THE IMPACT OF MUSIC IN VIETNAM

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The impact of music in Vietnam on American soldiers is difficult to measure. It has been almost thirty years since the end of the war, and, as a result, interviews with Vietnam veterans today are often impeded by an understandable loss of memory.36 In addition, there has been little previous research on the topic. Nevertheless, enough information is available to form reasonable hypotheses as to what impact music really had on American soldiers during Vietnam.

Previous Research

As stated, prior work on the impact of music on troops in Vietnam is limited. While the film Good Morning Vietnam romanticizes and dramatizes the life of a disc jockey in Vietnam, it is hardly reliable as a source without further written documentation. There is, as well, a scene involving music in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. This scene is based on Stone’s personal memories about the conflict.37 Because this scene is also dramatized, however, previous written documentation and original interviews are better sources from which to work.

Officers vs. Enlisted Men. Previous research also raises questions regarding whether or not officers and enlisted men differed in their musical tastes. Fasanaro maintains that most American officers in Vietnam preferred classical types of music. This was often in sharp contrast to the rock ‘n’ roll most enlisted men enjoyed.38 Such a difference would not have helped relationships between the two groups, which, as Helmer maintained, were often strained from the very beginning. After all, not only could the chain of command serve as a source of tension, but officers were also older than enlisted men, often by ten years or more. This created a generational gap with which men on both sides were forced to cope.

Front vs. Rear. In Dark Laughter:War in Song and Popular Culture, Les Cleveland maintains that, outside the perimeter, it was too risky for soldiers to listen to music. One account documented in Cleveland’s book is that of a front-line platoon leader named Lanning. Lanning wrote that REMF’s could listen to radio and watch television, but that this couldn’t be done in the field for fear of alerting the enemy to American positions and because of the burdens of having to carry the necessary equipment.39 Lanning’s point of view is shared by First Lieutenant Robert Salerni. When commenting on music in Vietnam, Salerni notes that soldiers could get “the same disc jockeys and the same predominantly rock ‘n’ roll music [that] you’d get on an American station.” Salerni also emphasizes, however, that this statement was only true as it referred to soldiers in the rear.

The Four Types of GI Theory. Some of the most intriguing of the previous work in this field was done by John Helmer in his book, Bringing the War Home (1974). Helmer’s research led him to divide American soldiers into four groups, lifers, brownnosers, juicers, and heads. Lifers had been in Vietnam a minimum of three years. Most of them had achieved an NCO rank with little or no hope of advancement.40 Brownnosers were sycophants who did the bidding of the officers and NCO’s a little too eagerly for the tastes of many of the other enlisted men.41 Juicers were soldiers who preferred beer and supported the war effort. Juicers heavily contrasted with the final group, known as heads. Heads preferred a smoke to a beer and were in opposition to the war effort.42 These men, as Helmer saw it, fought two wars: the real one against the communist Vietnamese, and their own personal war against military authority.

According to Helmer, music became an important part of the divisions between these groups. Specifically, it became very important to the heads. Along with their strong anti-war feelings came a strong attachment to rock ‘n’ roll. These men spent much of their free time listening to acts like Jimi Hedrix, F. Zappa, The Mothers, Wilson Picket, The Grateful Dead, and the Doors. Helmer quotes Michael Herr, who wrote a first hand account of the war called Dispatches, when he writes about these men, “Sounds were as precious as water.” Helmer maintains that the songs these men listened to contained the group’s ideology.43 It is not difficult to imagine how, in this context, music could have had a major impact on morale. Not only would it have served as a unifying force for the heads, but it would also have further divided them from the juicers, who supported the war effort.

Findings of This Study44

In addition to the background and previous research above, this study includes many first-person interviews. Many of these were done electronically with former disc jockeys at AFVN and have been seen in prior sections of this document. Interviews were also done with Vietnam Veterans from Rochester, New York, who were selected at random. The only criteria several of them have in common that was taken into account in their selection is that they are members of Vietnam Veterans of America.45 It is through these interviews with Rochester-area Veterans and interviews with AFVN Veterans that the following data was gathered and the conclusions of this study were reached.

