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The Vietnam War on Record

Nostalgia clouds our memory of the Vietnam War era. Peace. Love. Music. Rock & roll, dope, and fucking in the streets. Wasn’t it a mighty time? Sometimes, yes. More fundamentally, the Vietnam War era meant three million Indochinese killed, along with the callous ruin of hundreds of thousands of American lives, including fifty thousand killed outright. Black and white citizens of the United States were routinely jailed and sometimes murdered for insisting that our country’s constitution applies to everyone. The assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers took place during what is sometimes referred to as the Flower Power Era.

The Vietnam War era is not over. It’s not over for me, a Vietnam veteran who still suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has yet to receive promised benefits from the Veterans Administration. And it’s not over for millions more like me, whether they were soldiers or not. From Houston to Hanoi. From Detroit to Da Nang.

These realities permeate Next Stop is Vietnam: The War on Record 1961-2008 (Bear Family). This boxed set tells its story of the Vietnam War through 14 CDs of music and newscast commentary plus a three hundred page book. The nearly half-century time frame includes over 270 artists and 300 songs, with background and stories about every one of them. A treasure trove of photographs augments it all.

Musically, stars abound: Glen Campbell, Marvin Gaye, Dolly Parton, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Country Joe, Grand Funk Railroad, Natalie Merchant, Bob Seger, Pete Seeger, the Doors, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, the Shirelles, Bruce Springsteen, Freda Payne, R.E.M. Yet the bulk of the material is by one-hit or no-hit wonders or by active duty military personnel and veterans. Whether professional or amateur, celebrated, forgotten or never known ‘til now, the music covers a lot of territory–folk and funk, country and soul, rock and gospel. Only some of the tunes are musically memorable, but combined these songs tell an unforgettable story.

Actually, they tell more than one story. Although Next Stop projects an anti-war stance, it tells a more complex tale. It allows artists and politicians to express themselves without adopting a specific editorial perspective, although that’s hardly necessary when Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, is quoted as saying that we should make Vietnam “a protectorate, like Puerto Rico.”

The first eight CDs cover the period of the war itself, a time when America was embroiled in an intense social and cultural debate. For those who know “debate” only as the relentless shouting of Fox News types, this collection will come as a revelation. On the first eight CDs of Next Stop, there are 82 pro-war songs (42%) and 70 anti-war songs (36%), with 22% falling somewhere in between. Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” versus Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War;” Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” versus Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction;” Ernest Tubb’s “America, Love it or Leave It” versus Edwin Starr’s “War;” Senator Everett Dirksen’s Grammy-winning “Gallant Men” versus the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place.” When Democrat Lyndon Johnson sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam he was answered by Navy veteran Country Joe’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” and Army veteran John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son.” When Republican Richard Nixon bombed the hospitals of North Vietnam, he was answered by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home.”

Sometimes the debate took place within the same person. Tom T. Hall wrote both the pro-war number one country hit “Hello Vietnam” and the anti-war “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken).” Kris Kristofferson was an Army Ranger helicopter pilot when he wrote an attack on the anti-war movement entitled “The Viet Nam Blues.” Later Kristofferson said “it was a tremendous mistake for our government to be over there” and he also wrote many songs opposing U.S. foreign policy, particularly wars in Central America, Asia and the Middle East.

This kind of debate also took place in Vietnam itself. Honey Ltd. was a female vocal quartet from Detroit whose first single about a soldier bound for Vietnam (“My Boy”) was written and produced by Bob Seger. The group moved to LA where Lee Hazlewood produced an album on them that opened with “The Warrior,” which the song’s writer, Jonthan Ward, described as “a terrifying anti-war song.” This didn’t prevent the group from being chosen to go on a USO tour of Vietnam with Bob Hope. Maybe Honey Ltd. needed a career boost, maybe they just wanted to support the troops. Yet many of those same troops booed the pro-war Hope during his Vietnam shows.

The Vietnam war also divided families. Victor Lundberg had a Top Ten hit in 1967 with the spoken word record “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son” and its key lines: “If you decide to burn your draft card, then burn your birth certificate at the same time. From that moment on—I have no son.” Lundberg performed on the Ed Sullivan Show and was nominated for a Grammy (he lost to Everett Dirksen).

