veterans’ a few sentences later” (103).

With the exception of German veterans after World War I, there had never been a generation of veterans who had turned so completely against the regime that had sent it to war. When Strayer and Ellenhorn (1975) interviewed Vietnam veterans, they found that 75 percent of them were opposed to the war. Even more noteworthy was the affinity of these veterans for anti-imperialist politics and the cultural critique of capitalism. That being the case, these veterans loomed as an on-going problem for those ruling-class interests that desired to reestablish the country’s military capacity and the populace’s will to war. Framing the veterans’ story as a political one, however, would add to its legitimization and exacerbate the long-term problem of getting beyond Vietnam. (106)


In the context of the times, anti-war veterans would surely have been surprised to know that their actions against the war were a form of therapy. For them, it was the country that had gone wrong and needed healing, not they. But they weren’t the ones telling the story. The ultimate tragedy may have been that what was their finest hour for many veterans, namely, when they found the courage to speak against the war they had fought, was turned against them as evidence of further damage done to them by that war. Poignant protest was thus pathologized. (113)

How very easy it is for me to relate, even though the only ones pathologizing me are the armchair psychiatrists and cyberbullies. “[Allan] Young (1995) attributes the legitimization of PTSD to the ascendancy of a diagnostic tradition associated with psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud” (195), whose theories were notoriously based on case studies rather than the scientific method.

He looks at the case of Dwight Johnson, a black Vietnam vet who went on a murder spree, noting the supposedly liberal bastion, The New York Times, had published that story but ignored the Winter Soldier hearings, even though both events occurred in Chicago. “What seems unreal is that the PTSD-stricken basket case that constitutes the popular perception of the Vietnam veteran could be the same person who terrorized Vietnam civilians” (195). He compares the Johnson case to Charlie Clements, whom he believes surely would have been diagnosed with PTSD, but after a four-moth hospital stay in 1971, he became a medical doctor who worked in El Salvador. Agnew’s “badness” was being rewritten as “madness” (111-113).

As with Bob Greene, he cites the use of leading questions in the diagnosis of PTSD (121), citing Paul Starr in noting that diagnoses were based on a small, self-selected group a veterans, and the aforementioned Lifton asserted that Vietnam veterans were “forgotten” right on the permission statement patients needed to sign in order to participate in the study.

The tragedy is that the creation of the image of the veteran as victim exploits veterans as a buffer between public discourse about the war and the war itself. It is this exploitation of the veteran’s image for ideological purposes that constitutes the real victimization. Mythologizing the relationship of veterans to the war and the anti-war movement takes from the authentic generational identity they have as soldiers who grew as men and took courageous actions to end the war they had been sent to fight (123).


Just as laziness as an explanation for poverty among African Americans really involves a myth about hard work and white success that displaces racism as a reason for inequality (Steinberg 1974), so too the stories of spat-upon veterans give us the image of the good soldiers, which negates the need to evaluate the real war in Vietnam. Our focus blurs, and not by accident. (129-130)


In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (1977) connected the rise of prisons and other institutions of confinement to capitalism’s need to control a then nomadic workforce. Physical confinement of the indigent was intended to produce a culture of self-discipline wherein workers, held in fear of physical punishment, would be incapable of resisting the boundaries set by the ruling class. While the relative stability of class relations in the United States in the late twentieth century attests to the success of capitalism’s quest for hegemonic control, periodic urban rebellions and worker resistance to managerial authority are constant reminders that this hegemony is never total. (131)

The penultimate chapter compares myths of spitting with myths of women, warrior cowardice as he loses his inability to protect others, and feminization of the enemy (134-135).

This leads into the final chapter, in which he analyses how the Vietnam war has been treated in film. Although he never found any film that shows images of veterans being spat upon, Jeff Drew showed him a panel in an unspecified issue of G.I. Joe from the 1980s (I was able to find the panel online, but not a citation to put it in the context of the issue. Alfred Hitchcock was vilified for using a false flashback in Stage Fright, but Marvel Comics had used one as early as Avengers #36 (January 1967), and the scene is clearly a flashback from the panel narration.) As a film major, I found this portion of the book most intriguing, although his filmography is not terribly helpful, omitting directors, writers, and leading players, but including far less important information like running time and color information (Russ Meyer’s Motor Psycho is the only black and white film examined.)

