“If you only read a single book concerning Vietnam veterans this year, make it this one,” says Vietnam War veteran, Lem Genovese (Yankee Medic)
Music is a high-voltage cable embedded into the human experience.
For Vietnam War veterans, music experienced in Vietnam can open channels to an intense and conflicting range of memories that can last a lifetime.
In We Gotta Get Out of This Place – The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), authors Doug Bradley and Craig Werner offer an engagingly authentic and fascinating account of the impact of music on the men and women who served during the invasion and occupation of southeast Asia.
While serving in Vietnam, veterans used music as a survival tool through which they were comforted, inspired and reminded of the insanity of war. The healing power of music is a recurring theme through the book laced with irony.
Death and killing (and not being killed) were followed by breaks as Marines and troops engaged in banter, rest and partying at an EMC (Enlisted Mens’ Club or EM Club, ‘land of the 10 or 25-cent beer’).
In Vietnam, music, the same music from back home, was both surreal and direct, creating a culture at the intersection of war and music, note the authors, and blazing a path for veterans to talk about the War.
“For the Marines at Khe Sanh and the more than three million other men and women who served in Vietnam, music provided release from the uncertainty, isolation, and sometimes stark terror that reached the front lines to the relatively secure rear areas known as the air-conditioned jungle,” writes Bradley and Werner in the introduction. “For the fortunate ones who did get back home, music echoed through the secret places where they stored memories and stories they didn’t share with their wives, husbands, or children for decades. Music was the key to survival and a path to healing, the center of a human story that’s too often been lost in the haze of politics and myth that surrounds Vietnam” (Introduction pp. 1, 2).
I checked around with Vietnam veterans I know, who after noting the “bullshit” and “lies” that was the Vietnam War, starkly confirmed the power of music coming from the Armed Forces Radio Network and tape systems rigged up in a hootch or if lucky around evacuation hospitals like China Beach.
“More than any other song, ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place,’ (written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and recorded by Eric Burdon and the Animals in 1965), was the glue that held the improvised communities of Vietnam together then and a magnet bringing vets together today. ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ was our ‘We Shall Overcome,’ observed Bobbie Keith, who served as an Armed Forces Radio DJ in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969 (pp. 9, 10).
I read a passage from Bradley and Werner’s book about a group of troops guessing what song was coming up first on the Armed Forces Radio Rock-and-Roll Marathon to a veteran I know. The first song was We Gotta Get Out of This Place.
“I was in Vietnam late, 101st Airborne, C 2/502nd Infantry, Sgt., September 71-Janaury 72, infantry patrolling in the I Corps area. So no music except when we came back to Camp Eagle,” said Bob Walsh, an attorney in Michigan now who helps vets fighting neocons at home.
Walsh asked some his war buddies what songs they heard, and sent over music videos produced the last decade of the music they listened to during the war. His talks and emails with me could have come right out of Bradley and Werner’s book so connected is the prose of the veterans they interview and use extended first-person, “solo” passages.
“Then I was at Qui Nhon in II Corps, with a security company. So music was around all the time. AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) (Good Morning, Vietnam) actually played some good stuff. The music was of the time and the time of the music. As the Vietnam War dragged on music made some of the strongest and most effective statements. Politics and events informed the art. Some ass commented on the Paint It Black video that the Stones were not talking about Vietnam. He got told to fuck off.”
Noted Walsh, “At Fort Rucker, at the helicopter flight school, you had Jags, Vets, Mustangs, big block Dodges. They had a need for speed. Flyin’ and dyin’. So Born to be Wild, by Steppenwolf was in favor with the rotor heads. By the way, I was against the Vietnam war (it was stupid) but it was the only war we had, and I volunteered to go when I did not have to. It was fun, it was real, but it was not real fun.”
Like the veterans Bradley and Werner present, Walsh notes a lot of war, peace and insanity themes in the music they listened to. “Take a look at these. My brothers have done a good job,” wrote Walsh in an email.
Walsh lists Eve of Destruction (McGuire), Bad Moon Rising (CCR), We Gotta Get Out of This Place (The Animals), The End (The Doors), Fortunate Son (CCR), War (Ewin Starr), Paint It Black (Rolling Stones), Top Five Vietnam War songs, Where Have All the Flowers Gone (The Kingston Trio), and Ballad of the Green Berets.
Walsh’s list mirrors the many songs referenced in Bradley and Werner’s book.
Chapter Two of We Gotta Get Out of This Place is entitled Bad Moon Rising.
Like the war, tastes and war experiences varied wildly.
“Ed Emanuel, who spent most of 1968 with an all-black Long Ranged Reconnaissance Patrol team operating in Tay Ninh province, found country (music) irritating and usually avoided places where it was being played,” (p. 60).
Emanuel was into soul music and Motown.
“If Aretha and Creedence got their strongest response from black and white soldiers, respectively, Jimi Hendrix spoke to almost everyone in Vietnam,” writes Bradley and Werner. The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary, and Machine Gun are noted among others.
The celebratory and healing power of music in Vietnam resonates today.
“I met both Craig Werner and Doug Bradley at the May 2010 LZ Lambeau session on The Deadly Writers Group [out of which the idea for the book grew] and their session dealt with the therapy that comes from writing about our veterans experience. For the most part the readings were filled with disgust, anger, moral injury and how it went down in those lethal moments for the other vet writers,” notes Lem Genovese (Yankee Medic), and lifelong musician commenting on the book. “Music has been my lifeline since the day I set foot on Vinh Long Army Base in the Mekong Delta in early December of 1970 and for the 13 months I spent there. Listening to AFVN (American Forces Vietnam Network) non-stop while I spent 14 to 18 hours a day in the non-air conditioned message center office that I had all to myself next to the 214th CAB’s Adjutant Office. The music kept me sane and from going off the deep end of substance abuse during my tour of duty.”
Craig and Doug get veterans with varied experiences to share their favorite song from their time in Southeast Asia and why after all these decades, that music can instantly transport them back to that time and place. If you only read a single book concerning Vietnam veterans this year, make it this one. From anti-war anthems like Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and Edwin Starr’s “War” to Marvin Gaye’s timeless LP “What’s Goin’ On?” there is a wealth of emotional attachment that needs to be shared with this nation after all these years.”
That’s high praise for a book from an Army combat field medic of 17 years.
Continues Genovese: “As an aviation unit, our Huey crews would hit their radios to the AFVN stereo signal frequency once we got all of our required radio chatter out of the way. Flying over the Mekong Delta at sunrise and sunset listening to Jimi Hendrix version of Dylan’s “All Along The Watch Tower” is a memory that has lasted a lifetime. The brown-white wake of the Navy’s swift boats against that surrealistic sky filled with colors that could only be described as psychedelic vermilion, red, purple, yellow in those layers of clouds as the sun peeked over the distant horizon
was a once in a lifetime experience for me.”
Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was an especially sarcastic touch, flying over those multilevel colors of green and brown of the Delta. The music basically was not only a lifeline for me in Vietnam, it became a calling. My therapy and my passion all rolled into one.”
That’s the thing about We Gotta Get Out of This Place – The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War. Truth is after reading the book I didn’t feel entitled to review it without checking with my veteran buddies who lived it.
Do a veteran a favor this Veterans Day, and pick up a copy.
Review By: MAL (Michael Leon)