Born in June 1943, Jerry Lembcke is an Associate Professor Emeritus of sociology at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, where he is regarded as a “nationally recognized expert on the Vietnam War and Vietnam veterans.” Lembcke graduated from Augustana College in 1966 with a B.S. degree in mathematics. In 1978 he earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Oregon.
For the socialist Lembcke, the Vietnam War is a consuming interest. His mission is to persuade students of his view that the Vietnam War, along with all wars wherein the United States is a lead actor, are “neo-imperialist” manifestations of America’s militaristic ideal, and therefore to be opposed.
Lembcke’s views are made explicit in his 1998 book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. The book, which is required reading in several sociology classes at Holy Cross, mounts two major arguments. The first is that the stories of Vietnam veterans returning from the war only to be spat upon by obstreperous anti-war activists are nothing more than “myth[s]” invented by the Nixon administration. Lembcke claims that the only documented instances of spitting involved belligerent Vietnam veterans unloading on those of their disillusioned comrades who joined forces with the anti-war movement. Lembcke’s claims are undermined by the testimony of countless veterans who have reported being spat upon by peace activists; nevertheless, his book was well received by mainstream media outlets upon its release, and many credulous journalists persist in unquestioningly recycling its claims.
The second claim made by Lembcke in The Spitting Image is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was a political invention. Specifically, Lembcke argues, it was created with the explicit aim of discrediting returning veterans who expressed opposition to the Vietnam War. In Lembcke’s telling, “PTSD functioned to help erase the memory of the war as an act of U.S. aggression that we lost because the Vietnamese beat us, by rewriting it as a war we lost because we defeated ourselves, i.e. our military was stabbed in the back, our soldiers spat on, etc.” According to Lembcke, “the image of the dysfunctional PTSD-stricken victim-veterans” replaced the “historical reality” that the Vietnam War “empowered a generation of GIs who revolted against the war and joined the movement to stop it.”
In fact, the number of veterans who protested the Vietnam War was miniscule compared to the total number who served. Professor Lembcke was himself one of those few. Serving as a chaplain’s assistant during the conflict, Lembcke returned home to join Vietnam Veterans Against the War. As Lembcke himself admitted in a 1999 article for Holy Cross Magazine, he hopes to burnish the “image of anti-war warriors,” which, he claims, is at odds with the “militarism that dominates our culture.” In the same article, Lembcke warned that “Reclaiming our memory of the Vietnam era entails a struggle against very powerful institutional forces that toy with our imaginings of the war for reasons of monetary, political, or professional gain.” For Lembcke, “Vietnam symbolizes popular resistance to political authority and the dominant images of what it means to be a good American.”
In 1998 Lembcke gave a sociology lecture titled “Men, Women, and Medicine,” making the case for the “social construction of PTSD” — i.e., its invention to serve political ends. On another occasion, delivering a guest lecture for a course called “Abnormal Psychology,” Lembcke warned students to beware of the supposedly sinister political motivations behind “the mental labeling of Vietnam vets.”
During the 2004 presidential election cycle, Lembcke worked for John Kerry’s campaign. Republican attacks on Kerry, Lembcke explained in an October 2004 op-ed, were “premised on a widespread discontent about Vietnam. On the surface, Kerry is targeted because he came home from the war and joined the anti-war movement, but the gendered lexicon of the barbs themselves points to an unarticulated angst in the American subconscious that is about something more serious than Kerry’s fidelity or even the defeat in Vietnam.” What this something was, according to Professor Lembcke, was the “American character and its struggle to confront the neo-imperialist impulses common to the U.S. invasions of both Vietnam and Iraq.”
Lembcke has authored three books: CNN’s Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam’s Last Great Myth (2003); The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (1998); and Capitaist Development and Class Capacities (1988). He co-authored (with William Tattam) the 1984 book One Union in Wood: A Political History of the International Woodworkers of America. He edited the 1989 book Race, Class, and Urban Change. And he co-edited (with with Rhonda Levine) the 1987 book Recapturing Marxism: An Appraisal of Recent Trends in Sociological Theory.