Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Serious Centennial

After failing to show up at a major American cemetery in France at least our president did not add to his shame by failing to show up for the big show with 60 or so other national leaders at the Arc de Triomphe for the official ceremony marking the centennial of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of November, 1918, when the guns fell silent on the western front of World War I, officially ending it in the eyes of most historians, even though fighting would escalate in certain other important zones whose outcomes still shake the world, most notably between Greece and Turkey, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire coming out of that leading to many wars since, some of them gong on right now.  We get it that Trump was uncomfortable given that President Macron was lecturing against the sort of nationalism that led to WW I, with a three day forum to follow that Trump will run as fast as possible back to the US to avoid. And, hey, Macron did not even have tanks and missiles for the parade this time, which Trump really likes to see.

This important day, the first Armistice Day, which we renamed Veterans Day in the US after the War to End All Wars' unfortunate sequel (actually  in 1954 right after the end of the "forgotten" Korean War) and have since turned into one of those Monday holidays, has turned into a curiously sad one personally.  It involves another war, Vietnam.  My cousin, Bill Atwater, died yesterday, the day before this serious centennial and also the 243rd birthday of the U.S. Marines.  Yes, Bill was a Marine and was in Vietnam where he was exposed to Agent Orange that led him to have various cancers that basically led to his death, although it was an opportunistic pneumonia that finally actually did him in.  He will be cremated with his ashes spread over the cemetery at Arlington. I had not communicated with him directly for over 20 years (did through another cousin), but he told me at his mother's funeral that he had been spat on when he returned to the U.S.  I have more recently seen stories that such reports were exaggerated, if not outright true.  As it is, I have no way of checking on Bill's story now, but I know  that he was a multiply wounded man.

Maybe those tales of spitting were exaggerated or untrue, but it is true that in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War its vets were widely disrespected.  Peaceniks did not like them because of alleged war crimes (some of which were committed) while hawks did not like them because they lost.  This attitude began to change with the dedication of the Vietnam "wall" memorial in Washington on Veterans Day in 1982.  But the rancor remains as I could see in a Veterans Day parade this afternoon in Harrisonburg happening because of the centennial, with a lot of Vietnam vets marching or riding on their hogs, with all those POW-MIA flags flying,

Of course every war leaves its survivors as victims, even those surviving a supposed clear victory like that War supposedly to End All Wars a century ago.   Millions died and a world order was broken. We know that as it started many leaders and people in the combating nations were enthusiastic about it, hoping or a glorious victory within a short time period, even including most of the leftist socialists who were supposed to recognize international working class solidarity, but in so many numbers went along with the nationalist frenzy and war whooping enthusiasm.  And now we see the same sorts of noises and delusions in many nations, fed by lies upon lies.  Resisting this is so important on this anniversary.

Barkley Rosser


16 comments:

2slugbaits said...

My paternal grandfather was a Marine in the 5th Regiment of the 2nd Division. He saw action at the battle of Belleau Wood, was mildly wounded at Chateau Thierry (Purple Heart) and twice wounded at Blanc Mont Ridge (second Purple Heart). That last wound (from a German machine gun) was horrific and left him partially disabled for the rest of his life. He was unable to support himself after my grandmother died, so he lived with us the last seven years of his life before dying in a Chicago VA hospital. As a teenager I remember his sitting in a chair for hours with a faraway look on his face, just tapping out marching rhythms. You could tell he was back in France in 1918. I never heard him talk about the actual combat he experienced, but he would talk about things his unit did behind the lines in-between battles. Mainly raiding wine cellars and bakeries.


I've never been a fan of calling the day "Veterans Day" because it has too much of a triumphalist military sound to it. Calling it Armistice Day reminds us that the Great War didn't end on 11 November 1918, but only marked a cessation of hostilities on the Western Front. The Great War continued where it started (in the Balkans) for another four years. And even along the Western Front the Allies, the AEF and the German army kept their troops in position until a "final peace" in 1919. Calling it Armistice Day also reminds us of the central significance of the Great War as a turning point in human history. Calling it Veterans Day diminishes the uniqueness of World War I and just lumps it in with all of our other wars. Finally, calling it Veterans Day makes it sound like an American holiday rather than a remembrance of a global catastrophe.

Anonymous said...

I was an antiwar radical in the sixties. Many of my friends and classmates were drafted and sent to Vietnam. When draftees returned, I made sure, as well as I could, that they were treTed with respect and empathy. The large majority had no interest on the military and less interest in fighting. It seems that I was always explaining that the officers were the ones supporting the war and lying about progress and, morale of the troops- especially draftees. It is important to know who you’re fighting against. The people responsible for the war were the despicable ones who did not deserve respect. Even so, spitting and disrespecting those we disagreed with served no purpose. It only alienated those who had taken no position on the war. I believed in education about the realities of the war. My group also gave a lot of support to the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
However, I also believed in confrontation. I stronglysupported the Days-of Rage.
In the war, it was important to distinguish between draftees and those soldiers I considered to be mercenaries.
I still believe that a majority of antiwar protestors respected and were empathetic with soldiers. I also believe that the spitting etc. was magnified by war supporters and encouraged by politicians for the war and the press. I don’t mean to imply that the press reported fake news.

