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We Gotta Get Out of This Place
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War
by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner,
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2015)
Perhaps more than any other war in America's history, the Vietnam War allowed non-combatants to become familiar with the common foot soldiers, not just as soldiers caught in an ugly and tragic situation on the other side of the world, but also their feelings, their humanity. Vietnam was America's first televised war, and the reporters were allowed to access the kid next door. Of course, the Pentagon quickly put an end to that, but the sad history of Vietnam continues to offer a wide variety of troubling and poignant glimpses into the hearts and minds of soldiers in combat.
Vietnam has been called a "rock 'n roll war." The soldiers assigned to The Nam had grown up with some great rock 'n roll emanating from Mom's radio. We learned to toddle, to balance upon a two-wheeled bicycle, and to pick up our rooms to a background that transitioned from big bands through doo-wop to the exciting sounds of Danny and the Juniors, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino. The army of eighteen year olds sent to Vietnam in early 1968 in response to the Tet offensive had been about ten in 1960 when Chubby Checker made The Twist an international pop music phenomenon. We were in our early teens when the Beatles first played the Ed Sullivan Show, and we experienced all the angst of adolescence at a time when pop music exploded in quantity, quality, and accessibility. We were the first American fighting force to have portable radios, taking our rock or country music everywhere we went. We were the first American army to have widespread access to cars, and a few guys actually had 45 rpm record players hanging under the dashboard on "her" side, so the girlfriend of the moment could keep the sounds coming while we were busy driving. Soon, modern science and space-age technology gave us the 8-track player, and we were able to carry whole long-playing albums in our cars!
For a few years, music flowed at us in a variety of styles, and all in a high quality that will probably never be equaled. There was surf music, soul music, the British invasion, folk music, rhythm and blues, horn bands fusing rock and jazz, and country music. Modern transportation allowed the musicians to tour as never before, and every small city or bedroom community had a Top-40 rock 'n roll radio station. It was a time of great freedom; Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A' Changin" was our anthem, the sexual revolution (and the pill) came along just as we were reaching adolescence, and music challenged us to get involved in "the movement." We dreamed of surfing in California, or marching with Dr. Martin Luther King to desegregate the South. We dreamed of becoming astronauts and walking on the moon, or going to San Francisco where we could wear flowers in our hair.
From this glorious celebration of American freedom and creativity, many of us were torn away by the Draft. We were made to accept that we had no real freedoms; we were rounded up and taken away to stark army encampments. They took away our colorful clothes and shaved away our long hair. Instead of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love", we were required to chant "Kill, kill, kill!" Our barracks had cages over the light bulbs and sheets of polished metal for mirrors, and too many of our comrades chose suicide instead of military service. There was a short leave, and then a long plane or boat journey to the other side of the globe, and we were in Vietnam! This was the real thing. Friends were getting hurt and killed in the most terrible ways. Rockets and mortars fell out of the sky, spreading fields of hot shrapnel that shredded or tore anything in its path.
We were far, far from home and everything we thought we knew about life and truth. We missed Mom's home cooking and holiday celebrations. It was tempting to forget that those things had ever really existed, but then we heard a familiar song from home and we knew the world was still turning on its axis. The military gave us a network of radio stations, AFVN, and sometimes we got Filipino rock bands covering some of the hit songs from home. Some of the guys bought reel-to-reel tape recorders from the PX, and their friends sent long tapes of the local Top-40 station, or maybe even Ed Sullivan's guest band, or this week's Shindig TV show. At the time, music from home provided some connection with what was happening back in The World, and some faint hope that we might get back there, and back to normal lives some distant day. The Animals' song and so many others were a lifeline for Americans in Vietnam. This is an excellent book that allows a wide variety of Vietnam veterans to describe the importance of that lifeline, and the enormous influence the lyrics of popular music had upon our generation and "our" war. I can't imagine any Vietnam vet below the rank of Major reading this book and not being delighted.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of ...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam. First published by Macmillan in 1985, it is still available at most bookstores.