The Music. Rochester-area Veterans confirm much of the information former members of AFVN provide. When asked what kind of music he listened to in Vietnam, Buck Sargent Gary Kenyon’s response was simple. “Rock ‘n’ roll,” Kenyon replied, “It was basically the same music that was popular back in the states.”46 Kenyon went further to assert that this was typical of the men he served with in Danang from the end of February, 1968, to the end of February, 1969. Former E-5 Fred Elliott, who served in the infantry and armed cavalry in places like Tan An and Chu Lai in 1967 agrees with Kenyon that the rock ‘n’ roll of Armed Forces Radio was the typical selection of both himself and the men with whom he served. First Lieutenant Paul Womack, who was stationed in Ku Chi (twenty-five miles northwest of Saigon), recalls individual songs that seem to fit the general descriptions of Kenyon and Elliott.

I remember Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and I think the Armed Forces radio played Judy Blue-Eyes... it was about a seven-minute piece and I think they played that every noontime... I remember the stage, rock opera “Age of Aquarius” had come out and my company commander loved the “Age of Aquarius” and he played that a lot... I remember a little Credence Clearwater Revival, “Bad Moon Rising.” I think I remember that. I remember “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
These three men support the assertions of former AFVN members who claim that rock ‘n’ roll was the primary genre of music played in Vietnam.

It is also true, however, that not everyone listened to rock on AFVN, nor did those who listen to it necessarily enjoy it. Sergeant Eugene Lenyk, who served at Camp J. K. Books, north of Danang, from May, 1967, to August, 1969, was quick to agree with former AFVN disc jockey Garry Lyons that musical tastes of Vietnam soldiers were varied. “I was primarily into Motown stuff,” Lenyk says, “I’m not sure anything was ‘typical’ of guys over there. I heard other guys listening to the whole gamut from country and western to the Beatles to Mantovani.” Spec 5 Medic Bruce McDaniel agrees with Lenyk, but is quick to note that his unit in the field was unique.

The first memory of listening to music I have over there was the people in my unit listening to country music, which was new to me... One thing that was unusual about my unit was that it had come over together... I was a replacement... a lot of them were from Texas.
McDaniel remembers things changing again when he changed units and moved to the rear. “What I remember from that period [the rear],” McDaniel says, “is what we call soul music... we all listened to it.” In spite of this, McDaniel remembers that rock ‘n’ roll did infiltrate his unit. “There might have been some things we listened to that weren’t soul... ‘Magic Carpet Ride,’ I remember.”

While almost all of the Rochester-area men interviewed remember AFVN as their primary source of music, there is evidence that this was not true of all who served in Vietnam. Peter M. Galle was a Specialist Fourth Class with the Fourth Corp in the Mekong Delta in 1966. Galle listened to music at Club Starlite, which was at the headquarters for the MACV IV Corp operation area. While he was there, possibly due to the fact that Armed Forces Radio had not fully developed its network by this time, Galle did not have access to AFVN. In fact, all Galle had was one tape of jazz. He soon found that a majority of military personnel hated it and mentioned this to his family. His family promptly sent him four hours of rock ‘n’ roll on tape.

McDaniel, Womack, and Lenyk also note sources of music other than AFVN. While hearing country and western with his first unit, McDaniel also remembers hearing other types of music. “I have a vague memory of one of the black guys having soul music,” McDaniel says. Presumably, this music was on tape. Paul Womack remembers going to a show given by a local band. “I did go to one show one night,” Womack remembers, “but I don’t remember any of their music- they were pretty bad, a bunch of Filipinos, they were terrible.”47 Finally, Eugene Lenyk remembers the reel-to-reel tapes that he listened to in his hootch. “AFVN was pretty ‘white bread’ and bland,” Lenyk recalls, “It seemed to be pretty much mainstream pop stuff. Obviously, I preferred my own tapes.” To some degree, this seems to confirm the opinion of the of the anonymous soldier quoted in an earlier work on this topic by Fasanaro.48

If AFVN was pretty “white bread,” does this mean that there wasn’t any protest music heard over the airwaves in Vietnam? The most common response from Rochester-area Veterans when asked about protest music is that they do not remember hearing any in Vietnam, though they admit that they may have forgotten it. “I don’t think it would have been politically correct,” Gary Kenyon observes, “...as a matter of fact, I didn’t get into that at all until I was home. After I’d been home about a year and a half I discovered Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” McDaniel seems fairly confident in his support of Kenyon’s position. “I don’t remember anything like that at all,” McDaniel notes, “I would have found it surprising... I would have remembered, I think.” While these stories do not refute the assertions by AFVN disc jockeys that “unauthorized” songs were played over AFVN airwaves, it does bring into perspective how often these songs made the shows.