Lembcke shows that Motor Psycho is the beginning of a trajectory of films about crazed Vietnam veterans leading up to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the quintessence, not the beginning, of the subgenre, which has precedents in films such as Blood of Ghastly Horror, Blackenstein, Stanley, Slaughter, Welcome Home, Solider Boys, Deathdream, and others.

Tracks (1977) is the first film to posit an anti-war activist, who spits on police, as an adversary to a Vietnam veteran. It also began a myth that Lembcke debunks, that of soldiers bringing back weapons from Vietnam, all of which were military property and had to be checked in, along with all clothing including the underwear except for the brand new ones that would be given out for them to wear home. This is alluded to near the end of Richard Hooker’s MASH. This is a recurring device in many subsequent films, and popularized in Coming Home, to which he devotes much of the chapter. He heavily researched archives to learn about the making of the film, in which Jane Fonda wanted to play against type, and the interviews that were conducted to create the film, all of which exist in transcript. It might have been interesting had Lembcke interviewed Jennifer Salt, who played someone who hid an anti-capitalist activist in her parents’ house in The Revolutionary (Paul Williams, 1970), since her father, Waldo, wrote the final version of the screenplay, since I can only idly speculate on the connection. The Revolutionary and Art Napoleon’s The Activist (1969) were two of the only films of the period to portray leftists accurately, and the latter, to which Lembcke gives high praise, was slapped with an X rating, and currently has a 4.7/10 rating on IMDB. Earlier films such as Brian DePalma’s Greetings and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant had portrayed departing soldiers, veterans, and anti-war activists on positive terms with each other, as in real-life, but by the late 1970s, only Milos Forman’s Hair continued to do so. The opening image from Coming Home, showing a veteran arriving to a crowd of protesters, was cemented into the public memory, in spite of being extremely inaccurate. There’s no spitting, but there is animosity. Bob limps from shooting himself in the foot, but Salt treats this as a dumb accident. The source of this incident is the interviews with veteran Bill Hager and his wife, Terry. Hager took an M-16 to the shower with him because of fragging and racial attacks that had been occurring in the showers. By removing this political aspect, Salt’s screenplay pathologizes the Vietnam vet. This emphasizes Salt’s “blame the victim” approach.  “‘He shot himself in the foot’ is the perfect expression of self-defeat.  It works metaphorically in this instance as an explanation  for the problems of Vietnam veterans–that they have no one to blame but themselves–and it worked perfectly to further stigmatize the Vietnam veterans as losers.” (167).  Most of the chapter comments on how Salt distorted the interviews he got from the Hagers and the few interviews he made with Ron Kovic. Personally speaking, I did check Coming Home out of the library at one point, having liked Hal Ashby’s Being There and Harold and Maude, but either a scratch or a hold kept me from watching it, still, it seems that the film really did sink into public consciousness, even though many pro-war veterans still have animosity for Jane Fonda. Indeed, the only films in Lembcke’s filmography I’ve seen are Alice’s Restaurant, Full Metal Jacket, Hair, Mean Streets, Platoon, and Taxi Driver, yet I still feel a strong impact of cultural memory on how the Vietnam war seems perceived by society.

Lembcke also examines Alfred Eisenstadt’s famous V-J Day photo of an “aggressively affectionate” (140) Word War II sailor in his chapter on the gender issue, which is so ubiquitous that I happened to see it on a magazine cover at Whole Foods. It also seems relevant to his conclusion. It seems Vietnam veterans were upset that they didn’t get the victory parade depicted in this photo. Close examination of the photo shows no streamers, confetti, or ticker tape, as one might imagine, but two sailors in addition to the kisser, three older ladies nearby, and unrelated crowds in the background. It may have seeped into cultural memory as a parade, but it isn’t one. When I first moved to New York, I befriended industrial filmmaker Bob Olds in the last months of he life (he was found dead in his apartment in November 2003, and he seemed to know he was near the end–he tried to pass his concept for his dream film on to me, but never got past his description of the opening scene). He liked to say that this was a photograph of him because he was editing film in one of the buildings in the background at the time it was taken. He isn’t visible in the photo at all, but the fact that he was working when this picture was shot suggests that the day was business as usual for most people. Lembcke believes that many complaints about a negative homecoming for Vietnam vets were based on mythologized expectations.