Beginning with Disc 9, Next Stop’s focus shifts to the war’s aftermath. The story of the end of the war that didn’t end the war is heard on songs ranging from the Auditions’ “Returning Home From Vietnam” on the tiny Freckles label out of Chicago to John Prine’s classic “Sam Stone,” the tale of a returning hero who dies of a drug overdose. Prine, an Army vet, sums it up with the heart-stopping line: “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.”

With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, the debate at home lost much of its steam. Next Stop documents the shift to the issues of POW/MIAs and Jimmy Carter’s pardon of draft resisters. As time went on, national attention focused on other wars and other issues. But Vietnam and its aftermath never went away.

That aftermath was often barely visible as vets and their organizations, isolated and ignored, struggled with unemployment, homelessness, Agent Orange poisoning, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Occasionally, songs would break through the clouds and make an impact: Charlie Daniels’ “Still in Saigon,” “Walking on a Thin Line” by Huey Lewis, Paul Hardcastle’s “19,” “Orange Crush” by R.E.M.. There were also under the radar tracks like Jimmy Logston’s “Thanks, Secret Agent,” a heartbreaking song that describes Logston’s exposure to Agent Orange, which ultimately caused his daughter to suffer chronic seizures. “Thanks, Secret Agent” could have been written about my friend Michael Carmody, an Ohio rubber worker and fanatical fan of much of the music on Next Stop is Vietnam. Michael was sprayed with Agent Orange when his Army unit was secretly in Cambodia. He got out safely but died before he turned thirty.

There is a tradition among veterans that when they meet for the first time they say to each other: “Thank you for your service.” Civilians often echo that sentiment. What exactly are we being thanked for?

The post-war discs depict a country struggling to figure that out. One answer is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the elegant wall in Washington D.C. emblazoned with the names of all U.S. military casualties in Vietnam. According to the National Park Service, the wall has had over 25 million visitors since it opened in 1982. Next Stop includes The Statler Brothers’ “More Than a Name On a Wall” and six similar songs. But the Memorial, built only after fierce debate, is studiously neutral on the issue of the war itself. It amplifies many questions and answers none.

Edwin Starr had an answer. When he bellows those lyrics “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” we embrace them as a vision of the world we want to see. But historically speaking, he’s wrong. The United States has fought three wars it can be proud of. The Revolutionary War, which created our country, was the first war of national independence, a war that served as an inspiration for world-shaking uprisings in countries such as France and Vietnam. The Civil War ended slavery. World War II, fought under the banner of the Four Freedoms, liberated the world from the fascist grip of the Axis powers. Those three wars may have inspired the boxed set’s “Bring Them Home,” where Pete Seeger, who wrote the song, is joined by Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Donovan, and Roger McGuinn.

There’s one thing I must confess

Bring them home, bring them home

I’m not really a pacifist

Bring them home, bring them home

If an army invaded this land of mine

Bring them home, bring them home

You’d find me out on the firing line

Bring them home, bring them home

The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II define one aspect of our national character. The slaughter of the Native Americans and imperial ventures in Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan define another. But in America we don’t usually make such distinctions. We say that war is bad (having long ago changed the name of the War Department to the Department of Defense) while reflexively supporting “U.S. interests.” We recoil when confronted directly with the horrors of war but insist that our military is good. Support the troops? There are three million men and women on active duty now and 22 million living veterans. Collectively, they have ties to most families and most neighborhoods in the United States. If we turn against what they do, are we turning against them? If we turn against them, are we turning against ourselves? How can we accept that?

We don’t want friends or family members to come home in a box. But we also know that our military has guaranteed our high standard of living for generations, a standard of living much higher than that of the countries we invade. The end result is that, whatever our personal beliefs, we are conditioned by the 20th century reality of a country full of guns and butter. This makes national confusion over peace and war impossible to avoid.

I have experienced many of these contradictions. I was in boot camp in the summer of 1964 when Congress approved the invasion of Vietnam by American troops. The radio in our barracks blasted Motown and British Invasion music which invited us to stay home and enjoy life. Yet even though none of us could find Vietnam on a map, we were eager to go there.