There was one exception to this lack of recollection. Eugene Lenyk does remember hearing protest music in Vietnam, but not over AFVN.

Now and then someone new would come in with recent tapes from Stateside or back from r and r that could have qualified as “protest music.” The accompanying stories about stuff at home that was somehow connected to the music were upsetting... but not the tunes themselves.49
The most interesting part of Lenyk’s recollection may not be that he heard protest music, but that it was not upsetting. It is interesting to note that the music did not have an adverse affect on Lenyk’s morale, at least not to the same extent of the stories that accompanied the music. This indicates that protest music may not have been capable of having as direct an impact on the morale of soldiers as one may think.

Officers vs. Enlisted Men. As mentioned earlier, previous research indicates that music was a main cause of disagreements between officers and enlisted men. However, the interviews that were conducted for this paper provide no support for this assertion. Many respondents stated that they could not provide any information regarding this question. This was due to the fact that they only spent time with enlisted men. When asked about music causing conflict between officers and enlisted men, Eugene Lenyk commented, “I don’t really know what our officers listened to beyond the occasional USO shows that toured through our area when we all listened and partied together; so, no conflict that I can recall.” Bruce McDaniel noted that he, “didn’t sense a difference in terms of the NCO’s and other people, but the actual officers, it’s hard for me to say.”50 Peter Galle remembered how strange he found it that, “There was no music played in NCO or Officers clubs.” These observations brings into question whether or not officers cared about music at all, let alone whether it served to separate them from enlisted men.

Two respondents, however, were able to give a little more information regarding this issue. First Lieutenant Paul Womack, when asked about the differences in musical taste between officers and enlisted men, and the impact it had on interaction between the two groups, downplayed the importance of music.

If there was any difference, it might have been an age difference. The officers in their thirties in those days would have been really old guys. I was only twenty-two and I was three years older than the enlisted me that worked for me... I think there was a generational tension, and there were racial tensions when I was there... The music didn’t cause the tension, the music might have reflected some of the other realities that created the tensions.
In other words music, in some cases, may have been one of the symptoms of the disease, but seldom, if ever, was it the disease itself. Being an officer, Womack’s own recollections of listening to rock ‘n’ roll in Vietnam, serve to support the downplaying of its importance as a divisive force between officers and enlisted men.51

Gary Kenyon seems to confirm the idea of the generational difference between officers and enlisted men being the most important factor in their relations. Kenyon summed up his memories concerning officers in one sentence. “I didn’t hang with any officers.” However, upon further thought, Kenyon did recall a time when age was noticeably divisive between the two groups.

The juke box would be a mixture of old country and western songs that the lifers liked and newer rock ‘n’ roll that the younger people liked. So we used to go in and put on Jefferson Airplane like ten times in a row, or “Revolution” by the Beatles ten times in a row, just to dominate the juke box and piss the lifers off.
Kenyon would most likely agree with Womack that the music was more coincidental than anything. Kenyon maintained that, in general, morale as it related to the interactions of American soldiers was a, “funny thing.”52

Front vs. Rear. A topic that was also raised by previous research was whether Vietnam Veterans who served at the front had been exposed to as much music as those in the rear. The answer to this question would appear to be “no.” However, this is not to say that music did not reach front-line soldiers. AFVN Veteran Paul Parker [editor's correction: Paul Parker was atually an infantry soldier and spoke from the viewpoint of the grunt in the field -- R. Morecook] is adamant in his belief that music was important to front-line soldiers.

