Controversy over a 2007 news account about a war protester spitting on an Iraq vet at a peace march unearthed a trope that dates back to Vietnam. In the 1990s, sociologist and Vietnam War veteran Jerry Lembcke researched spitting stories in the media during the 1960s and 70s. He told us in 2007 that not a single first-hand account was published.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone, with another cultural trope to debunk. Do war protesters, dating back at least as far as Vietnam, spit on the troops? Is that something they really do? The question emerged in January 2007, when the anti-war group “United for Peace and Justice” held a rally in Washington. The coverage of that rally became a hot issue in the liberal blogosphere, mostly because of the placement of a source in some of those stories: Joshua Sparling, an Army veteran who lost part of his leg in Iraq. Deep in an article in The New York Times, he claimed that a belligerent protester spat at him and he spat back. The critics noted that the story didn't report that Sparling was part of an organized counter-protest nor did it mention that he seemed to be a frequent victim of soldier-haters, at least according to his own testimony on Fox News, where he was a regular guest, and that he’d been seated at a President Bush State of the Union address in the seats just behind Lynn Cheney. In short, said the critics, this guy was not just a veteran gunslinger but a partisan one. BOB GARFIELD: The New York Times stood by its story. They told us at the time that its reporter witnessed the spitting incident with her own eyes. We took them at their word. After all, haven't we all heard of this kind of thing happening to vets from another unpopular war? Fifteen years ago, sociologist and Vietnam vet Jerry Lembcke set out to trace the incidents of spitting stories in the media. He delved into press archives from the sixties and seventies, and what he found was very surprising: not a single firsthand account of a vet getting spit on, and close to no published claims by anyone so ignobly victimized. JERRY LEMBCKE: So it really wasn’t until about 1980 that these stories began to circulate, they sort of began to pop-up like mushrooms in the spring and begin to appear in popular culture. Films like the first Rambo film, make reference to, Rambo says he was spat on when he came home. [CLIP]: [SYLVESTER STALLONE AS RAMBO]: It wasn’t my war. You asked me, I didn’t ask you and I did what I had to do to win, but somebody wouldn’t let us win. And I come back to the world and I see maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting, calling me baby-killer and all kinds of vile crap! [END CLIP] BOB: So that's what the spitting story sounded like in 1982. Let's take a listen to what it sounded like in 2007. Here's Josh Sparling on Sean Hannity's radio show, describing his alleged spitting incident. JOSH SPARLING: That was the worst afternoon of being American that I've ever had in my life. And they actually made me feel ashamed to be a soldier, almost. They, they – they kept calling me a baby killer and a murderer, and they said I was a disgrace, and I had blood covering my hands. They don't know how I sleep at night. SEAN HANNITY: So here you give your leg for your country, here you go off and you put your life at risk for your country for the right for these morons to say whatever they want at their little rally there, and the thanks you get for it is just like a lot of vets after Vietnam – you get spit at. JOSH SPARLING: You know that, and that's exactly almost how I felt. I, I - I thought back, and I'm sure it wasn't as bad as it was back then, but I just was like, wow, this is - must have been what they felt like. BOB GARFIELD: Apart from your particular suspicions about this incident, tell me how the story that played out last week resembled the stories that you've been following over the last 35 years. JERRY LEMBCKE: Well, the veracity of the stories themselves is only part of what I'm interested in. Stories like this may be true or they may not be true. Of course, I can't prove that they're not true. But it's how they play into a kind of betrayal narrative for why we lost the war in Vietnam, and in this case, why it is that we would lose the war in Iraq also, the allegation here being that it's protestors at home that undermine the morale of the troops, and some Bush administration spokespeople saying that is lending aid and comfort to the enemy. And both of these are kind of themes in the spitting stories that followed out of the Vietnam War. BOB GARFIELD: Why are we so prepared to believe that these were commonplace incidents in the Vietnam era? JERRY LEMBCKE: Well, it's a face-saving device. It helps construct an alibi, the alibi being that we beat ourselves, that we were defeated on the home front, and that we, the most powerful nation on earth, was not defeated by the small upstart nation of Asian others. It's a dangerous myth because, coming out of Vietnam, it kept alive the idea that we could win wars like Vietnam if we just stuck together as a country, if we just stayed solid behind the war effort. BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe self-fulfilling mythology. But is it possible that as a society we have so internalized the idea of returning soldiers from unpopular wars being spat upon that it actually becomes something that protestors might do, thinking that's, you know, the thing to do? Could that be going on right about now? JERRY LEMBCKE: No, I think it's more the opposite. I think the internalization of the myth - I think that's a good insight. But I think it's more likely that people returning from Iraq expect to be spat on, and that what they expect is what they think happened to Vietnam veterans. So they come home looking for this to happen and looking for a chance to tell the story of how they were spat on when they came home from their war. BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Jerry, thank you very much. JERRY LEMBCKE: You're welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Jerry Lembcke is a sociology professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and Legitimacy of Vietnam. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]