Why They Love to Hate Her

Why They Love to Hate Her

The civilian female in soldier lore.


Before going to bed at the US Naval Academy, a plebe shouts “Good night!” to the senior midshipman in the company, and the company commander answers “Good night!” in reply. A litany of good nights then passes down the chain of the company’s command. At the end of this ritual courtesy, the plebe yells the final good night: “Good night, Jane Fonda!” and the entire company shouts its enthusiastic retort: “Good night, bitch!” Until that point, the performance has simply closed the day with a homage to hierarchy, with the lowest in the company, the plebe, showing deference to upperclass leaders. It reminds everyone of the rigid service academy structure, inherited from British boys’ schools like Eton, in which upperclassmen dominate their juniors. The plebe plays the role of a child performing nightly valedictories to parents. But the final exchange, a unanimous curse of the former actress, former workout queen and former antiwar activist, serves quite a different end. The mock good night to Fonda reassures even the lowliest plebe of his insider status by expressing collective contempt for an outsider. According to an anonymous Naval Academy source, the ritual has been practiced by some but not all companies over the years, although in the past two years a few company officers have discouraged it.

But why Jane Fonda? Why not a more contemporary adversary? Naval Academy midshipmen weren’t even born when Fonda spoke out against having US troops in Vietnam; many of them don’t even know who she is until they are introduced to the mythic Jane at the academy. Soldier folklore during the Vietnam War and for several years afterward made fun of Ho Chi Minh, his “gooks” and the notorious VC, but those figures of ridicule stepped aside in the first Gulf War, to be replaced by Saddam Hussein and his fellow Iraqis (“ragheads” in the jokes, songs and stories), and most recently by the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. All, that is, except Jane Fonda, who even as a grandmother in her mid-60s continues to attract a seemingly endless stream of abuse. More than thirty years after her trip to North Vietnam, veterans fill cyberspace with their resentment, and new recruits learn that being a real warrior and hating Jane Fonda are synonymous.

Along with fresh recruits, both commissioned and enlisted, in other branches of the military, naval officers-in-training learn that just as military identity prescribes adulation for heroic military figures, it also encourages ridicule of despised civilians. In their plebe year, freshmen make the dramatic transition from civilian to military status, from home to barracks. They leave a world in which mothers have played a large part in their lives and enter an institution that remains largely male in numbers and traditions, despite opening its doors to women in the late 1970s. The good-night ritual articulates the need to repudiate the life left behind and to embrace a martial future.

The Navy certainly has no monopoly on hatred of Jane Fonda; active-duty members and veterans of all the services freely express their disdain for the sex-kitten-turned-dressed-down-radical. Some of the more vitriolic veterans’ websites provide forums in which contributors vent their anger toward the actress. As one vet writes, “Jane Fonda should have been shot, and will never be forgiven.” Another man posting to a hate-Fonda website describes his disappointment when he went to see the film Coming Home and her character wasn’t killed. They rail at “Hanoi Jane,” belittle “Jane Fondle” and castigate her as a “pinko slut” who “appeared nude in movies, smoked pot, smuggled drugs, used profanity publicly, and now, worst of all, was aiding and abetting the enemy during wartime.” Most recently, hate-Fonda sites have displayed Photoshopped images designed to undermine the campaign of John Kerry by presenting the two side by side (along with real photos showing them several rows apart at an antiwar rally).

In a 1988 interview with Barbara Walters, Fonda defended her opposition to the war but apologized to vets and their families for the “thoughtless” and “careless” things she might have said and done in her political enthusiasm. Referring to this apology, one vet states his anger simply, “I will forgive Jane Fonda when the Jews forgive Hitler.” These sites sport bumper stickers with Nuke Jane Fonda and Hanoi’d With Jane, along with the classic Vietnam Vets Are Not Fonda Jane.

Internet critics also direct their hostility to Fonda in the form of virtual and real urinal targets. Some sites boast such targets available for download; others advertise them as stickers that can be purchased and affixed to public urinals. One of these targets features Fonda with legs lifted and spread apart (a promotional shot for one of her exercise videos). This image rests in the center of a bull’s-eye. Superimposed over other images of the actress are cross-hairs, as if she were the sole enemy from an unfinished war. After explaining why he found Fonda’s 1972 appearance in North Vietnam so repugnant, one vet recalled his pleasure at urinating on her face: “[The] only addition I might add to these sentiments is to remember the satisfaction of relieving myself into the urinal at some airbase or another where ‘zaps’ of Hanoi Jane’s face had been applied.” One urinal target reproduces the notorious 1972 photograph taken during Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam: helmeted, smiling, seated at an antiaircraft gun (Fonda told O, the Oprah Magazine that she’d “go to my grave” regretting that photograph).