...radio was always playing when possible [in the front lines]- you remember the pocket box portables and some of the larger battery-operated units of the times... they had them inside boats, ships, tanks, APC’s, even the amo holder from the M14 was used to keep a radio in. You would give anything to get an earpiece model- so you could listen without Charlie (or the officers) hearing it.
While Parker acknowledges the fear of the music being heard at the front, he maintains that soldiers listened whenever they could.53 It is also important to remember that people on boats, ships, choppers or in tanks were in very different situations from those on foot in the jungle. A helicopter or tank could be heard coming with or without music playing while an experienced foot soldier could be very close to the enemy without being spotted.

Perhaps this question was best put into perspective (at least as it relates to the infantry), by Bruce McDaniel. McDaniel, for the sake of simplicity, divided Vietnam into three types of locations, the rear, the field-mobile, and the field-stationary. The rear was any area away from the front lines of fighting. In contrast, the field mobile was at the heart of the fighting where soldiers were constantly on the move. The field stationary was something of a middle ground between the two. If you were in the field, but stationary, this meant that you were near or in the fighting, but you were in one location, like a set of sandbag bunkers, for example.

According to McDaniel, the easiest place to listen to music, was of course, in the rear. “Where I am more aware of hearing music,” according to McDaniel, “was when we were rotated back to the rear and we were at an aid station. Some people had their own tape recorders... in the rear you could have that kind of stuff.” McDaniel also remembers having heard music at stationary locations out in the field. In fact, this is where McDaniel first remembers hearing country and western music.

McDaniel’s memories about being on the move in the field, however, differ from his memories of being in fixed positions.

I really can’t remember people listening to radios or tape recorders or anything when we were really in the field... for one thing, you don’t want to carry anything you don’t absolutely have to, so, you’re gonna leave all your tape recorders and stuff somewhere else. Plus, you don’t want a lot of racket going on, certainly at night. I mean, the idea of being on an ambush and turning a radio on would be crazy.
This statement not only differs from McDaniel’s memories about stationary field areas, but it also differs from Parker, who recalls no such distinctions about the front in his comments. While both of these men are likely correct in regards to what they saw, these contrasting stories indicate that there was a noticeable difference between soldiers at the front and soldiers at the rear in regards to their exposure to music. The degree of difference likely depended on the situation of individual units.

Morale. Arguably, the most important question about music in Vietnam is how it affected the morale of American soldiers. Helmer, building upon the work of Michael Herr, attacked this question indirectly when he put forth his theory that American soldiers in Vietnam could be divided into four groups. This model, however, may be very oversimplified, according to former AFVN disc jockey Bob Morecook. [Editor's correction to original: Bob Morecook {then SP5 Morecock} was actually in the news department of AFVN -- Bob Morecook] “I have heard the division of Vietnam Vets into these groups before,” Morecook says, “-and as typologies go, there is a BIT of truth to it- but anytime you deal in types certain elements of truth are omitted.” In fact, other than the repeated distaste some had for lifers, none of these terms or distinctions are referred to by any of the veterans interviewed for this study. This is not to say that these observations are incorrect, but that they are over-simplified. It is also the case that Herr focused his research on a particular unit of Marines with which he traveled. This may also have affected their findings when one attempts to look at a broader cross-section of Vietnam Veterans.

As it turns out, the effects of music on American morale vary somewhat. When asked about the effects of music on morale, a couple of Veterans played down its importance. For example, Gary Kenyon maintains that music was merely “recreational.” Lieutenant Paul Womack also seemed to think music had little impact on him. “It probably didn’t affect me very much one way or the other,” Womack says, “It seems to me that the enlisted men had a better sense of camaraderie.” Womack seemed to think that music could have played some role in the camaraderie the enlisted men felt.

It would appear that the enlisted men agree with Womack. One common theme that emerges from speaking with Veterans is that music was a morale builder, in that it helped to keep American soldiers connected to “the world.” “Music was a morale builder and preserver because it helped keep us from forgetting the world back home,” Fred Elliott maintains, “I think the two most important things about music in Vietnam were that it gave us a common bond and allowed us to be back [home] for a few moments while listening or singing along.” Lenyk agrees with Elliott and adds, “...the music helped dull the ache of being so far from home... it was something familiar from home to grab hold of.” Though he doubts music’s effect on officers, Lieutenant Womack does concur, in part, with Elliot and Lenyk.

