Remember those songs? They meant a lot to us back then.
In our teens and early twenties, we found ourselves living in an extended nightmare, a living hell, and we knew it. We were living at the very edge of life and death. Death was an ever-stalking presence. On those dark nights when our recon patrol had settled into a defensive harbor site for the night, we sometimes heard it moving around us in the thick blackness, subtlety breaking the eerie silence of the thick jungle vegetation.
The tension would be as thick as the forest blackness. We could always smell it. Sometimes we saw it leap skyward, thrusting shards of earth and shrapnel in every direction. We felt it stalking us everywhere. And when it made itself known we met it with wild force and the kind of courage that arises from a fierce decision not to give in to fear.
And, too often, we saw our friends succumb, or be torn and damaged by that ever-stalking beast.
We knew that we were not living in the world as we had known it when we came to that place so far away from our stateside lives. It didn’t take long to recognize that “The World” was a long ways from where we had found ourselves. But “The World” had a way of slipping into that heart of darkness we found ourselves in, especially during those long moments of boredom that settled so awkwardly between the sudden and intense moments of fear and anguish that would leap at us in an ambush out in the bush, or rain down upon us as heavy artillery and mortar barrages, or rush at us in the form of full on assaults on some isolated base.
In those down times in the rear, there was always someone in the bunker, or the hootch, who had an 8-track tape deck or a radio. We listened to the riffs of songs being written and sung back in The World, and those words somehow spoke for us, shouted our own angers or desires. Songs like the one in this video, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking, “ or “My Girl,” by the Temptations,” and Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
Some of those songs said what we wanted to say. Others related to our own attempts to escape the reality we found ourselves in in the jungles and mountains, or the marshy hells of the Mekong Delta. Some of these songs gave us momentary reprieves from the horrors of war by bringing back the image of a girlfriend, or a wife, only to increase the distance and the loneliness even more when they finished.
While we were engaged in the wild wizardry of war in Vietnam, our peers back in the states were engaged in a cultural war of their own. Both of those “wars” had their effects on us. While they divided us in many ways, the music that came out of that time spoke to both of our experiences. The irony evaded us then, but we all knew that those songs spoke for both of our “worlds.”
We brothers-in-arms in Vietnam came from every corner of the country, every level in society, and from every ethnic and religious background. But when the proverbial fecal matter hit the oscillating blade we became brothers. We fought for each other. Many sacrificed their very lives fighting beside each other. All did what they could to protect each other.
That hell, that realm of stalking, instant death and destruction, brought us together, forged bonds that, if we were the lucky ones to go back to the world, would last a life time. We became Brother Bloods, brothers whose blood was mixed in the furnace and chaos of firefights and artillery barrages.
We all liked different songs. After all, we all had different tastes, but the song in this video and the others spoke for all of us. When we were in the Nam, we were not in The World anymore. We all wanted to get the hell out of there and back to our homes and all that home meant. These songs were our anthems. Remember?
Though I am speaking to my fellow Vietnam veterans here, I know that each generation of warriors has their own songs that speak to them. There is something about art, in this case, music, that really does get in touch with the soul, the deeper dimensions of our humanity.
For we lucky ones, that is, those of us who came home, who now wear the noble moniker of “veteran,” life has had a way of rounding off and smoothing out most of the sharp edges of our war time experiences. The love of a spouse, the caring for children and grandchildren, the moderate and great successes we were able to have over the course of our long lives, did not take away those old memories that these songs bring back to us, but now they are just that, memories. We did get outta that place. We will never forget those who did not come home from that place so far away. Rather, we honor them with our own lives. When we hear these old songs their faces come back to us and we remember them. They are our heroes.
The Veterans Site wishes to send its respect to all Vietnam veterans and to thank them for their service to the nation, both in war and in peace. We will never forget your courage or your sacrifices.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.