Sandwichman said...

The only CONTEMPORARY, CORROBORATED (by FBI report) incident of returning veterans being spat upon was pro-war spectators spitting on the Vietnam Veterans Against the War contingent at the "Home with Honor" parade in New York City in 1973.

The reported incident subsequently became the basis for a sequence of FICTIONAL accounts that gradually evolved into the Rambo diatribe, which naturally REVERSED the political valence of both the veterans and the assailants.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

See the Angry Bear post of this. Lots of commentaries with at least one other account of spitting on vets arriving from Nam, supposedly in Oakland in 1970. That the FBI did not record all these incidents does not mean that they did not happen.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

The comment I am referring to on the Angry Bear version is one by Jim H. I would suggest that you not push this argument too hard, S-man. It is a pile of crap. The FBI is not everywhere.

Sandwichman said...

Fine, Barkley, if you want to take as conclusively AUTHORITATIVE what some guy says about what his cousin told him at some indeterminate date after the fact, be my guest. Just don't tell me that DOCUMENTED evidence is a pile of crap. May I suggest that you refrain from telling me what I can or cannot argue? Don't be an asshole.

Sandwichman said...

"He returned thru southern California, Oakland I think."

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein regarding the Oakland in "southern California" "There is no there there."

Barkley Rosser said...

It is also my cousin, S-man, but I am not going to argue this. It is a matter that is not able to be definitively resolved, in my view. I have previously said on this that probably some false and exaggerated claims were made, but I am not all that impressed when somebody comes in as you just did with caps and spouting about stuff being "authoritative" and all that.

BTW, I do not think anything I said in either of my remarks above deserves calling me an "asshole." I did not engage in name calling and I recognize the murkiness of all this, even if you do not. You are the one spouting stuff in caps and engaging in name calling. This is beneath you. Really.

Point well taken on Oakland.

Barkley Rosser said...

S-man,

There certainly are a variety of sources out there claiming strongly that "nobody" was spat on, despite hundreds claiming that they were. Nobody is going to straighten all this out for sure one way or the other now, and I leave it as unresolved and quite possible my own cousin did not tell the truth. Anyway, a source that provides other sources supporting some spitting stories (some of which happened at other places besides airports supposedly) is this:

https://www.startribune.com/disrespect-for-vietnam-vets-is-fact-not-fiction/160444095 . If that link does not work (does not appear to be doing so), it is easily found, there are others, even as there are ones claiming no spitting happened at all.

Sandwichman said...

We went over your cousin's story a year ago, Barkley. "Take it that I have already accepted that it is highly likely that my cousin did not tell the truth..."

One other nearly contemporary claim of being spat upon was Ron Kovic, in his autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July. Kovic was in a wheelchair at the GOP convention in 1972 protesting the war. His book was published in 1976.

I don't care what "a variety of sources" say or don't say. A variety of sources say Donald Trump is the greatest president ever, according to Donald Trump. I care about what Jerry Lempke says and what Richard Moser says because they have done substantive research. Lembke collected hundreds of "first-hand accounts." Moser conducted extensive interviews with Vietnam Veterans to construct an oral history. They do not claim that nobody was spat on. They put the stories in the context of whether they are symbolic reconstructions or direct testimony.

Aside from Kovics's 1976 account of an incident in 1972 and Al Reynolds's report from 1973, there was a play produced in 1975, "Medal of Honor Rag." Do you sincerely believe Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and Pat Buchanan would have not tried to capitalize politically on stories of anti-war demonstrators spitting on returning veterans if the incidents were as commonplace as they subsequently became in retrospect? If so, would you like to buy some land in Florida?

Sandwichman said...

Barkley, your Star Tribune link simply reiterated a bunch of claims made ten years ago by Jim Lindgren that of questionable pertinence -- even if true. I followed up on Lindgren's claims a year ago. He "debunked" claims Lembke never made and on that basis proclaimed Lembke to be wrong and disingenuous. A couple of GIs were beat up by a bunch of high school students... an army official said something in a speech... yada yada.

This isn't about whether GIs were ever treated poorly by anyone or whether anti-war protesters were always kind and respectful. This is about the credibility of a generalization and characterization that has become a myth and a cliche. Since there is vanishing little evidence (or none) for the generalization, it is not credible. I would admire your sleuthing skills IF you could come up with a single exception but even that would not be compelling evidence that it was a common experience of Vietnam vets to be spat upon by anti-war protesters when they returned home.

