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We Are What We Remember

By Jerry Lembcke,  Associate Professor of Sociology

Jerry Lembcke In February 1991, I was asked to speak at a teach-in on the Persian Gulf War in the Hogan Campus Center Ballroom.  My presentation focused on the image then being popularized in the press of Vietnam-era anti-war activists treating Vietnam veterans abusively.  After sending troops to the Gulf region in August, the Bush administration argued that opposition to the war was tantamount to disregard for the well-being of the troops and that such disregard was reminiscent of the treatment given to Vietnam veterans upon their return home.  By invoking the image of anti-war activists spitting on veterans, the administration was able to discredit such activism and galvanize support for the war.  Drawing on my own experience as a Vietnam veteran who came home from the war and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), I called the image of spat-upon Vietnam veterans a myth.

After seven years of research and writing, my book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam was published in August 1998, by New York University Press.  The book has received widespread press in the print and electronic media.  Many veterans have responded to my book with gratitude that I have set the story straight.  Others have challenged my thesis, claiming to have been treated badly when they returned from the war.  Few of the latter stories, however, lend validity to the myth that it was anti-war activists who were hostile to vets.  Upon questioning, vets will often concede that the hostility came from older veterans, the Veteran's Administration hospital, or simply a drunk in a bar.  The historical fact is that the peace movement saw veterans as potential allies and reached out to them. 

If the image of the spat-upon veteran is mythical, how then does it come to be so widely accepted?  Myths help people come to terms with difficult periods of their past.  They provide explanations for why things happened.  The myth of the spat-upon veteran functions in this way by providing an alibi for why the most powerful and righteous nation on earth (as the United States perceives itself to be) lost the war to an underdeveloped Asian nation.  The myth says, in effect, that we were not beaten by the Vietnamese but were defeated on the home front by fifth columnists: the anti-war movement. 

Explanations offered by myths can also help reconcile disparities between a group's self-image and the historical record.  On a societal level, we have largely forgotten that much of the energy and inspiration for the anti-war movement came from veterans of not only Vietnam but World War II as well.  We "forget" because the image of anti-war warriors does not fit comfortably with the militarism that dominates our culture.  But political amnesia can be dangerous.  For the military, the failure to remember GI and veteran opposition to the war could lead to overly optimistic assessments of what to expect from soldiers in a future conflict.  Written in the Catholic Radical, Australian peace activist Ciaron O'Reilly recently reported that more serious resistance to the Gulf War came from within the military than from the peace movement.  Plagued by myth, young people today have erroneously come to equate being anti-war with being anti-soldier, a connection the Bush administration helped to promote.  The myth sullies the reputation of those individuals and organizations that dared to dissent and strips Vietnam veterans of their true place in history as gallant fighters against the war.  The identity crisis supposedly suffered by Vietnam veterans because they were denied the military victory of their youth might be better laid at the feet of a culture that confers manhood on warriors, but not on peacemakers, and especially not warriors-turned-peacemakers. 

We are what we remember, but how do we remember?  We remember through the representations of our experiences, through the symbols that stand for the events.  While the events themselves are frozen in time, their representations are not.  Our memories of what happened can be changed by altering the images of events.  The power to control memory is thus bound up with the power to control the representations of history which, in our society, are heavily mediated by the institutions of popular culture and mass communications.  As we approach the 21st century, the twisted imagery of Vietnam veterans in films like Rambo continues to infect our culture and cloud our political discourse.  To look at a film like Forest Gump is, according to film scholar William Adams, to watch an historical image in the making, a public memory in the course of construction. 

Reclaiming our memory of the Vietnam era entails a struggle against very powerful institutional forces that toy with our imaginings of the war for reasons of monetary, political, or professional gain.  It is a struggle for our individual and collective identities that calls us to reappropriate the making of our own memories.  It is a struggle of epic importance.  Studies of the 20th century will shape our national identity for decades to come.  Remembered as the war that was lost because of betrayal at home, Vietnam becomes a modern-day Alamo that must be avenged.  Remembered as a war in which soldiers and pacifists joined hands to fight for peace, Vietnam symbolizes popular resistance to political authority and the dominant images of what it means to be a good American.  By challenging myths like that of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran, we reclaim our role in the writing of our own history, the construction of our own memory, and the making of our own identity. 


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