Prof Pushing 'Spat-upon Myth' is Debunked (Twice) in the Very Same Magazine Where His Article Appeared!

Holy Cross College Professor Jerry Lembcke's 1999 column, "We Are What We Remember" (HTML link), was originally published in the April edition of Holy Cross Magazine (original PDF of the entire magazine is here; Lembcke's column is on Page 74).

Lembcke's core claim is that "the image of the spat-upon veteran is mythical ....." This is a narrative that at least two Greater Cincinnati-area bloggers appear to have fallen for hook, line, and sinker (here and here; BizzyBlog's "debunk of the debunkers" post from earlier today is here; be sure to read the Updates and the comments). Apparently others around the country have also been taken in.

Lembcke's fallback position is that:

But while I cannot prove the negative, I can prove the positive: I can show what did happen during those years and that that historical record makes it highly unlikely that the alleged acts of spitting occurred in the number and manner that is now widely believed.

There's a teeny tiny problem with Lembcke's claim. As Former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Bill Sloat notes at his Daily Bellwether blog, Jerry Lembcke's "search for evidence" apparently overlooked a couple of contrary items that were very close by -- so close that he would not even have had to leave his easy chair after reading the article he wrote. That's because Lembcke is debunked in the VERY SAME issue of the VERY SAME Holy Cross Magazine -- not once, but twice, by two separate Holy Cross alumni who served in Vietnam!

The first alumni vet is Jim McDougald '51. The second is Steve Bowen '65. The story, along with its individual portrayals, covers Pages 18-31 of the original publication. Extracts with the two spitting stories are these:

(Page 29 of original) For Jim MacDougald, who traveled not once but twice from Delaware to Da Nang, who served in Korea and then Vietnam, and who was spit on when he returned from the war, every veteran must find his own way. Surviving the war is not the final chapter.

(Page 26 of original) Bowen says the protesters seemed shallow to him, after a year of dealing with clear-cut life and death situations. He remembers arriving back in Los Angeles and seeing a woman in a miniskirt. He says he was feeling tan, fit and tough in his uniform with his shooting badges and medals. She gave him a smile and he approached her. When he got close, she spit on the front of his shirt, he says.

"She was so good looking, I just laughed," he says.

Here's what is remarkable to me about these two reports: how matter-of-fact the descriptions of the spitting incidents are. I see both as situations where the targets, MacDougald and Bowen, are basically saying "it happened, and it's no big deal" -- in the sense that it appears to have been a typical experience many, if not most, Vietnam vets and soldiers at the time recognized they were likely to have to endure at some point. And this can't be emphasized enough -- it probably wasn't ever going to be a big deal to men like MacDougald and Bowen, but it sure as heck has become a big deal in the big picture now, and only because of the attempt to, in effect, call them and any other Vietnam-era vet who was spat upon a liar, an exaggerator, or a rare exception.

No amount of after-the-fact Lembcke qualifiers can be put onto MacDougald's and Bowen's stories; each of the incidents described took place on their returning from the war.

There would appear to be no reason why two gentlemen over a quarter-century removed from their war experience would just make up renditions of spitting incidents for the heck of it for the benefit of their alumni publication. The same goes for the dozens, if not hundreds, of bloggers and commenters who have posted on their own experiences in the past few days. The same would hold for the roughly 1,000 vets who related their experience to columnist and author Bob Greene in the late 1980s.

I'll leave to others to analyze (or is it "spitalize"?) why it's sooooo important for the Jim Lembckes of the world to cling tightly to beliefs that are so demonstrably untrue. Just rest assured that the "spat-upon myth" is no myth. It happened, it happened often enough to matter, and no amount of historical revisionism will ever change that. Jerry Lembcke and his naive holdouts should be embarrassed and ashamed of themselves.

Cross-posted at

Foreign Policy Vietnam Military