While Lembcke is aware that one cannot prove a negative, the preponderance of the evidence, including a photograph of antiwar protester Howard Gottesman being pelted with eggs in Worcester, Massachusetts in March 26, 1966, shows that the vast majority of violence and assault was committed by pro-war demonstrators, not anti-war demonstrators. No newspaper report or photograph of an antiwar protestor spitting on a Vietnam veteran has been shown to exist, in spite of the ubiquity of Pentax cameras and free photo processing for members of the military (72), and nor is there any record of anyone doing so in any police reports of the Special Committee on Demonstration Observation, nor are there any records of anyone ever being arrested or prosecuted for assault for doing so in the files of the Bar Assocation (73). Amazon reviewer “Roger” claims that this is meaningless, since the majority of rapes go unreported, and, reflecting the chapter on gender, he asserts that no Vietnam veteran would have humiliated himself by reporting such an assault to the police. I find this a dubious claim considering how ubiquitous such claims became by the 1980s. He also doesn’t take into account that rapes rarely occur in public places in front of witnesses, which makes the situations really incomparable, especially if one takes into account the Coming Home version of events, which is inaccurate, since protestors created problems at departures for outgoing soldiers, not arriving veterans, as the last of the photographs in the book shows. Although airport security then was nowhere near what it is now, the Indianapolis International Airport is the first place I ever saw high security or metal detectors, which I remember having been carried through in probably 1978 or 1979. My parents did not live anywhere near my grandparents, and we would pick them up in the airport waiting area, and see them off actually on the plane. By the late 1980s, we had to say our goodbyes at the metal detector itself, because non-passengers were not permitted past that point anymore. It seems to me highly unlikely that even in the lower security of the 1970s that such a supposedly common incident would never have been observed by a police officer, which would have resulted in an immediate arrest regardless of whether the veteran had pressed charges. In the United States, burden of proof falls on the accusers, and those accusing antiwar protestors of spitting on veterans have not met that burden of proof.

In physics, there is something called the Pauli exclusion principle, which says that two objects cannot exist in the same space at the same time. Social events are not mutually exclusive in the same sense, of course. Yet, the nature of some social conditions all but exclude the likelihood of coexistence with their opposite: war and peace, for example. In this same sense it is unlikely that the anti-war movement that embraced Vietnam veterans as described in this chapter, could have coexisted with its opposite: the anti-war movement described in the stories of spat-upon anti-war veterans. The proof that anti-war activists and Vietnam veterans were mutually supportive, then, constitutes proof that they were not hostile to one another. (66)

Based on the evidence, Lembcke asserts, right-wingers are projecting (Michael Ryce would say the term “externalizing” is more apt, but “projecting” makes a better play on words under the circumstances) their own behavior in ways they do not want to admit are theirs. I refuse to ignore their burden of proof. If they want me to believe in Vietnam veterans spat upon by anti-war protestors, they will have to provide proof. Lembcke provides ample evidence that the pathological lies of the right-wing go back at least as far as the Vietnam War, if not further. I do not believe any Vietnam war veterans were spat upon by anti-war protestors, but I do know Vietnam war veterans were attacked by right-wing demonstrators. Although I have only touched on each section of Lembcke’s book in this review, and some more than others, he provides a well-researched document, not the “polemic” Highlander Fan insists the book, which I do not believe he has read, to be.

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  1. Heavy stuff, starting in on this…

  2. I found a greengrocer’s apostrophe, one of my biggest grammatical pet peeves, on page 138. He writes “Puritan’s” but means it as plural, not possessive.

  3. Is there a point in this? Probably both anti-
    Vietnam war guys and pro-war guys (and girls) spat on their opponents. We need to create a common interest, which seems to be beyond this author’s conception… Can Vietnam now be friends with the USA, China and Russia?? How can we change the world?

    • The point is the right’s constant stream of propaganda. Your comment seems to be granting the same credence to hearsay as to newspaper articles and photographic evidence.

  4. I mean I try to be nice to the anti war people since we could have a US first strike nuclear war now… But don’t forget the flank that people want a future for themselves and their children…. The only economy now in the US is the war machine… and the looting ops of the Wall St. speculators…

  5. I recently rewatched Hair and showed Lembcke a clip on YouTube that depicts a spitting. He hadn’t remembered it, and I was glad I had pointed out to him. Even within the context of the film, it’s part of a performance–dancers on the Washington Mall with an audience of counterculture youths–but it looks like one of the women in “3 5 0 0” is supposedly spitting on a soldier (in what looks like a somewhat stylized versison of a Naval dress uniform).

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