If the urinal targets offer the fantasy of retributive justice, fictionalized accounts of Fonda’s 1972 visit with American POWs in North Vietnam charge her with conspiracy. In these word-of-mouth and Internet stories, which circulate widely among active-duty soldiers and veterans, the punishment inflicted on uncooperative POWs is linked to Fonda’s presence. An oft-told variant of the torture legend depicts a single prisoner (generally considered to be POW Jerry Driscoll) who is forced to meet with Fonda and registers his defiance by spitting on the star:

Dragged from a stinking cesspit of a cell, cleaned, fed, and dressed in clean PJs, he was ordered to describe for a visiting American “Peace Activist” the “lenient and humane treatment” he’d received. He spat at Ms. Fonda, was clubbed and dragged away. During the subsequent beating, he fell forward upon the camp Commandant’s feet, which sent that officer berserk. In 1978, the AF Col. still suffered from double vision (which permanently ended his flying days) from the Vietnamese Col.’s frenzied application of a wooden baton.

This story is pure fiction (see links for this and the following excerpts at www.thenation.com). The prisoners to whom it is attributed, although no fans of Fonda, have flatly denied that it happened. The most popular of all these legends is by far the most dramatic. As recounted on another anti-Fonda site:

He [Larry Carrigan] spent 6 years in the “Hilton”–the first three of which he was “missing in action.” His wife lived on faith that he was still alive. His group, too, got the cleaned/fed/clothed routine in preparation for a “peace delegation” visit. They, however, had time and devised a plan to get word to the world that they still survived. Each man secreted a tiny piece of paper, with his [social security number] on it, in the palm of his hand. When paraded before Ms. Fonda and a cameraman, she walked the line, shaking each man’s hand and asking little encouraging snippets like: “Aren’t you sorry you bombed babies?” and “Are you grateful for the humane treatment from your benevolent captors?”
   Believing this HAD to be an act, they each palmed her their sliver of paper. She took them all without missing a beat. At the end of the line and once the camera stopped rolling, to the shocked disbelief of the POWs, she turned to the officer in charge…and handed him the little pile of papers. Three men died from the subsequent beatings. Col Carrigan was almost number four.

Such stories travel from vet to vet and soldier to soldier by word of mouth, across the back fence into the cyber fields, and even into print. One popular biography of Fonda recounts them as claims to be taken seriously, as do the Washington Times and William F. Buckley Jr., in a syndicated November 1999 article.

Vietnam POWs have tried to debunk the stories falsely attributed to them. Mike McGrath, the president of NAM-POWs and a prisoner from 1967 to 1973, has denounced them. Speaking for specific POWs named in the stories, McGrath has tried to set the record straight:

They had nothing to do with the article attributed to them. They ask that we get their names off that bunch of crap. Tonight I talked with Larry Carrigan. He asked that we get his name off all that crap as well. He never left a room to talk to anyone like that. No torture or beatings to see Fonda. He was living with Bud Day, John McCain and a bunch of hard-nosed resisters during the Fonda visit…lots of witnesses if you want to question him (or them). Larry was never near Jane. There were never any POWs killed on account of Jane. (Did anyone ever provide a name of one of these tortured fellows?) That story about the notes has a nice theatric touch, but no such thing ever happened. The only ones who met with Jane willingly, to my knowledge, were CDR Gene Wilber and LCOL Ed Miller. One NAM-POW was forced to go before the Fonda delegation. And I think that was only to sit at a table for a photo opportunity. I doubt he ever got a chance to talk to her, let alone slip her a note. To my knowledge, the worst that happened to the rest of us was that we had to listen to the camp radio (Radio Hanoi and Hanoi Hannah) with the Fonda propaganda. It pissed us off, but I doubt you can call that “torture.” So, if you get a chance to SHUT THIS STORY DOWN to the groups who are forwarding it, PLEASE DO SO.

Despite the efforts of McGrath and others to stanch the flow of such legends, they continue to circulate, because they satisfy their tellers and audience as a protest against one of the most outspoken critics of the military. But Fonda is not just any antiwar activist; she is a civilian woman–“civilian” and “woman” being terms that in military culture tend to collapse into each other.

