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Did Spitting 'Victim' from D.C. Protest Cry Wolf?

The media interest surrounding Private Joshua Sparling's claim that he was spit at during the Washington, D.C., protest merits skepticism considering that his previous claims of victimhood have turned out inaccurate, and that he's been a frequent associate of right-wing figures such as Sean Hannity and Oliver North.
 
 
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There is a conventional wisdom that Vietnam War protesters included fringe elements who did uncivil things like spitting at soldiers returning from Vietnam. Evidence of this belief in the mainstream media appeared as recently as early this month in Newsweek:

Returning [Vietnam] GIs were sometimes jeered and even spat upon in airports; they learned to change quickly into civilian clothes.

Decades later, little has changed. With the headline "SPITTING MATCH WITH DISABLED VET..." the Drudge Report on Monday linked to New York Times coverage of the weekend marches against President Bush's Iraq "surge" plan to escalate the war. The story, "Protest Focuses on Iraq Troop Increase," included the following:

There were a few tense moments, however, including an encounter involving Joshua Sparling, 25, who was on crutches and who said he was a corporal with the 82nd Airborne Division and lost his right leg below the knee in Ramadi, Iraq. Sparling spoke at a smaller rally held earlier in the day at the United States Navy Memorial and voiced his support for the administration's policies in Iraq.

Later, as anti-war protesters passed where he and his group were standing, words were exchanged and one of the anti-war protestors spit at the ground near Mr. Sparling; he spit back.

Wow -- those horrible "anti-war protesters" are still at it! And what unspoken message is sent by this? That "anti-war protesters" are such terrible people, doing such terrible things.

But as it happens, Joshua Sparling has turned up time and time again in the news, in stories claiming he has been spat at by -- and even received death threats from -- left-wing "anti-war protesters."

At the site The Left Coaster, the blogger Mary wrote,

It seems [Sparling] is the scapegoat for those who hate Bush's war and he is condemned to live in a Twilight Zone world where he experiences all the outrages that were visited on vets during the Vietnam War. Whenever the wacko warhawks need to display a victim of the American people's disdain for the war, he is hauled out to take another one for the team.

Joshua Sparling first appeared in the news in a United States Military Academy Public Affairs reference, in an Aug. 8, 2005, story quoted cited by the West Point "public affairs" (PR) office, "Future Plebes Learn Crafts Of War":

Last week, as a machine gun fired blanks in the distance ... [cadets] dodged from cover-to-cover as they ran the assault course, which teaches the cadets how to use grenades in combat.

82nd Pvt. Joshua Sparling was right behind them, offering advice the whole way.

"Always have two hands on your weapon. That way if you see anybody -- boom, boom," he yelled at Byrnes as she ran for cover, her M-16 flailing at her side. ... "You have to keep down below that cover so you don't get popped in the head," Sparling yelled. Lin quickly tucked his head back behind the stump.

In December 2005, as reported on the Fox news show Fox & Friends Sparling supposedly received a Christmas card with a death threat Sparling claimed not to have kept the envelope, just the note inside. Sparling also appeared on right-wing radio host Sean Hannity's radio show to talk about this incident.

It later turned out the Christmas card death threat was sent by a white supremacist.

Sparling also found fame as a featured Republican guest at the 2006 State of the Union address, introduced by the GOP representative from his home district, Candice Miller:

"When I first spoke with Josh, he told me how proud he was to provide security for the Iraqi election in October, where he saw democracy take root. I thought it was only fitting that he come to see, in person, his commander-in-chief give an update on the war and watch our own democracy in action."

Sparling has also appeared with Ollie North at "Freedom Alliance" rallies. ( There's a picture of Sparling at one of these rallies, standing next to Ann Coulter.)

And, most recently, Sparling also appeared in an AP story about the past weekend's anti-war march, this time neglecting to mention the spitting incident,

About 40 people staged a counter-protest, including Army Cpl. Joshua Sparling, 25, who lost his leg to a bomb in Iraq.

He said the anti-war protesters, especially those who are veterans or who are on active duty, "need to remember the sacrifice we have made and what our fallen comrades would say if they were alive."

( A YouTube video from the weekend march shows Sparling standing next to a sign that reads, "If Osama was a piece of ass, Clinton would have nailed him.")

So the New York Times , Washington Post and others did not choose just any random Iraq war vet to interview. a Google search of "Joshua Sparling" yields 64,800 results.

And it is worth noting that the major media chose to cover this from the angle of "anti-war protesters spitting at veterans." There was another story available. The marchers represented the views of, according to current polls, a majority of the American public. Joshua Sparling was part of a group that appeared to be attempting to provoke the crowd. A witness to the activities of Sparling's group is quoted at the blog Hughes for America, saying,

"Shortly after the event began, I noticed Sparling and his small group -- himself, a woman wearing the same 82nd Airborne sweatshirt and another young man -- push their way to the front. ... When everyone would cheer a particular speaker, he first stood out by loudly booing. ... Sparling's [fellow counter protesters] across the street had spent the better part of an hour holding up ridiculous signs like 'Anti-American peaceniks think sedition is patriotic' and 'We gave peace a chance. We got 9/11.' Also, they hung an effigy of Jane Fonda. These weren't friendly people. They were people looking to provoke a response.

... Before I even noticed Sparling's leg, I thought the kid was a right-wing plant in our group. I thought we were going to be marching, peacefully, and this kid would break a window or otherwise do something to make for an ugly scene, making what was actually a peaceful protest look anything but. It looked to me like he was taking great pains to stand out in what he was doing. ... I can safely say Sparling and his group showed up looking to start something ...

Given this account, one wonders why the media chose to write of Sparling as a victim of the crowd?

Finally, a look at larger historical question: were Vietnam Veterans spat at by "protesters?" Mary at the Left Coaster blog points to an article by writer Jerry Lembcke in from 2005, "Debunking a Spitting Image",

For a book I wrote in 1998 I looked back to the time when the spit was supposedly flying, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found nothing. No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on. ... A 1971 Harris poll conducted for the Veterans Administration found over 90 percent of Vietnam veterans reporting a friendly homecoming. Far from spitting on veterans, the anti-war movement welcomed them into its ranks and thousands of veterans joined the opposition to the war.

... Remembering the war in Vietnam through the images of betrayal is dangerous because it rekindles the hope that wars like it, in countries where we are not welcomed, can be won. It disparages the reputation of those who opposed that war and intimidates a new generation of activists now finding the courage to resist Vietnam-type ventures in the 21st century.

Where does this smear technique come from? What is gained by portraying veterans as victims of anti-war protesters spitting at them or harassing them? Perhaps a clue comes from the writings of right-wing pundit David Horowitz. Horowitz writes that it is important to portray yourself as a victim:

"The stories work for you if you are the victim or if you are helping someone who is perceived to be a victim. Americans like heroes who care, and they identify with underdogs."

Horowitz also advises Republicans

"to manipulate the public's feelings in support of your agenda, while mobilizing passions of fear and resentment against your opponent."

Stories of victimhood such as Sparling's come at a time when the White House is desperate to gain public support in its self-perceived war against those Americans who oppose their war policies.

Sparling's claims might be more convincing if the media hadn't interviewed the same veteran who was first introduced in stories where he was working with military "public affairs" professionals, then as a victim of a death threat in a Christmas card, then as a victim of an anti-war liberal in an airport, then as a favorite of the right-wing crazies who appear with Ollie North at pro-war rallies.

Note: This story benefitted from the blogger Digby's posts on the subject.

Dave Johnson blogs at Seeing the Forest and is a fellow at the Commonweal Institute . He has over 25 years of technology industry experience.

 
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