I will use ALL-CAPS whenever I please -- even if it is "beneath me." I didn't call you an asshole, Barkley. I told you NOT to be one.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I really do not want to go on about this, S-man, but you seem to have ignored a lot of what is in that link, which shows Lembke as having been factually incorrect about quite a few things. But I am not going to list it all or go on about it.

If you want to believe that Lembke is absolutely 100% correct when he has been pretty sharply and seriously challenged by other sources, be my guest. But note here that my position is that we do not know, while you are loudly, in caps, declaring that we absolutely know for sure that there was no spitting because Lembke says so, even though he has been seriously challenged, with me not seeing him replying to those challenges.

Outtahere on this one, although I am really not sure why you are so worked up that you have engaged in repeated capping, generally prima facie evidence that the person capping has a weak argument, not to mention borderline insulting, as in telling me not to be an "asshole." Just what would it have taken for me to be that anyway, continuing to suggest that perhaps Lembke might not be 100% for sure absolutely correct in all his claims? I am suggesting that, so if that is it, I plead guilty to being an asshole.

Sandwichman said...

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, Barkley.

Barkley: "..you are loudly, in caps, declaring that we absolutely know for sure that there was no spitting"

Here are my all-caps comments. $1000 (US) says you can't find in them the alleged declaration that "we absolutely know for sure there was no spitting."

Sandwichman: "The only CONTEMPORARY, CORROBORATED (by FBI report) incident of returning veterans being spat upon was pro-war spectators spitting on the Vietnam Veterans Against the War contingent at the "Home with Honor" parade in New York City in 1973."

Sandwichman: "if you want to take as conclusively AUTHORITATIVE what some guy says about what his cousin told him at some indeterminate date after the fact, be my guest. Just don't tell me that DOCUMENTED evidence is a pile of crap."

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Sandwichman,

Let me try to make some peace here. I am sorry that you are so worked up here that you are repeatedly cursing and shouting (all those caps), which do not help your argument at all.

So, let me agree about some points Lembcke has made that you have emphasized, and which I in fact never disagreed with. One is that it is pretty clear that there never were "organized" spitting campaigns against returning Vietnam vets at major US airports. Also, I agree that there was a big wave of claims of being spat on that came out some time after the war, and that many of these were part of a sociological contagion at least partly driven by right-wing war hawks trying to drum up support for later wars. It seems that these points in particular are what have the most worked up, and I agree with them. OK?

That said my partial backhauling from my earlier stating that my late cousin "probably" did not tell the truth about his own experience to the "I do not know" or "maybe" stance I am now at involves two things. One is probably simpy the personal matter of respect for the dead and maybe wishing that he did not lie. As it was when he told me (I had heard he had made the claim earlier) I did not ask him about details, which I simply do not know.

The other matter is that indeed I did go and look more thoroughly at the various pieces on the various sides, including the Lingren and Bob Greene and scattered other accounts that challenge Lembcke. The contemporary reports you asked for seem to have appeared in odd places mostly, like the Bucks County Courier, and quite a few of them did not involve airports, and many involved things other than spitting. Itt does seem that there was some spitting and other unpleasant stuff, but it was acattered, certainly not organized.

I also grant that Lembcke himself recognized that it is impossible to prove a negative, so did appropriately caveat himself that while he was convinced that he had personally debunked all the claims that he was aware of, he knoew that he could not say for sure that there never was any spitting. All he could claim was that there was no organized spitting at major airports, and I think he established that.

Fair enough, S-man?

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Something that I think is important here is to separate treatment of vets from attitudes about wars. The later hawks pushing the spitting stories wanted to tie the two together: opposition to the war means disrespectful attitudes towards vets. And indeed, these folks had some success with this line in arguments over the later Gulf and Iraq wars, unfortunately.

I see a parallel here with supporters of hawkish Isreali policies who want to link criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. Of course there are anti-Semites who also oppose Israel and all its policies, but there are plenty of people, including many in Israel and many US Jews, who criticize Israeli policies while being if anything Semitophilic. (And let us not get off into some big discussion about Israel now, please, about which I am saying nothing here.)

Sandwichman said...

1. Fair enough, with the trivial objection that I'm not "worked up" just lazy. I apologize if my use of all caps gave you that impression I was angry. My usage was meant as a short hand for emphasis to save me the trouble of inserting all those html tags.

2. Exactly. In Vancouver, the people I know personally who are most ardent critics of Israel's treatment of Palestinians are Jews and they are not "self-hating." My family background is Jewish although personally I am too theologically curious to be religious. However, IMHO a "Jewish State" is an oxymoron.