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The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): Yellow Ribbons and the “Victim-Veteran” Mythology

By Jerry Lembcke

Yellow Ribbons and the “Victim-Veteran” Mythology

The federally funded thirteen-year series of anniversary Vietnam War events (noted in the introduction) was announced by President Barack Obama in his 2012 Memorial Day address at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, DC.  The president called the war begun fifty years earlier “one of the nation’s most painful chapters.”  Addressing himself to Vietnam veterans, the president said, “You came home and sometimes were denigrated.  It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened.  And that’s why we’re here.  Today we resolve that it will not happen again.”  The next day, Los Angeles Times editor Michael McGough upbraided the president for ratifying the meme of war protesters’ hostility for Vietnam veterans.  The image of spat-on Vietnam veterans is a myth, he said, adding that “even an edifying myth is still a myth.”

The image of veterans defiled upon their homecoming, enhanced by that of veterans suffering traumatic injury, form the core subject matter of Vietnam War memory studies.  It is, in other words, through the cultural and news media representations of Vietnam veterans as “damaged goods” that the image of veterans empowered and politicized by their wartime experience has been elided in US memory.  Indeed, much of the war itself has been displaced from memory by powerful tropes about the men who fought the war.  It is the war remembered through that imagery that came into play during the Persian Gulf War to animate the yellow ribbon campaign, and that remains potent for motivating public support for the current wars.