Posted in anti-war movements, censorship, material culture, military, myths, photographs, propaganda, resistance, Vietnam War

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam

Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Traditionally, Americans have shown their appreciation for soldiers returning from war, believing that they all deserve a warm welcome for their sacrifice.  Newspaper columnist Bob Greene collected accounts from Vietnam War veterans about their experience of returning home in his 1989 book Homecoming.  Many of these recollections involved stories of hippies and other anti-war activists spitting on them as they arrived stateside. In Spitting Image, Jerry Lembcke investigates the myth of Vietnam War veterans returning home only to be spat upon by representatives of the anti-war movement. His research reveals that no evidence exists to support that such incidents ever occurred.  Barry Romo, who was the head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and an active collector of Vietnam War historical materials, literature, and oral accounts, confirmed that no news source documentation (such as photographs) exist to validate this myth.[1] Contemporary newspaper reports and police records document no such incidents. If soldiers had been spit on, someone would have collected photographic evidence showing the alleged perpetrators.[2] Lembkce contends that the myth was propagated by government officials in order to demonize anti-war movements and the political Left in order to gain public support for current and future wars.[3] He shows how this myth and PTSD diagnoses worked to stereotype Vietnam War veterans as mentally unstable.

Few people realize that World War II veterans were early demonstrators against the Vietnam War and instrumental in reaching out to Vietnam era soldiers and veterans.[4] Veterans’ groups led some of the earliest protest marches against the war and developed tactics, such as burning draft cards and returning military medals in mass, which became emblems of the anti-war movement.[5] Lembkce argues that the anti-war movement established credibility with drafted and enlisted men, which helped form tight relationships between veterans and anti-war activists by 1970. Many veterans of previous wars, however, were openly hostile to the anti-war veterans and were the source of much of the grist for the myth.[6]

Lembkce explains that stories about war veterans being spat upon frequently occur in modern histories around the world. Many stories involve, on one hand, soldiers who fought on the losing side of the war and, on the other hand, their abusers who were traitors to the national cause. For example, following Germany’s loss in World War I, Fascists spread similar rumors to incite public anger against groups and individuals who had opposed the war. Some historians claim that images of abused veterans were critical to Nazi propaganda that fanned the flames of patriotism to lead German masses into World War II.[7]

According to Lembcke, it was extremely important for the Nixon administration to discredit the anti-war movement, so the government worked with Hollywood and other popular cultural media creators to propagate this false collective memory. To discredit anti-war veterans and mobilize support for the war, the administration drew a distinction between “good” pro-war veterans and “bad” anti-war protesters who symbolically spit on brave and loyal fighting men. The figurative symbol became a literal reality for the American public. Years later, the Bush administration exploited this anti-American image to gain public support for the Gulf Wars, convincing Americans that not supporting the troops was a fatal mistake of the Vietnam War. However, both administrations had enormous stakes in depicting the anti-war movement as anti-veteran. In order to achieve this goal, the true collective memory of protesters demonstrating at induction centers while recruits and draftees went off to war was rewritten into a story of protesters demonstrating at airports when the worn veterans returned home.

Recent analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War in American culture has revealed that the primary focus of Vietnam veterans’ stories is how they were treated after their return from the war, rather than their experiences in the war.  Lembcke notes, however, that most documentation of abusive behavior against Vietnam veterans show that pro-war people acted against anti-war veterans.[8]  In several interesting revelations, Lembcke argues that members of conservative veterans’ groups, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion, rejected soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.[9] Claiming that Vietnam was not a “real war,” Vietnam veterans were excluded from participating in veterans’ parades and treated as second-class citizens in veterans’ hospitals.[10] When VVAW conducted its march and guerrilla theater from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1971, pro-war members of the VFW publically harassed the marchers.[11]

[1] Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 5.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] We can see from recent events in the United States how powerfully “fake news” can influence public opinion.

[4] Lembcke, 4.

[5] Ibid., 29.

[6] Ibid., 76-83.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 81.

[9] Ibid., 78.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Posted in censorship, gender studies, masculinity, material culture, military, photographs, propaganda, WWII

The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II

Jarvis, Christina S. The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004.

Jarvis explores images of masculinity during World War II and the years leading up to war in The Male Body at War.  Proposing that America’s idealized vision of the militarized white male body was a national symbol, her study compares connections between the emerging “powerful male ‘body politic’” and the United States’ “rising status as a world power.”[1] During these years, Uncle Sam was transformed from his slender World War I form into an imposingly broad-shouldered figure during World War II.[2] Images of Uncle Sam, America, and its men were transformed into powerful fighting machines.

Her argument is based on the idea that men were emasculated by the Great Depression. New Deal employment programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Work Projects Administration (WPA) aimed to reinvigorate the image of American manliness. Efforts intensified as the nation acquired a new sense of national purpose with its entry into the war.

