You Gotta Love Her
Imagine a nineteenth-century Jane Fonda visiting the Oglala Sioux in the Black Hills before the battle at Little Big Horn. Imagine her examining Crazy Horse's arrows or climbing upon Sitting Bull's horse. Such behavior by a well-known actress no doubt would have infuriated Gen. George Armstrong Custer, but what would the rest of us feel today?
In Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner played an American soldier who went "native" and, as a result, was attacked and brutalized as a traitor by his own men. But we in the modern audience are supposed to respect and idealize the Costner "traitor," perhaps because his heroism assuages our historical guilt. Will it take another century for certain Americans to see the Fonda trip to Hanoi in a similar light?
The popular delusions about Fonda are a window into many other dangerous hallucinations that pass for historical memory in this country. Among the most difficult to contest are claims that antiwar activists persistently spit on returning Vietnam veterans. So universal is the consensus on "spitting" that I once gave up trying to refute it, although I had never heard of a single episode in a decade of antiwar experiences. Then came the startling historical research of a Vietnam veteran named Jerry Lembcke, who demonstrated in The Spitting Image (1998) that not a single case of such abuse had ever been convincingly documented. In fact, Lembcke's search of the local press throughout the Vietnam decade revealed no reports of spitting at all. It was a mythical projection by those who felt "spat-upon," Lembcke concluded, and meant politically to discredit future antiwar activism.
The Rambo movies not only popularized the spitting image but also the equally incredible claim that hundreds of American soldiers missing in action were being held by the Vietnamese Communists for unspecified purposes. John Kerry's most noted achievement in the Senate was gaining bipartisan support, including that of all the Senate's Vietnam veterans, for a report declaring the MIA legend unfounded, which led to normalized relations. Yet millions of Americans remain captives of this legend.
It will be easier, I am afraid, for those Americans to believe that Jane Fonda helped torture our POWs than to accept the testimony by American GIs that they sliced ears, burned hooches, raped women and poisoned Vietnam's children with deadly chemicals. Just two years ago many of the same people in Georgia voted out of office a Vietnam War triple-amputee, Senator Max Cleland, for being "soft on national defense."
If there is any cure for this mouth-foaming mass pathology in a democracy, it may lie at the heart of John Kerry's campaign for the presidency. Rather than distance ourselves from the past, as the centrist amnesiacs would counsel, perhaps we should finally peel back the scabs and take a closer look at why all the wounds haven't healed. The most meaningful experience of John Kerry's life was the time he spent fighting and killing in Vietnam and then turning around to protest the insanity of it all. Instead of wrapping himself in fabrications, he threw his fantasies and delusions, and metaphorically his militarism, over the White House fence. That's what many more Americans need to do.
If I were George W. Bush, I would be terrorized by the eyes of those scruffy-looking veterans, the so-called band of brothers, volunteering for duty with the Kerry campaign. They look like men with scores to settle, with a palpable intolerance toward the types who sent them to war for a lie, then ignored their Agent Orange illness, cut their GI benefits, treated them like losers and still haven't explained what that war was about. They know Jane Fonda is a diversion from a larger battlefield. They are the sort who will keep a cerebral United States senator grounded, who have finally figured out who their real enemies are and who are determined that this generation hear their story anew. They are gearing up for one last battle. Chickenhawks better duck.