THE MUSIC OF WAR
Perhaps it seems a little odd that I would bring up music when I discuss my experiences in Vietnam but when we reflect on a period that had a profound influence on our whole life, then all of our experiences are interrelated and connected and of significance. I would like to be able to say that in some way I am musically talented but this is not the case. I could never hold a tune while singing and my piano playing days were very limited, as well. This did not mean that I did not enjoy listening to music. There are three songs that hold special significance as a result of my military experience.
Boot Camp was not a time that we could listen to music, TV or even read the paper. We were being prepared to go to war so these were all considered distractions that could keep us from being totally focused. Besides all of the physical training, we were also being taught how to be a team and how to use all the weapons that would soon be at our disposal. We were told, over and over, that at least half of us would die in Vietnam combat. While I don’t think that the purpose was to teach us how to die, this constant barrage was designed to prepare us for the probability that we would see many of our friends and brothers “bite the bullet”. I believe that the trainers were trying to prepare us for this likelihood so that we would accept this as an inevitable and be able to go on.
I would say that the only lenience that we were allowed was the ability to write letters home on a daily basis and also read the letters that had been sent to us. This was an indulgence that we all waited for and while I was one of the few that was a draftee, I was also one of the few that was married. I wrote my wife a letter every day and I anxiously waited for the letters that she sent me. I was not granted any other special dispensation because of my marital status and we were often told that, “If the Marines had wanted us to have a wife they would have issued us one”.
One day, as we were in our barracks after a long day of training, our drill instructor asked if any of us could sing. I certainly did not raise my hand but one of the guys in our group did. It seemed that he had been in a choir or group and had a good singing voice. Not only that, but a couple of others in our group had similar experience. The drill instructor gave them the task of getting together and practicing some songs so that they could entertain the drill instructors and maybe even our group. After some considerable practice and some singing in the drill instructor’s office, we were all treated to an a cappella performance of “My Girl, talking ‘bout my girl” which was originally performed by the Temptations. It practically brought tears to my eyes as I immediately thought of my wife. When I next wrote my wife I told her about my experience and how it made me think of her. Whenever I hear the song, I still think of my wife and also boot camp and this is song “Number One”.
I was granted leave just before my deployment to Vietnam and while it was great to be home, I was very morose. I did not expect that I was going to die but I certainly had a fatalistic sense that there was a significant probability. My wife and I spent all our time together and one afternoon we were both visiting my mother. My aunt had also come to visit from Seattle so she was with us at my mom’s house in Portland. There were many things that I could have been doing but I was enjoying one of the decadent pass times that I had been denied in my training, listening to the radio. I had the radio cranked up and was listening as “Song Number Two” came on. Peter Paul and Mary had always been one of my favorite groups and I was listening as Mary began singing , “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again”. Tears came to my eyes. My aunt poo pooed me and said, “Oh don’t worry you’ll be fine”. I figured that I would, indeed, come home but I doubted that I would be fine. Oh well, what else could she say? Whenever I hear this, my thoughts always think of my flight to ‘Nam.
It was some months later and I was now in Viet Nam. While I had started as the infantry man that I had been trained for, I had now been recruited to work in the company office. We still did not have many luxuries, but we could now listen to our radios in our camp. Cassette tape players were pretty new and having one allowed me to listen to music of my choice. I had a relatively small collection of tapes but one of my favorites was of Nat King Cole. I remember I was listening in the evening, after our duties were finished, and one of my black friends came over. I could see by the quizzical look on his face that he had not heard the music before. This was amazing to me as Nat King Cole was so popular and talented. I guess that maybe the black people had different favorite black artists. My friend listened to the music, looked at the case with the short bio of the artist and said, “He’s really good. I like the music.”
The military broadcast station played popular music and even news to keep us posted on what was going on, both in Vietnam and around the world. There were many songs that were very popular in the ‘60s but one comes to mind that took special meaning to us. This special song I will designate as song “Number Three”. The song had no military significance but it certainly was important to us. The song was performed by the Animals and it was called, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, if it’s the last thing we ever do”. We would hear it in Vietnam on Armed Forces Radio and we always turned up the sound when it came on.
It is really quite astounding that three simple songs, none written for or about the military, could have such an effect on me.
By: John Oscarson