More than any other war, Vietnam had a soundtrack. It didn’t start with Apocalypse Now or any other Hollywood production. It began with the soldiers who brought the music with them. For the men and women like me (1) who served in Vietnam, music was a link to home. It was part of our hopes and dreams to make it “back to the world” (as we called the United States). The music became inseparable from the war. I still can’t listen to The Doors’ first album without thinking of ‘Nam. The music connected us to hopes of getting us back to “the world.” Some songs even spoke directly to us, like The Animals We Gotta Get Out of This Place, which became every soldier’s personal anthem. There were others like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son and Country Joe and the Fish’s I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag. Jimi Hendrix’s People Haze and Hey Joe, The Turtles’ It Ain’t Me Babe, Martha and the Vandellas’ Nowhere to Run, and Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’. All mainstays and had connections to the war experience. The music and the war united us. I listened to some soul music before the war, but I met many black soldiers in ‘Nam and thru them, I was exposed to many great Soul songs that did not make the top of the pops. For the first time, I also heard Country music. While I never became a fan of Country, it exposed me to artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and others.
While the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) played the Top 40 of the day, the soldiers had cassettes or reel-to-reel tapes, purchased at the PX, to share. It opened up another world. We were separated from the world, but the music united us. It was a way for us to cope and for a few moments an escape from the insanity. There were also small clubs where Filipino bands played the hits all wanted to hear, Ring of Fire, Proud Mary and the inevitable finale of We Gotta Get Out of This Place which by the end of the night every soldier was on his feet singing along with.
Collectively, the music united the Vietnam soldiers who bore the burden of an unpopular war. The music of The Doors, Aretha Franklin, CCR, Johnny Cash, The Temptations, and many others mattered more to the Vietnam soldiers, maybe more than to any generation since. Even after returning home, the music stayed with us.
(1) I was not an infantryman. I spent my time in a base camp as an armorer, small weapons, assigned to the 124th Signal Unit, part of the 4th Infantry Division. The base camp, Camp Enari, in Pleiku, located in the Central Highlands. It was relatively secure compared to being out in the boonies.