Call off the attack, Mac(namara)
It ain’t their fault, Walt (Rostow)
No need for you to stay, LBJ
They just wanna be free
Don’t have to be brusque, Rusk (Dean)
No need to discuss much
Fill in the gaps, Giap (General)
And set your folks free
With all due respect to song writer extraordinaire Paul Simon and his classic tune, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” the USA had arguably more than 50 opportunities to leave Vietnam over the course of five presidencies (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon), yet didn’t. That’s because leaving would have shown us to be soft on Communism.
So we stayed.
At a cost of nearly $1 trillion (in today’s dollars) to wage the war and $22 billion annually in veteran’s benefits, not to mention the staggering toll of the human cost of that war –
· 58,220 American soldiers killed; 153,303 wounded; 1,643 missing in action
· More than 1,350,000 North and South Vietnamese soldiers
· More than 4 million civilians countrywide
“War, what is it good for?” growls Edwin Starr on his hit song “War,” and, in a way, Starr is answering his own question. Because beyond the on-going recriminations, justifications, obfuscations, and just plain blame and pain about our Vietnam calamity, music like Edwin Starr’s remains. But more than just remain — the music sustains. It supports. It helps to explain…
Which is why, as America marks the 50th anniversary of our exodus from Vietnam on March 29, 2023, we should pay more attention to the songs of that era and the music-based memories of Vietnam veterans/soldiers. I say that because I was there — serving 365 days in Vietnam as a combat correspondent for the U. S. Army in 1970 and 1971 — and because my colleague Craig Werner and I collected the musical reminiscences of hundreds of Vietnam veterans in our award-winning book We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War. The veterans’ testimonies we captured tap into memories — individual and cultural — that reveal a central if often overlooked component of the American war in Vietnam — the power of music!
Nowhere was that more apparent than on South Vietnam’s Long Binh Post, the largest army encampment in the world when I was there in 1970–71. Home to upwards of 50,000 U. S. personnel and 25,000 Vietnamese workers, it was U.S. Army life in the rear with a capital R. Long Binh possessed basketball courts, bowling alleys, and swimming pools. It was dotted with air-conditioned offices, dining halls, and modish clubs. It throbbed with the voices of Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) DJs who sounded exactly like the radio jocks we listened to back home.
Long Binh was also the sound of the hooch — that’s what we called our barracks — where 30 of us forlorn GIs lived, and it broadcast a mélange of melody — Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” playing on AFVN radio, combined with my buddy George Moriarty crooning “The Impossible Dream” against the backdrop of “Love the One You’re with” blaring from Lou Catalano’s cassette deck as Rick Smith strummed his guitar to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”
This cacophony was with us night and day. Early in the morning; late into the night. Even in the afternoons, when most of us were at the IO office or on guard duty or out in the field, Vietnamese hooch maids and mamasans hummed their own native songs.
Some nights we’d sneak tiny cassette players out to the bunker line and get stoned and pretend that Hendrix and CCR were right there with us. Other nights we’d go to the EM Club to hear the Seoul Sisters — that’s soul spelled S.E.O.U.L — or some other Asian band tear into James Brown and Janis Joplin. On a few memorable occasions, a James Brown himself, or a Johnny Cash or a Nancy Sinatra, would show up in Vietnam and put on a very special concert for us homesick GIs. At events like these, we REMFs — the acronym REMF stood for reach echelon mother fucker — would vacate our front row seats for the grunts who’d just come in from some heavy shit in the bush where they weren’t able to listen to music like we could in the rear. It was the least we could do. Besides, the grunts would’ve kicked our asses if we hadn’t moved aside.
Sometimes in the rear, at the hooch, you could go for hours, weeks, even months with music always by your side. The AFVN playlist could be palatable, especially late at night. Plus, Rick Smith or another one of the guys was usually strumming a tune on a guitar. The sound of music from the clubs. And the humming of the maids and mamasans. Even the soundtracks from the movies that were shown outdoors. Point being hooch life in Vietnam in 1970–71 — particularly at Long Binh — had a soundtrack that played constantly on a variety of channels.
And we just couldn’t get enough of it…
The Long Binh hooches — all the U.S. hooches everywhere in Vietnam — were vacated by March 29, 1973, and by the spring of 1975, the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong had taken up permanent residence. Today, Long Binh, a once proud and productive rubber plantation before it became the U.S. Army’s home away from home, is a high-tech research park that includes a large, European-style Cora supermarket.
But there’s probably an old tape buried somewhere on the grounds. And if you listen hard enough, you might be able to hear David Halberstam describe our Vietnam crusade as a “quagmire.” Or Simon and Garfunkel envisioning a “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
But more likely the Animals stating the obvious — “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, co-author with Craig Werner of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, and DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle now also available as an audiobook.