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Spit Take

(AP)
Do antiwar protesters have a penchant for spitting on veterans? Or is the notion that they spit on returning soldiers a myth? That's the topic of a pair of columns by Slate's Jack Shafer and a story on Sunday's "On The Media."

Squarely on the side of the skeptics is Jerry Lembcke, who wrote a book in 1998 called "Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam." He calls the notion that protesters spit on returning soldiers a "face-saving device." Argues Lembcke: "It helps construct an alibi, the alibi being that we beat ourselves, that we were defeated on the home front, and that we, the most powerful nation on earth, was not defeated by the small upstart nation of Asian others. It's a dangerous myth because, coming out of Vietnam, it kept alive the idea that we could win wars like Vietnam if we just stuck together as a country, if we just stayed solid behind the war effort."

Lembcke, who is himself a veteran, doesn't say the stories are untrue – he can't say for certain one way or another. But he suggests the vast majority are likely fabricated: No news story, he says, has ever documented an instance of a protester spitting on a soldier. Shafer, who agrees with Lembcke's argument, complains that the press has continued to repeat the tale, as evidenced by a recent Newsweek piece reporting that "returning GIs were sometimes jeered and even spat upon in airports."

Writes Shafer: "Like other urban myths, the spit story gains power every time it's repeated and nobody challenges it. Repeated often enough, it finally sears itself into the minds of the writers and editors at Newsweek as fact."

On the other side of the fence are a number of conservative bloggers, as well as those who say they know the spitting took place, since it happened to them.

One such person is Joshua Sparling, whom the New York Times reported was spat on at a recent antiwar protest. Critics complained that the story did not note that Sparling, who was part of an organized counter-protest, is a frequent Fox News guest and has been a guest at the State of the Union. In other words, they think he's trying to score political points, and they don't believe him.

But Sparling and others, including commenters here, say that they were spat on, and they resent the implication that they are lying. This is one of those issues where your politics have a lot to do with whom you believe: Conservatives tend to trust those who say they were spit on, as the notion that such incidents took place paints the antiwar left in an unflattering light. Liberals, meanwhile, are more likely to see the spitting stories as an example of partisan propaganda, misinformation put out by those who want to demonize those who disagree with them.