We all felt like something had been taken away from us... I think what the music would have done would have been to connect people roughly the same generation with each other in Vietnam, but it would also have served as a way of connecting them to the people back in the States. A lot of the mail that people got was on cassettes... sometimes there was music on the cassettes. Sometimes people would record their letters with music in the background.
Despite slight differences in perspective, almost everyone seemed to agree that music provided a valuable escape from Vietnam, if only for a short time. Perhaps Bruce McDaniel put it in the simplest way when he noted, “It may have been something other than the war to think about.”

In addition to the flight from the war, Womack mentioned briefly that music connected, “people roughly the same generation in Vietnam.” This was also a recurring theme in discussions with American Veterans. Elliott noted that, “It was one thing we could all share and have in common.” Eugene Lenyk expanded Elliot’s observation to include the bridging of racial differences. “The music was a tremendous help in overcoming the loneliness,” Lenyk recalled. “In my case the music helped me bond with a lot of the black guys in my outfit.”

McDaniel also found music important as it applied to his somewhat unique situation as a medic. While McDaniel’s situation may have been unique, his anecdote proves very thought-provoking in many different respects.

My first thought was that it really didn’t make much difference, one way or the other. But when I think about it more, that may not have been true... in the rear I was with other medics... when I was in the field, I was one of four medics in the company... I had a very unique role and I tended to relate to people in terms of that role. Then I came back to the rear and everybody was a medic... you relate more to people as individuals... but it seems like the people I was with in the rear, when I was having something more like normal friendships with people, that there was a lot of soul music in the background going on. So, maybe in some subtle way, it did help out with the morale, maybe in a way I didn’t appreciate at the time.
Even when music wasn’t the topic of conversation, it was around. It served as a medium for people to relate to each other on a personal level. Even if two individuals developed a friendship based around other factors, McDaniel’s observation makes one wonder how many of those friendships started because a few guys were sitting around with a radio on. The subtlety McDaniel referred to indicates that music may have been more important to some soldiers than they now recall. His words make one question how many interesting stories about music in Vietnam and the relationships it played a part in may have been forgotten over the last thirty years.

McDaniel’s comments also serve to further explain why officers and enlisted men did not interact much. Like McDaniel’s men reacted to him as a medic in the field, enlisted men likely related to officers solely in terms of their rank and power over them. This further explains why, regardless of music, personal interactions between officers and enlisted men were limited.

It is clear that music had positive effects on morale in Vietnam. While it served to bring many people together, however, it also seems to have played a role in separating people as well. For example, Eugene Lenyk repented that, in addition to music bringing him closer to the African-American members of his unit, music being was a divisive force as well.

Some of us would get together and harmonize with the Tams or the Temps or Sam and Dave and just got mellow together. Some of the other guys who crooned along to Grand Ole Opry hits stayed separate. That may have had more to do with other cultural imperatives and the music was coincidental, in my opinion.
Peter Galle also saw music as a consequence of differences amongst individuals and groups when he was in Vietnam in 1966. Galle remembered one particular instance which involved some advisors and a young, black sergeant.
Most of the people in our headquarters were Military Assistance Command advisors- types of military personnel that spoke Vietnamese and were intelligent and were highly trained and had more education than the average grunt. One day, I was walking passed a group of tables where, suddenly, I was pulled down into a chair where the only music playing was a jazz tape that the black sergeant had- the white soldiers hated jazz- they came in from the field living initially six months in the field with only Vietnamese and later that reduced to three months at a time. The advisors only listened to Vietnamese music and jazz was more of a black type of music. They told me in no uncertain terms the music was terrible and too loud and asked me to get music that they wanted to hear.

Through this story, one sees the tensions, not only between lifers and young guys, but between different races, expressed through differences in musical choice. Galle also noted that, “[Music] caused guys to hate the Vietnamese through not understanding their music.” This would seem, once again, to be a case where musical differences were a symptom of an overall cultural or generational gap between different groups of people within the Vietnam landscape.
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