For the Vietnam War soldier, more than for his counterparts in any previous war, the lines between civilian and military became increasingly ambiguous. The Vietnamese who appeared one day as harmless civilians (women, children and the elderly) might on another day behave as agents of the enemy. Soldier songs, chants, jokes and stories gave voice to the soldiers’ fear of a civilian population capable of transforming itself into the dreaded enemy. A version of that uncanny transformation took place stateside as well. Civilians at home, who in past wars had shown steadfast support and offered a grateful welcome to the returning soldier, became increasingly outspoken in protesting the war America had sent its soldiers to wage. These protesters grew loud in their denunciation of napalm and carpet bombing, which targeted civilians, they claimed, rather than enemy troops. They called soldiers “baby killers” and chanted, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” At the end of their tour, soldiers often returned to condemnation rather than congratulations.

The military has traditionally done an effective job of transforming the fresh recruit into a government-issue soldier capable of executing violence on command. By contrast, it has done very little to reverse the process and return the soldier to civilian life. Historically, the civilian population has assumed that role by ceremoniously welcoming home its soldiers with an acknowledgment of their suffering, thereby absolving the individual soldier of personal responsibility for acts performed in the name of the nation. When the civilian population refuses to accept this burden, it falls heavily on each soldier to handle it as best he can. Thus we saw a proliferation of “rap groups,” group therapy sessions in which vets sought the confidence of fellow participants, fellow sufferers, after the Vietnam War.

In a war that featured few heroes, prisoners of war, whose sacrifice could not be challenged, enjoyed a special status. So it is not surprising that it was stories of POWs and their fictional encounters with Jane Fonda that enjoyed such a long life and such wide circulation among members of the military. Those stories rebuke the civilian who inflicts greater pain on the war’s unambiguous victims. In a war in which the enemy was not clearly defined, it sometimes seemed to the unappreciated soldier that the real enemies might be back home. And in an important sense, Vietnam was a war of America against itself.

The choice of Jane Fonda as the woman soldiers love to hate didn’t arise solely from her highly publicized antiwar stance. Other American women were just as active in the antiwar movement. Denise Levertov, like Fonda, made a trip to North Vietnam to protest the war, and Joan Baez was every bit as much a staunch critic as Fonda. No, Fonda engendered such anger in part because she had once stood for the girl every soldier had known at home. Vietnam-era soldiers had come to know her first as the cute ingenue of Tall Story and as the daughter of a famous and admired Hollywood star and then as the sex kitten Barbarella, always ready and willing to please. Within three years of playing Barbarella, Fonda was appearing regularly in prime-time news clips condemning US involvement in Vietnam. She and other actors and writers (Donald Sutherland, Dick Gregory and Fred Gardner among them) performed in shows that satirized the military and its role in Vietnam in coffeehouses near US bases. They intended their traveling review to be an antidote to the performances of entertainers who traveled from base to base to lend their support to the troops.

Those who condemned Fonda were not just disturbed by her efforts to win the hearts and minds of US servicemen through these performances and through her longtime support for Vietnam Veterans Against the War; nor was it her support for the North Vietnamese propaganda campaign that made them so angry. They saw in Fonda the American female uncannily, as if by sabotage, transformed into an enemy agent. The figure of a woman who appears to be one thing but turns out to be something more sinister or monstrous inhabits centuries of folklore. She makes her way into soldier lore as the apparently innocent but seductive foreign woman who turns out to be extremely menacing–for example, in the legends of pretty and inviting Vietnamese women who secretly laced their vaginas with broken glass, fishhooks or barbed wire in order to castrate GIs. While touring North Vietnam, Fonda attended performances of theater and dance, spoke with “the blushing militia girls,” retreated to a bomb shelter when the shells began to drop and voiced her strong opposition to the war on North Vietnamese radio. The ever available, playful Barbarella had become the American soldier’s nightmare–Hanoi Jane.

The Jane Fonda stories, the urinal targets and even the goodnight ritual at the Naval Academy function in military culture to stabilize and punish the dangerous female. Fonda is seen as the ultimate shapeshifter, a woman who has remade herself many times over, as ingenue, sex kitten, antiwar activist, exercise queen, wife of Ted Turner and born-again Baptist. In the face of this fluid civilian female, the military traditionally promises a one-way transformation from civilian to soldier, from boy to man, a process intended to fix a new identity, one that will travel with the soldier long after he has left active service. During the rapid troop rotations, massive antiwar demonstrations and challenges to traditional gender roles that characterized the period of the Vietnam War, when a majority of soldiers didn’t see combat, the military failed to make good on its promise of transformation for many who served. As a result, they found themselves neither the innocents they were before going off to war nor the respected warriors their fathers had become when they returned from World War II.

For Fonda, there is no amount of self-transformation she can undertake that will save her from being cast in legend as the figure of the seductive woman who turns out to be a snake. It’s the oldest story in the world.

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