Somebody’s freedom was being messed with and it was up to us to put things right. We also knew that ninety per cent of the world lived even worse than our miserable boot camp existence. As we would soon find out first-hand, our primary role was to ensure that a disproportionate share of the world’s resources kept flowing to America. We compressed all this until it became, in our minds, one inseparable thing, mislabeled “freedom.”

We also disagree because America has yet to come to terms with the legacy of the fratricidal conflict of the Civil War. Dozens of organizations still promote the Confederate cause and not without impact. In 2001, Mississippi‘s special election to decide whether to remove the Stars and Bars from its state flag produced a massive turnout and the Confederate battle flag won by 2 to 1. In Marbury, Alabama, Confederate flags fly each day at Confederate Memorial Park, which has an annual budget of $542,000, paid for entirely by taxpayers, both black and white. This is hardly just a Southern anachronism—Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota said that our country’s black children were better off during slavery.

We are asked to believe that honoring Confederate veterans has nothing to do with slavery, yet the more than one hundred thousand Southern whites and the hundreds of thousands of slaves who fought for the Union never have their existence mentioned, forget about being honored.

Do the American people even want peace? According to CBS News, in 2003 69% of Americans felt invading Iraq was the “right thing to do.” That number is now at 37%. On the other hand, a study by the Institute for Southern Studies revealed that the South, usually the most war-like section of the country, is now the most anti-war.

Nevertheless, today there is less music about war than there has been for nearly forty years. There is no peace movement to speak of. Why?

The Vietnam anti-war movement grew directly out of the civil rights movement. With the integration of America’s black elite into business and government (a President, even) the civil rights movement, which lacks an understanding of the relationship between class and race, is in utter disarray. During the Vietnam War, the military draft fueled anti-war sentiment and it was often reflected in music (Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag” or John Lee Hooker’s “I Gotta Go To Vietnam”). Today’s military is at best a poor people’s army doing the bidding of the 1 per cent.

Today the rise of the celebrity charity juggernaut has subsumed much of music’s social and political conscience. From Live Aid to the Linkin Park benefit for Japanese earthquake survivors, from “We Are The World” to the benefit at the corner bar for a band member’s surgery, we turn inward instead of outward.

Ever since Southern bands backed Jimmy Carter in 1976, musicians have expressed themselves on issues such as war primarily by backing political candidates, a phenomenon that escalated dramatically with John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. That doesn’t mean musicians actually get to pick a side. That was made clear on May 10, 2005 when the Senate voted 100-0 for Bush’s war funding bill. That unanimous pro-war vote, which included 2004 and 2008 “peace candidates” Kerry and Obama, was no accident. There is no longer any substantive debate in our body politic about war because both parties are pro war, pro military-industrial complex and inextricably part of the projection of American might around the world. They can’t change. They have no interest in change, except as campaign slogans used to delude volunteers and voters.

But as Next Stop is Vietnam tellingly describes, there was constant turmoil in Congress during the Vietnam war that found its reflection in music. While the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to go to war in 1964 found an easy 88-2 rubber stamp in the Senate, just six years later an amendment to prohibit the use of funds for bombing Cambodia passed 58-32 and just three years after that the Senate ended funding for American military involvement in all of Indochina. In the middle of those nine years, Eugene McCarthy ran a primary campaign on an end the war platform. The Democratic nomination ultimately went to Hubert Humphrey, but McCarthy garnered 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and 56% in the Wisconsin primary.

Our music does still offer paths forward. Bruce Springsteen’s “Galveston Bay” on Disc 11 of Next Stop tells a story of the connection between Le Bin Son and Billy Sutter. Both fought on the same side in Vietnam, both are fishermen on the Gulf of Mexico, both kiss their sleeping children in the pre-dawn darkness on their way to work. The influx of Vietnamese to traditional Texas fishing grounds provokes a violent response from the Klan and Le Bin Son kills two of them in self defense. Billy vows revenge but ultimately puts that aside. The music and Springsteen’s vocal are dispassionately passionate—the track rests emotionally an a barely audible keyboard. It’s only when the song is over that you feel the full gut punch of its power. The message is far more than that of a single happy ending. It offers a vision of possibility, of hope for broader unity and reconciliation. “Galveston Bay” illustrates how the path toward peace is linked to other issues that are tearing our country apart: immigration, poverty, racism.

