Spitting Report VI: Academic Folklore.--

There is an academic meme that seems to have spread without citations to any military regulations or published collection of stories that would support it: that returning soldiers reporting being spat upon often claim to have flown directly from Vietnam into civilian airports in situations where such flights would not have happened (or would have been extremely rare).

In the entry on Military Folklore, in American Folklore: An Encyclopedia (pp. 484-85), Carol Burke advances this false meme:

The war-weary soldier, many accounts claim, taxis into the gate, deplanes, and walks across the tarmac, but instead of hearing the cheers and bands that welcomed his predecessors, he walks through a crowd of jeering people, one of whom spits on him. Although the account defies reality (How many troop transport planes flew into commercial airports?), it is always told seriously.

But in Homecoming, Bob Greene’s 1989 collection of spitting stories, not one of the 58 reasonably detailed first-hand accounts fully fits Burke’s description, though a few could be stretched to fit it. Barry Streeter (p. 41) claims to have flown into San Francisco, but does not claim to have flown on a troop transport. Indeed, since he was flying back to the US on emergency leave, he would have been flying alone. As Part II of my report on spitting documented, it would have been typical for soldiers flying on emergency leave to be flying on commercial flights into commercial airports, in particular, San Francisco, designated in military regulations as one of the four regular ports of debarkation for soldiers flying from the Far East to the West Coast.

Another veteran in Bob Greene’s book was not returning from Vietnam, but rather he was being reassigned from a hospital in Japan (where he met and married his Japanese wife) to a particular hospital in the states. His Japanese wife and child were flying with him, so again there is no suggestion that it was a troop transport. Like those flying on emergency leave, those reassigned to a specific unit in the states flying with dependents often flew on commercial airlines into commercial airports at the military expense.

A third spitting story involved a serviceman who had flown into the San Francisco airport, but there was no indication in which direction he was headed or even whether he himself was ever stationed overseas. A couple more writers in Bob Greene’s Homecoming appear to have flown into the San Francisco Airport, and another letter writer reports having flown into the Los Angeles Airport.

Most of these stories were either of soldiers on leave statuses that often took commercial flights from the Far East, or the accounts did not disclose where the flight to the US airport originated (it may have come from another US commercial airport after he had arrived at a military airport and been processed). None of these stories explicitly involved troop transport planes flying into commercial airports.

Bruce Franklin appears to make the same mistake:

“How then to explain the belief now held by many veterans that they were indeed spat upon as they arrived from Vietnam at the San Francisco and Los Angeles airports? The answer lies in the transformative power of collective national myth over individual memory. The myth is so strong that it has even determined their memory of where they arrived, for they were flown back not to these civilian airports but to military bases closed to outsiders.” (H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, p. 62)

The story that Carol Burke and Bruce Franklin tell appears to be a bit of “academic folklore.”

Interestingly, Jerry Lembcke suggests how such myths and folklore could have come about and what purposes they might fulfill:

Myths can play a positive role in society by helping a people create a common sense of who they are. The stories that make up the myths help establish the boundaries between who and what the people in the society are and who and what they are not. Viewed this way, myths arise out of the common experience of a people and serve the interests of the group as a whole. But the creation of myths can also involve the exercise of power, and their utilization can serve the particular needs of dominant interest groups. The origins of a myth . . . lies less in the common experience of the people than in the need of one group of people within a particular society to have another group believe that something did or did not happen. (Lembcke, Spitting Image, p. 8)

Myths help people come to terms with difficult periods of their past. They provide explanations for why things happened. Often, the explanations offered by myths help reconcile disparities between a group's self-image and the historical record of the group's behavior. (Lembcke, Spitting Image, p. 184)

Indeed!

That's the problem with Whig History.

Even some VC commenters seem to be seeing things from an almost exclusively presentist lens. But it's Lembcke's pre-occupation with the current-day implications of spitting stories that may be causing his problems in seeing the past clearly. Not everyone lines up the same on every war. Some of us opposed the Vietnam War (and are not ashamed of our opposition to it), but that doesn't mean that we were blind to the nastier side of that movement. Attitudes toward the military are nothing like they were then, a fact that I think some younger readers may find it hard to credit fully.

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More sometime next week . . . .