Please don’t perpetuate the myth that Americans who opposed the Vietnam War treated servicemembers with disrespect, unable to tell the difference between supporting the war and supporting the troops. I’m a former Air Force officer, and this popular rewrite of history is bad for the military and bad for America. The myth is so convenient and seductive. It fosters military resentment against civilian society. It can be brought out at any time to curb dissent, because no one wants to be lumped in with the mythical protester who spits on troops.
The opposite of this myth is much closer to the truth: the people who turned their backs on Vietnam veterans were those who supported the war but not the troops. Vietnam veterans were shunned by older veterans, men who had served in WWII and the Korean War who made up the core of veterans organizations like the VFW and the American Legion. They strongly supported the Vietnam War, but they treated the new generation of service members as unworthy of the brotherhood. To the older guys, they were losers and long-hairs.
Consider the founding motto of the Vietnam Veterans of America: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” This would be a very odd founding motto if the real problem was disrespect from anti-war protesters or Americans in general. Jerry Lembcke’s 1998 book The Spitting Image debunks the whole myth about how Americans treated returning Vietnam vets. Another good book on this popular misunderstanding is A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger.
Update from a reader:
You do know that Jack Shafer [here, here and here], Jim Lindgren, and others have demolished Lembcke’s work, right? In fact, Lembcke himself has even backtracked on many of the claims in his book when confronted by Lindgren’s evidence.
Another update from a defender of Lindgren:
He has never claimed that spitting never happened. One can not prove a negative, and, as Lembcke readily acknowledges, it is entirely likely that in the Vietnam era someone, somewhere has been spat upon. His point is that such incidents were rare, isolated, and could not have occurred nearly as often as people seem to think they did. Everyone has heard these stories. Forty years after the war they still turn up in newspaper articles every week – which is Lembcke’s point, that a handful of unconfirmed reports have passed into widely accepted myth and now serve to cast soldiers as victims, scapegoat the anti-war crowd, and assuage our collective guilt over a stupid war.
Another testifies to the generational divide among veterans that the first reader touched upon:
I demonstrated against the war when I was in college, then dropped out and eventually enlisted in the Marines from ’73-’75 (Ooo Rah!). Afterward, I went back to school on the GI Bill and had a work-study with the VA to do veteran outreach. Whenever I tried to contact organizations like the American Legion and the V.F.W. in order to bring them together with the Vietnam vets or to solicit their political clout to take up issues that were important to the vets (Agent Orange, extending the period to use VA bennies), I got a blast of anger and disdain.
By that time, vets looked like other students, so the older vets from previous wars wanted no part of the “long-haired, dope smoking, treasonous losers.” They wouldn’t even buy anyone a goddam beer. More than once, I heard that the Agent Orange issue was “Commie bullshit” and the Vietnam Memorial design was denounced as a “black gash of shame.”
All of this taking place against a backdrop of TV and film portrayals of Vietnam vets as bitter, crazed loners with guns made sure that the returning troops had nowhere to turn except inward for any support or pride. Most went onto productive and happier lives, but the suicide, alcoholism, homelessness and ruined lives of some of those honorable men and women belongs to the whole of America, not to any one group. I am glad that troops today are respected for what they do. It would have made a world of difference to those who went before them.
Yes, there were no “Welcome Home” parades, but that was based in part on the characteristics of the Vietnam-era tours of duty, in which soldiers were rotated into units, and then rotated out after their time was up, arriving in and departing from the theater of war individually.
A veteran speaks to his personal experience of returning home:
I served three tours in Vietnam (1967–1971) and never encountered or heard first-hand from anyone I know any negative behavior towards veterans. In my last duty station before my enlistment ended, I was able to attend a local university part-time, often in my uniform, and no one cared. In fact, the only three times I was discriminated against or mistreated were instances in which the scorn came from older, conservative types in towns San Diego, CA and Racine, WI, with local histories of thinking of enlisted men as scum. The young people I met everywhere realized we were just also young people.
A lot of that victimization hype, I think, was driven by people who were gung-ho military and patriotic about Vietnam realized that they had been duped. It was easier for them to make up stories about public mistreatment to gain victim status from liberals a hippies – even though they had actually been victimized by the government and military.
An older veteran of two wars also shares his experience:
I was just 21 when I returned from Korea in 1954. We arrived in Bremerton, WA, processed through and caught a train to Minneapolis/St Paul. The overall reception I received on that train was like a returning warrior. My meals were paid for by the others in the dining car and the club car was like a “coming home party. I felt like a million bucks!
The only negative encounter I had regarding my return from Vietnam was in the SEA-TAC air terminal where a half dozen or so of us, USAF and Army, encountered peaceniks who shouted “baby killers” at us as we walked to our respective gates. The most positive incident was when my wife and I visited old friends in Memphis in 1989 and were invited to attend a 4th of July celebration with them. Very emotional and all veterans of Vietnam received a standing ovation.
I believe Republicans used “Support our Troops” primarily in conjunction with the invasion of Iraq and then hi-jacked certain parts from post-Vietnam to further “pacify” the public. For example, when it was discovered and publicized that the returning war dead were being “shuttled” from Andrews AFB to awaiting hearses with no press coverage allowed, they, the Bush White House, put more emphasis on the slogan.
One more reader:
Generally, the people who treat our returning vets poorly is our own government; and we’re doing it right now by ignoring current science on PTSD and foot-dragging on rape in the military. As the 2008 nominee, John McCain opposed the 21st century GI Bill because it was too generous; he introduced his own legislation designed to keep troops from leaving the military for college.