Spitting in the Face of U.S. Troops

Snyder v. PhelpsCross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Last week, the Supreme Court took up a case regarding a right-wing fundamentalist pastor, Fred Phelps, whose anti-gay congregation has taken to protesting at military funerals, carrying signs that read “Fag Troops” or “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Phelps doesn’t seem to care whether or not the dead soldiers in question were actually gay. He believes that the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is the result of America’s immorality and its tolerance for abortion and homosexuality—the latter supposedly expressed in the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

The father of one Marine killed in Iraq sued after his son’s funeral was protested, beginning a long legal battle. The Supreme Court ultimately heard arguments about whether his family’s right to grieve in peace should be taken into consideration in constraining the free speech of Phelps’s followers.

I’ll put aside the legal issues involved in this case going to the Supreme Court. (That the current court is taking on any free speech case probably bodes ill for civil liberties.) Instead, I want to consider for a moment the concept of demonstrating at military funerals—or targeting returning troops in general with protests.

The idea that the people rallying outside military funerals are “Fags Die, God Laughs” adherents of the religious Right, rather than godless leftists, will be a shock for many Americans, especially conservatives. It contradicts a deep-rooted myth.

A persistent narrative about the Vietnam War is that anti-war protesters of the 1960s and 70s vilified the troops, spitting in their faces upon their return to the United States. This storyline was perhaps most memorably presented by veteran John Rambo in the now-classic film First Blood. When he breaks down at the end of the movie, Rambo explains resentfully:

I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of crap! Who are they to protest me?! Who are they?! Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!

I like Rambo as a series of action movies, and I’ve written about the franchise’s conflicted politics. But this point is definitely one that Rambo’s writers get wrong. Historian Jerry Lembcke, author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, has done a very convincing job of debunking the story of spat-upon soldiers. As Jack Shafer summarized in an article for Slate, Lembcke

investigated hundreds of news accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets. But every time he pushed for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story collapsed—the actual person who was spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend. Or somebody’s uncle. He writes that he never met anybody who convinced him that any such clash took place.

While Lembcke doesn’t prove that nobody ever expectorated on a serviceman—you can’t prove a negative, after all—he reduces the claim to an urban myth. In most urban myths, the details morph slightly from telling to telling….

Lembcke uncovered a whole lot of spitting from the war years, but the published accounts always put the antiwar protester on the receiving side of a blast from a pro-Vietnam counterprotester. Surely, he contends, the news pages would have given equal treatment to a story about serviceman getting the treatment. Then why no stories in the newspaper morgues, he asks?

Lastly, there are the parts of the spitting story up that don’t add up. Why does it always end with the protester spitting and the serviceman walking off in shame? Most servicemen would have given the spitters a mouthful of bloody Chiclets instead of turning the other cheek like Christ. At the very least, wouldn’t the altercations have resulted in assault and battery charges and produced a paper trail retrievable across the decades?

Despite its implausibility, the “spitting image” lives on. So persistent is the concept of progressive demonstrators confronting soldiers that if you mention to someone the picture of a “protest at a military funeral” I have no doubt that most would assume that anti-war activists are the ones doing the picketing. The idea that opponents of a given U.S. war must personally despise the troops is a notion central to demonstrating the rank unpatriotic disloyalty of the Left.

I think a version of this idea came into play in the recent Supreme Court arguments. During the session, Justices Roberts and Kagan pursued a line of questioning about whether the content of the protesters’ signs mattered in determining the scope of First Amendment rights:

Chief Justice Roberts asked, “What if the sign simply said, ‘Get out of Iraq?’” [plaintiff Albert Snyder's lawyer, Sean Summers] answered that there would be no problem with that. Justice Sotomayor pressed him on whether it makes a difference if the person to whom the speech is directed is a public or private person. Mr. Summers said yes, and that you have to look at the context, that this was a private funeral, which was disrupted, and there were personal attacks on a private person.

“But suppose,” said Justice Kagan, “it was a standard anti-war demonstration, and the funeral was not disrupted, the protesters were just taking advantage of a private funeral?”

Later, Kagan asked if a wounded soldier could sue someone who demonstrates “outside the person’s home, the person’s workplace, outside the person’s church… saying these kinds of things: ‘You are a war criminal,’ whatever these signs say or worse?”

I understand that Kagan was positing hypothetical scenarios. But her reference to “these signs”—as if placards charging individual troops with war crimes are commonplace at a “standard anti-war demonstration”—reveals that a powerful imaginary is at work.

These days, this idea of anti-war protesters targeting individual troops for abuse, far less gathering at their funerals, is almost as mythical as the “spitting image.”

Can you find anti-war protest signs calling George W. Bush a war criminal? Sure. Cheney? Blair? Kissinger? Yes, yes, yes. But after attending plenty of anti-Iraq War rallies, I can’t recall a single person wielding the “baby-killer” or “war criminal” charge in the way that is typically assumed—to indict your average enlisted soldier. I think that anyone trying to document this type of incident would have a hard time. The closest they could come would be protest signs publicizing the notorious and grotesque Abu Ghraib photos. Of course, interpreting outrage among domestic anti-war activists over those atrocities as unpatriotic hatred for all people in military uniform would require several faulty leaps in logic.

Likewise, I think the closest thing you could find to anti-Iraq War leftists protesting at military funerals would be progressives denouncing the government ban on news coverage of returning war dead. But that stance was hardly anti-troop. The longstanding White House policy represented a propagandistic move to sustain support for military efforts by preventing flag-draped caskets from making it into the press, thereby keeping us ignorant of the true human cost of war.

In truth, those investigating anti-war protests are likely to spot signs saying, “Support the Troops, Bring Them Home,” and to see veterans themselves present as honored participants in marches—members of organizations such as Veterans for Peace. Retired military officials who have spoken out against the folly of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars have been crucial to resistance efforts, and anti-war movements have long emphasized the importance of including returning soldiers in demonstrations.

The recent documentary Sir, No Sir! documented the prevalence of anti-war activism within the ranks of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, as well as among veterans. Part of Lembcke’s argument about the powerful negative impact of stories like Rambo’s is that “the myth of spat-upon Vietnam veterans…displaced from public memory the reality that thousands of GIs and veterans were integral to the anti-war movement, a fact that startles many Sir! No Sir! viewers when they see it so graphically revived on the screen.”

Outreach to returning veterans and to military families remained vital after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That is one reason that Cindy Sheehan exploded in the media as a leading protest figure in 2005.

Despite this, the anti-war Left has for decades been made to answer for a storyline that has little basis in reality. While someone in progressive circles expressing personal hatred for enlisted members of the military would be quickly and widely repudiated, homophobia remains rampant on the Right. The notion that “God Hates Fags”—or at least the unholy “homosexual lifestyle”—holds currency well beyond its extreme fringes. Last week’s Supreme Court case should make us ask: when will the homophobes and religious fundamentalists have to answer for the likes of Pastor Phelps?

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.