Jarvis sheds light on how military medical boards implemented massive screenings to sort and categorize men in terms of their usefulness to the war effort. Relying on Michel Foucault’s definition of “technologies of power” that literally measure and codify “normality,” Jarvis shows how new understandings of deviance were constructed through medical examinations and how these classifications impacted larger society.[3]

The government restricted images of wounded and dead soldiers during the first two years of World War II.[4] Even though there were fewer than 300,000 battle deaths and approximately 671,000 servicemen suffered combat wounds, there were over 24 million hospital admissions during the war attributed to a wide range of maladies, such as malaria, dysentery, and “jungle rot.”[5] However, the true extent of the horrors of war were concealed from the public for much longer.  Jarvis notes that “American soldiers did not shed any blood in print” until May 14, 1945.[6]

Images of wounded soldiers that appeared in posters and advertisements tended to valorize warriors while simultaneously shaming citizens into giving more.[7] Images of wounded soldiers were also used to recruit women to enlist as nurses.[8]  Nevertheless, representations of wounded servicemen continued to be perceived as a threat to national manhood, so were tightly controlled by the OWI in cooperation with Hollywood studios. Representations of the physically disabled president were likewise controlled.[9] America’s soldiers and leaders represented the health of the nation and needed to stand strong.

[1] Jarvis, 4.

[2] Ibid., 35-44.

[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

[4] Jarvis, 97.

[5] Ibid., 91-92.

[6] Ibid., 89. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 and Germany surrendered on May 8th.

[7] Ibid., 100.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 30-33.

Posted in censorship, film, Korean War, masculinity, material culture, military, photographs, propaganda, Vietnam War, WWII

Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era

Huebner, Andrew J. Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

In Warrior Image, Andrew J. Huebner challenges a common perception that American soldiers were depicted differently in World War II than they were during the Vietnam War. He argues that the contrast between the virtuous soldier of the “good war” and the “degraded and damaged” soldier of the Vietnam War is not as stark as many people believe. Even though early images of World War II portrayed soldiers as disciplined, brave, and patriotic, darker images reflecting the horrors of war began to emerge before the war ended. By the end of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, soldiers were depicted in the media as “frustrated, disillusioned, isolated, and embittered.”[1]  Yet, each of these wars began as a good war and its soldiers had been perceived as virtuous warriors, but events destroyed those images.

Huebner argues that images of foot soldiers in American culture from the 1940s through the 1970s have evolved over time, but warriors in all three wars have been portrayed as both heroes and victims. News photography, advertisements, propaganda, films, magazines, novels, and poetry all contributed to these changing images. His book features only males, most of whom are white. He uses terms such as soldier, veteran, warrior, serviceman, and GI broadly to include members of all military branches, but ignores airmen, seamen, medics, and those who served at headquarters or behind the lines because most of the war-related imagery in this period featured the infantry.[2] Huebner’s interpretations of how American warriors have been characterized comes primarily from depictions of soldiers and veterans in Hollywood films, but also in popular novels, magazines, television, and advertisements.[3]

Huebner contends that the most important element of war imagery relates to how these images elicit public sympathy for and identification with the soldiers, rather than how they work to promote the war effort. He writes, “The primary role of the media in wartime in the Anglo-American world has long been to maintain the ties of sentiment between the soldiers in the field and the home front.”[4] However, audience emotions can be manipulated for various purposes.

The OWI (Office of War Information) worked to influence popular publications’ portrayals of wounded soldiers by discouraging the public from pitying disabled veterans.[5] In an article published in Ladies Home Journal in July 1944, women were warned against sentimentality, “Men allowed to pity themselves will, in time, be disqualified from normal life and will end their days in veterans’ hospitals.”[6] Typical wartime photos that were published in magazines and newspapers showed beautiful women kissing and embracing their severely wounded fiancés, which reassured soldiers that such affection would be the reward for their sacrifices.[7] Advertisements in popular magazines followed suit. For example, an ad for Pullman sleeping cars showed cheerful wounded soldiers on trains being waited on by attractive nurses.[8]

However, the OWI changed their standards according to their needs. Huebner shows that censorship was loosened when public attention began to wane. Beginning in 1943, the government began releasing grisly photos to motivate the public. These photos had previously been consigned to the War Department’s “Chamber of Horrors” file.[9] OWI even requested that advertisers include images of dead U.S. soldiers to help raise money for the war effort even though depictions of fallen soldiers challenged the image of manly invulnerability. Huebner notes Christina Jarvis’ discussion of wounded soldiers in The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II, “War produces alternative or ‘abject’ masculinities that exist alongside and in opposition to dominant cultural representations.”[10] In other words, even though Americans visualized soldiers, nation, and manhood to be invincible, war made them confront more sobering and realistic images.

[1] Andrew J. Huebner, Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 11.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] For information on Hollywood and the military, see David L. Robb, Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2004); Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard, Hollywood War Machine: U.S. Militarism and Popular Culture (Boulder: Paradigm Pub., 2007); Matthew Alford and Michael Parenti, Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Geoff Martin and Erin Steuter, Pop Culture Goes to War: Enlisting and Resisting Militarism in the War on Terror (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

[4] Huebner, 11. The book does not provide any information about public attitudes toward war, which would have helped to solidify his points.

[5] Ibid., 26-29.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 29-32.

[10] Ibid., 32; Christina S. Jarvis, The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004), 88.