The Myth of the Spat-Upon Veteran

by W.D. Ehrhart

I have been speaking about the American War in Vietnam in high school and college classrooms ever since the spring of 1973. Over the course of half a century, I have probably spoken in 250 to 300 classrooms. Maybe more. In all those years and all those visits, I have never had a single person make the kind of fuss that a student made a few years ago in response to remarks I had made refuting the mythology of the spat-upon Vietnam War veteran. This young woman, a high school senior honors student, lodged a major complaint with the upper school head and the school’s headmaster, making life hot for the two of them and the teacher in whose class I’d been speaking.

But when I sent a letter to this young woman, through her upper school head, explaining my position and my reasoning, she absolutely refused to read it. She would not discuss the matter. Her mind was closed. This 18-year-old girl knew the truth of what had happened long before she was born, and I who had lived through it did not.

I recently came upon that letter, however, and because this mythology continues to thrive in American popular culture and American collective memory, it strikes me as worth sharing its contents, especially because its original recipient utterly refused to entertain any reality but her own. Here is what I wrote to her:

“I am very sorry that my visit to your class back in February has so deeply upset you and apparently continues to do so these many months later. That was certainly not my intention.

“I am only guessing here, but my guess is that someone close to you—a grandparent or an uncle perhaps—has insisted that he was spit on, called ‘baby killer,’ or otherwise abused by members of the antiwar movement. I have heard these stories hundreds of times over the past 45 years, including from people I know well and respect.

“All of us who fought in Vietnam came home one at a time, over many years, with no fanfare or closure, and little recognition of and for what we had been through. We were largely ignored or at least went unnoticed. It was no fun, even painful. But that is very different from being actively abused. Indeed, the stories of abuse only begin to circulate after the end of the war in 1975. In each case, a veteran says, ‘This happened to me. Take my word for it.’

“If you study psychology, you will learn that it is possible for people to believe something happened that in fact did not happen. It does not make those people liars. For all sorts of complex reasons, people can convince themselves sometimes that something happened when in fact it did not happen. Memory is fallible. Memory is, in fact, highly unreliable.

“Moreover, when someone is already in pain and feeling defensive, that person can interpret events and experiences in ways unrelated to what has actually taken place. I have a friend who insisted that he was disrespected by antiwar demonstrators while he was in uniform, but when I asked him what happened, he replied that they were out in the street in Washington, D.C. , carrying signs that said things like, ‘Bring the troops home’ and ‘Napalm kills babies.’ Donn himself was never approached or spoken to or singled out. No one was calling him a baby-killer, let alone spitting on him.

“There is a book called The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam written by a Vietnam War veteran named Jerry Lembcke. Dr. Lembcke delves deeply into these stories of abused veterans, and he can find not one single contemporary account of a soldier or veteran being confronted and abused by antiwar demonstrators. Not one. Not in newspapers or news magazines or on TV news.

“This is the point I was trying to make with you. If this sort of behavior took place, and with the astounding frequency that so many veterans claim, surely there would have been a reporter who would have written it down and reported it. Or a photographer. Or someone with a Kodak 104 Instamatic. But there is nothing. Not one shred of documentary evidence that antiwar demonstrators ever engaged in this kind of behavior.

“Your classmate suggested that this was because the media were so antiwar that they wouldn’t report such incidents. But this is completely and wildly incorrect, and based quite frankly on a profound lack of historical knowledge. During the Vietnam War, the media were overwhelmingly supportive of the war, with very few exceptions reporting uncritically the government’s take on the war right up until very near the end of the war. This was irrefutably demonstrated by the research of Lawrence Lichty, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University. The few reporters critical of the war—David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, later Gloria Emerson—were the exception, not the rule. (Incidentally, that classmate of yours came and spoke to me after the class, and we parted on good terms. I wish I’d had the chance to speak with you, too.)

“I must also add, as I did that day in your class, that as a returning Marine in uniform in both March 1968 and June 1969, and later as a participant in the antiwar movement after May 1970, I never experienced or witnessed any untoward behavior directed at soldiers or veterans. Never. The anger I witnessed was directed entirely at the U.S. government, senior military leaders like William Westmoreland, and corporations like Dow Chemical. No one I knew or ever saw blamed the soldiers themselves for what was happening in Vietnam.

“The only violence I ever saw was violence by pro-war supporters who frequently attacked antiwar demonstrators, including veterans like myself who got involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

“And I can tell you in no uncertain terms that if anyone had approached me on my return from Vietnam and spit on me, I would have ended up in jail for assault & battery. You would have had to pull me off the person who had spit on me. More than anything else, I cannot believe that hundreds and thousands of returning soldiers were spit on or verbally assaulted, and meekly turned away without responding vigorously. This, more than any documentary evidence or lack thereof, convinces me that these incidents simply did not happen, no matter how sincere and insistent the storyteller may be. As I said, I do not necessarily believe these people are lying, but I do believe that memory is playing tricks on them.

“Once again, I do apologize for having caused you so much distress. If you would be gracious enough to accept it, I would like to send you a copy of my book Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems.”

Sadly—to me, at least—she never did read this letter, and I never got the chance to share my poems with her. But if somehow someway under the sun, she ever does read what I’ve written, the offer to share one of my books with her will remain good for as long as I’m on the right side of the sod.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.

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