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AFVN - Listen to Vietnam War Radio Music
When examining the topic of music in the Vietnam War, one realizes that, as Paul Womack said, “Everybody’s story is different.” These differences are not limited to the troops at the front versus those at the rear, or officers versus enlisted men. The story of a soldier in one part of the jungle of Vietnam can differ completely from the story of a soldier in another part of the jungle, despite the fact that both are at the front. In many places, there were no real lines in Vietnam; it was a country consumed by war. Soldiers at the rear were often separated by unsecured areas which kept them from moving back and forth on a regular basis. These characteristics make the Vietnam War unique.

Interviews with Vietnam Veterans, from both AFVN and the Rochester-area, nevertheless, do yield patterns. These patterns are useful in discerning the overall impact of music on American troops in Vietnam. Not only are these findings interesting to the historian, but they may be of interest to nations who wage war in the future, and will be forced to deal with media such as music, either by clarifying a problem the United States had or leaving a fear of problems that could arise.

Officers vs. Enlisted Men

It may, in fact, be the case that the majority of officers did not listen to the same predominantly rock ‘n’ roll music that enlisted men did, as previous research suggests. However, it is an overstatement to maintain that music divided officers and enlisted men. Officers and enlisted men did not form tight relations in Vietnam regardless of the music to which they listened. This is mostly a result of a generational gap between the thirty-something officers and the young enlisted men who belonged to the “rock ‘n’ roll generation, as it was termed by Gary Kenyon. The fact that they were forced to relate to each other as officers and enlisted men, and not just people (as they could within their own groups), likely added to the tension created by the age difference. This can be deducted from Bruce McDaniel’s story about his relations to other members of his unit when he was a medic.61

Musical differences may have been a result of this generational difference, but they were hardly the root of the problem. It is not even clear that it was a problem at all in the rear, where both officers and enlisted men partied at USO shows. There are some indications that it may have been a problem on the front, both in this study and in previous research. However, it is unclear whether this is because of the genre of the music or the mere fact that officers did not like men listening to music in the field.

Front vs. Rear

McDaniel’s breakdown of the war into three different “zones” helps to explain why veterans from the front may tell contradictory stories. Measuring the musical influence on soldiers at the front versus at the rear is the best illustration of how soldiers in similar situations can have different stories. The fact that many men shared time at both the front and the rear during their tours of duty may play a role in further confusing the memories of these individuals in regards to where, specifically, they were exposed to certain types of music. It is clear, however, that men at the front did not receive the same level of exposure to music as those in the rear. This may further explain the resentment that many front-line soldiers felt for their rear echelon counterparts. The fact that music and television were so readily available in the rear relative to the front must have made the rear look like a vacation spot to the men out in the jungle. While this image may not have been accurate, it would have seemed rational enough to men who could not even listen to the radio for fear of death at the hand of the enemy.


Overall Effects of Music. Any contention that music damaged the morale of the American soldier in Vietnam and, in some way, contributed to the “loss” of the war is not supported by the evidence. The impact of music on the morale U.S. troops in Vietnam was overwhelmingly positive. Music gave the soldiers a direct tie to home. It also provided them a medium with which to interact with other solders from different states, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds on a personal, rather than a professional level. Music provided a recreational environment and served to both relieve boredom and calm nerves.

It can be further concluded that the negative impact of any protest music soldiers heard was minimal. It is interesting to note that the one individual from the Rochester area who did recall hearing protest music in Vietnam wasn’t affected as much by the music itself as by the stories from home that he heard with it. This fact, coupled with the joke Bob Morecook tells about the Kent State killings (in reference to the song “Ohio”) indicates that even the small amount of protest music that American troops did hear in Vietnam had no measurable derogatory effect on American soldiers. In fact, some of this protest music may have provided enjoyment for the troops.62

The Four Types of GI Theory. The theory put forth by John Helmer, in which music served as a divisive force between juicers and heads does not hold up under this analysis. Not only are the categories he puts forth oversimplified, but there is no evidence that music created rifts between the average American soldier in Vietnam and his counterparts to the extent that Helmer maintains. This is an indication that his sample was not representative of Vietnam Veterans as a whole.

In some cases, music did have a negative impact on the collective morale of American soldiers. As with officers and enlisted men, however, music was only a symptom of greater problems. American culture has many different components. There was no way that every group of American soldiers was going to get along with every other group of American soldiers in Vietnam. Musical taste was just one difference that divided groups such as blacks and whites, and southerners and northerners.

The absence of music in Vietnam would have damaged morale far more than it possibly could have helped. Soldiers were better off having music to unite them with some of their peers at the cost of facilitating their separation from others than they would have been having no music to help bind them to any of their comrades. The price the military paid for soldiers having ready access to music was far outweighed by the benefits that music brought into the ranks.

Soldiers’ Original Music

The presence and content of American soldiers’ original music serves to further prove the points made in the rest of this analysis. It is logical to assume that American troops in Vietnam would not write songs that would depress them. There was, after all, plenty to be depressed about in Vietnam without adding music. It may surprise some, then, that many of these songs could be classified as protest music, had they been written by civilians.

Then again, maybe that should be exactly what we expect. Interviews show that music helped to build the morale of American troops. However, the evidence also shows that very little of the music heard by the average Vietnam soldier was protest music. This left soldiers who were unhappy in Vietnam with few musical outlets for their frustration. One of these outlets, as it turns out, was the lyrical work of their fellow troops.

Does this mean that the Armed Forces were wrong to try to filter out popular protest music? Probably not. After all, the sources of popular protest music and original soldiers’ protest music are very different. As Eugene Lenyk pointed out, while the music may not have been upsetting, the stories that accompanied the music were. If popular protest music spread through Vietnam as it spread through the United States, it is reasonable to believe that it would have facilitated the spread of these stories from home as well. Protest music that originated with American soldiers, however, came from a source that knew the true horrors of war; it came from a fellow soldier. A soldier would be better able to identify with the motivations of one of their comrades writing an anti-war song than those of a civilian. A civilian, after all, should have been grateful for the service American boys were providing and not trying to undermine their efforts, as many felt war protesters did. For this reason, protest music that originated with soldiers in country was not the same as popular protest music.Last Modified 5/1/00
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