Todd DiPastino, the author of Citizen Hobo and co-organizer of the Veteran’s Breakfast Club in Pittsburgh, recently wrote me that “the burdens combat veterans carry are the responsibility of non-veterans.” Absolutely. Although veterans are just 7 per cent of the U.S. population, they are 23 per cent of the homeless. That number is likely to rise in the near future. According to USA Today, the rate of foreclosure in the 163 Zip codes located closest to military bases rose 32% between 2008 and 2010.

But above all, we have a responsibility for each other. As Paula Caplan puts it in her excellent new book When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: “What non-veterans share with veterans is everything involved in our fundamental common humanity, including an understanding of the importance of connection, empathy, support, mutual education, and making a better world.”

The potential in Caplan’s vision percolates up from the raw facts of daily life. America’s elite continues to maneuver to eliminate Social Security while a Pentagon advisory panel recently proposed eliminating the pensions of all military personnel. Meanwhile, forty-five million Americans annually experience “food insecurity” (the threat of malnourishment or even starvation) and Feed the Children and local food banks all across the nation must raise money to provide food for the children of military personnel.

In America we too easily lose sight of our common bonds, our gaze distracted by stereotypes which keep us apart. For instance, country music is thought of as mindlessly pro-war and patriotic. At the height of the uproar generated when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks called out George W. Bush on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Lon Helton, country music editor of Radio & Records, wrote: “Country music is for people who live between the Hudson and the Hollywood sign and they have a different view.” The antics of the likes of Toby Keith or Hank Williams, Jr. (represented on the boxed set by his Gulf War anthem “Don’t Give Us a Reason”) might seem to justify that judgment. At first, so does the music on Next Stop is Vietnam. On its first few discs it goes from Jerry Reed’s “Fightin’ for the USA” to “Keep the Flag Flying” by Kitty Wells’ husband Johnnie Wright, from Dave Dudley’s “What We’re Fighting For” to Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” But then we come to Johnny Cash. His 1971 single “Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues” may be indirect in revealing the anti-war thoughts of this Air Force veteran, but Cash quickly cleared that up in a later interview: “As far as the war in Vietnam is concerned, that war just made me sick.”

Cash isn’t the exception who proves the rule. Other anti-war country artists include Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and The Dixie Chicks. Next Stop also includes country singer Donna Fargo’s 1990 cover of “Soldier Boy,” which she turns into an anti-Gulf War song, and Dolly Parton’s 2005 cover of “The Cruel War.” 2005 also saw Merle Haggard flip the script on “The Fighting Side of Me” with the album track “America First” and its chorus of “Let’s get out of Iraq/And get back on track.” In 2008, Trace Adkins released “Til The Last Shot’s Fired,” with its chorus of “Say a prayer for peace/For every fallen son/Set my spirit free/Let me lay down my gun.”

It got to the point where Toby Keith claimed he had always been against the war. Keith’s lyrics (“let’s go kick some Iraqi ass”), his war against the Dixie Chicks, and his performance with Dubya at McDill Air Force Base on the eve of the invasion of Iraq make that claim more than dubious. But if a reactionary country star thinks it’s good PR to be against war, what does that say about the mood of the country audience? What does it say about our ability to realize our commonality, to overcome the false divide of red state/blue state?

Instead of looking upon our veterans as a separate section of the population with its own special needs, let’s meet at that place deep in America’s soul where veterans are revered and move outward from there. The Four Freedoms we fought for in World War II still await realization: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

To get to that destination will require a dramatic change of priorities in our war-driven economy. Maintaining a huge military machine once guaranteed our comfort, now it guarantees our poverty. War now threatens the continued existence of the human race itself. All guns, no butter. We gotta get outta this place.

Lee Ballinger is co-editor of Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com.

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Lee Ballinger, CounterPunch’s music columnist, is co-editor of Rock and Rap Confidential author of the forthcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing, interviewed Honkala for CounterPunch. RRRC is now available for free by emailing Ballinger at: rockrap@aol.com.

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