Doug Bradley, Craig Werner. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War. Culture, Politics, and the Cold War Series. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. xi + 256 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-162-4; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-197-6.
Reviewed by Brendan Griswold (University of Kansas)
Published on H-War (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Historians are increasingly providing a better understanding of the diverse experiences of the American men and women who served in the Vietnam War. Doug Bradley and Craig Werner, authors of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, add to this emerging scholarship by examining the various ways American GIs used music to help them survive and recover from one of America’s most challenging and controversial military conflicts. Relying primarily on veterans’ interviews and memoirs, and passages written by participants specifically for this book, Bradley and Werner sharpen our understanding of the Vietnam War, while also providing hope for those recovering from more recent conflicts.
Recent work has shown that rock music served as a medium through which GIs in Vietnam began to question their understanding of citizenship while it was simultaneously employed to bolster GI morale. Bradley and Werner show that while songs such as The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” reflected a disillusionment with the war among some GIs, music was not only a tool for troops to uncover and voice their concerns about the war. The authors demonstrate that American troops who served in Vietnam used music for a variety of reasons, depending on when, where, and how they served. Ultimately, “Like other members of their generation, those who served in Vietnam shaped the music they loved to fit their own needs, a process that continued after they returned to the United States” (p. 3).
The book is divided into two parts. The first examines how American troops serving in Vietnam responded to and used music at various stages of the war. Chapter 1 connects those who were sent to Vietnam prior to the escalation of the conflict that occurred following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 to prior generations of American veterans. These GIs listened to songs that reflected their belief that “they were engaged in a morally unambiguous fight for freedom” (p. 21). Johnnie Wright’s 1965 hit “Hello Vietnam” portrays the cause soldiers were fighting for as both righteous and necessary, while branch and service rivalry prompted aviators and marines to parody Barry Sadler’s 1966 “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” Yet Bradley and Werner maintain that there were signs of discontinuity with music in past American wars. Such songs as Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muscogee” and “The Fighting Side of Me” show that wartime service during Vietnam had to be defended to a greater degree than during World War II.
Chapter 2 examines the troops who went to Vietnam following the escalation of the war in 1965. These troops formed various “musical communities” that reflected the social movements in the United States and helped them survive an increasingly dangerous and unpopular war (pp. 45). Many black service members listened to soul music that was popular among the Black Power movement, while white Americans who “proudly claimed the title of redneck or rebel ... embraced Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and George Jones” (p. 45). Interestingly, Bradley and Werner show that music at times brought Americans of different races together in Vietnam. As one veteran recalled, “The brothers would help us white dudes so we’d get our shoulders and upper bodies into it, and we’d forget where we were, what was going on, and for a song or two we would be somewhere else” (p. 53). Music reflected issues not only of race but also of class. Clearance Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” spoke to lower-class draftees who were sent to Vietnam in large numbers, while wealthier Americans received deferments or served in the reserves back home. Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” the authors note, “spoke to almost everyone in Vietnam” (p. 74). Music thus allowed GIs to maintain, and at times transcend, racial and class identities.
Chapter 3 examines the songs popular among American troops “affected by the seismic cultural, political, and racial tensions” that occurred following the 1968 Tet Offensive (p. 93). GIs used Country Joe McDonald’s famous “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” in different ways to cope with the war, from a “gung ho Green Beret commander” who used it as motivation while on patrol—“come on all of you, big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again”—to disenchanted soldiers returning from the war who believed the song “was the best way we could express our anger” (pp. 99, 101). Of course, music also served as a catalyst to the political awakening of the troops. One veteran remembers listening to Judy Collins’s rendition of “Poor People of Paris” and later connected the song about the French Revolution to the Vietnamese fighting the government of the Republic of Vietnam. “I figured it out in a hole one day. The VC are fighting for poor people; the Vietnamese are poor; I’m poor; I’m on the wrong side” (p. 111). Music preferences during this period sparked confrontations between black and white GIs, while Latino troops, for whom music served as an outlet for many who later supported the Chicano movement, proved capable of deescalating conflicts between black and white Americans by playing the songs of such groups as Santana.
Beginning the second part of the book, chapter 4 examines the ways in which American service members listened to and experienced music in Vietnam. Cassette tapes, USO (United Service Organizations) performers, third-country national bands, and the Armed Forces Vietnam Network meant that for many Americans, particularly support troops on large American bases, “the sounds of popular American music reached almost every corner of Vietnam.” For combat troops, however, “the soundtrack consisted mostly of silence” (p. 147). Listening to the music while on patrol could get one killed. The authors’ discussion of the different musical experiences of those in combat in Vietnam and support troops builds on scholarship elsewhere that challenges Americans’ traditional notions of what it is like to go to war.
Music as a tool for healing is the subject of chapter 5. Bobby Muller, who founded the Vietnam Vets of America, remembers telling his fellow veterans in the early 1980s, “its rock ’n’ roll that is going to provide the healing process that everybody needs” (p. 189). Indeed, demonstrating that music can be a useful tool for veterans to help them deal with their wartime experiences is perhaps the most important contribution of this work. The novelist Art Flowers recalled how listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” following his tour in Vietnam made him realize “that the history of the future is what we do right now and that what I do is significant in this world and ever since I have been conscious of being historical” (p. 193). Vietnam veterans’ use of music to recover from the war suggests that veterans of more recent conflicts can use songs to help them overcome their own traumatic experiences.
There are other strengths of this book. The authors make clear that the meaning of music to an American who served in Vietnam varied across time and space. They employ “solos”—stories of music and Vietnam in veterans’ own words—throughout the book that allow veterans to speak in their own words. While these passages examine events that occurred decades earlier, the authors rightly contend that these veteran narratives “document states of mind at numerous points in a long process” of processing wartime experiences (p. 5). Therefore, We Gotta Get Out of This Place is highly recommended to scholars and popular audiences interested in understanding the individual experiences of American troops who served in Vietnam, as well as to returning veterans seeking to overcome distressing memories of their own wartime experiences.
. See Meredith H. Lair, Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiers in the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Kyle Longley, Grunts: The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2008).
. Michael J. Kramer, The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 13.
. The refrain of this famous anti-war song is, “And its one, two, three, what are we fighting for?”
. On differences between combat troops and support troops, and the differences between the latter’s expectations and experiences in Vietnam, see Lair, Armed with Abundance.
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Brendan Griswold. Review of Bradley, Doug; Werner, Craig, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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