NEW YORK--A haunted young man whose face bears too many lines for his years, jetlagged and limping from a wound sustained in the defense of his country half a world away, emerges from a jetway at San Francisco International Airport. A woman about the same age waits in the terminal. A peace-sign necklace hanging above a loose floral-print dress billowing about her unshaven legs, the hippie chick scornfully scans his uniform, spits in his face and screams: "Baby killer!" The veteran scans the crowd for support, but sees only contempt in the faces of passersby.
It's a powerful, tragic cliché of the Vietnam era, dramatized in the "Rambo" movies, and a cautionary tale for today's antiwar left. But according to Holy Cross College professor Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam vet and author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, it never happened.
"If you go back and look at the historical record, like I did--newspaper accounts, police records, and also just things historians have written," says Lembcke, "you don't find any record or any evidence that these things happened--or even that they were being claimed as happening--in the late 1960s and early 1970s." There isn't even one letter written by a soldier at the time referencing such an incident.
Nevertheless, the myth lives. Opponents of the U.S. war against Iraq worry that the public may look at them as ideological heirs to those who supposedly used demoralized vets as spittoons. Oppose the war, they say, but support the troops!
Michael Moore's documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 reflects the left's internal contradiction about the military. First we see U.S. forces indiscriminately bombing Iraqi civilians, torturing and sexually harassing prisoners and terrorizing women and children in their homes. But the film's longest segment focuses on deaths and injuries suffered by those who, in Moore's words, "defend our freedom." Well, which is it? Are they torturers or footsoldiers of democracy?
"When Bush launched an illegal war," a European reader wrote to Time magazine after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, "he created an atmosphere that led some Americans to believe that anything goes. Please, America, don't blame the soldiers. Blame Bush, and hold him responsible in November."
Of course Bush bears most of the blame for the Iraq war. But what if, to recall a classic poster of the 1960s, they gave a war and nobody came? (Or, for that matter, what if those who went refused orders to torture and terrorize the locals?) Every man and woman serving in the armed forces enlisted voluntarily. If there hadn't been either 135,000 people willing to sign their lives away, or an unpopular draft, Bush would/could not have gone to war against Iraq. Antiwar activists ought to spread that message.
There was a time when service in U.S. military was honorable and professionally rewarding. But because of politicians who use the military to pump up corporate profits instead of defending us, that was a long time ago. Americans with personal integrity should boycott the volunteer military and discourage everyone they care about to do the same. "They come from parts of the country where jobs are hard to find," an acquaintance condescendingly excuses the enlistees. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? I'd rather sleep under a bridge, eating trash out of a dumpster, than murder human beings for Halliburton.
Not only is working as a hired gun for the U.S. government bad for your soul, it's a bad deal financially. Starting pay in the U.S. armed forces runs about $12,000 per year, about the same as working at McDonald's. The much-vaunted tuition benefit is a joke: at a time when college costs an average of $20,000 per year, a two-year active-duty stint in the army gets you a maximum $7,500. And if some insurgent draws a bead on you, you'll be treated in shabby, overcrowded Veterans Administration hospitals until you end up on the street, out of work and out of luck.
Until military service becomes less of a scam, no one should sign up. Those who have should not reenlist.
Who will defend the United States if attrition shrinks the volunteer armed forces? If we're attacked by a foreign power, as we last were in 1941 at Pearl Harbor, Americans will line up to volunteer. World War II, won six decades ago by a storied generation of draftees and volunteers, was fought to defend American freedom. But we haven't fought an honorable war since.
Ted Rall is the author of a new book, Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years. Ordering information is available at amazon.com.
Copyright 2004 Ted Rall
Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate/Ted Rall
Ted Rall online: www.rall.com