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An Ode to the Music of War: First Movement

By: Geoffrey King
July 9, 2018

"In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other…”  Dispatches author Michael Herr

"Music carried through everything. I wouldn’t have survived without it.” Air Force Vietnam veteran Ricardo Lopez

“the noises must become music.” Director Robert Bresson
 

creenwriter John Milius still vividly recalls scripting, in the first draft of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the famous helicopter scene with ramrod 9th Cavalry Captain Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) destroying “Charlie’s Point,” a Vietnamese village. “That Valkeries scene came from a vision I had of the exhilaration of war — right alongside the terror and the horror and the fear of being snuffed out. The glory of it!” he told Lawrence Weschler in a 2005 Harper’s article. “Nowadays—unlike during the Victorian era when the glory was all that got discussed — nowadays it’s the horror that always gets talked about. And either one by itself, of course, is a ridiculous half-statement.” Before Coppola wrapped up shooting, there would be at least six script versions and relentless rewrites of the ending by the director late into the night after each day’s shoot. By that time Milius had been barred from the set in the Philippines.

By the middle of the 1960s, helicopters had become the defining presence of a war whose popular memory can’t be separated from the music of its era. By the time Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” the Beatle’s “Help,” and The Temptations “My Girl” shared the top ten in 1965, the American presence in Vietnam was escalating and would continue to expand far beyond even Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s data-mining imaginings. Televised images of the airborne assault at Ia Drang made the helicopter an iconic image for Americans when they remembered the war. Legendary Senior North Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp studied the battles that comprised Ia Drang and cannily identified the helicopter as the crucial change in America's approach to a new kind of war. Giáp would later say:

We thought that the Americans must have a strategy. We did. We had a strategy of people’s war. You had tactics, and it takes very decisive tactics to win a strategic victory…If we could defeat [your] tactics—your helicopters—then we could defeat your strategy. Our goal was to win the war.

For the Americans, Ia Drang validated airmobile infantry warfare: of the sixteen Hueys involved in the battle, only two failed to fly back to Pleiku after the battle. Lt. Col. John B. Stockton and his 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry made history by conducting the first nighttime heliborne infantry assault into a very hot landing zone (LZ). By all reliable historical accounts, there was no accompanying “Ride of the Valkeries” during the assault. Only in the movies. Or maybe not. In Helicopters: An Illustrated History of Their Impact, Stanley S. McGowan writes that:

The USAF purchased a total of 146 UH-1Fs, with several modified as ‘UH-1P” psychological warfare aircraft, which carried loudspeakers over the jungles of Vietnam in an attempt to persuade Viet Cong and NVA soldiers to surrender.

In 1982, Milius contended, “if it’s based on Heart of Darkness, then Moby Dick is based on the Book of Job.” Milius conceded that he was deeply influenced by an article in Vanity Fair by Michael Herr, “The Battle for Khe San,” that mythologized Vietnam as drugs, rock and roll, and helicopters (as well as being the early source material for what would become Herr’s book Dispatches). Herr, who also wrote Willard’s narration in Apocalypse Now, would become the poet of helicopters, music, and Vietnam. He claimed the commanding voice for all those nineteen-year-old grunts he refers to as “rock and rollers with one foot in their graves.”

It is impossible to hear the music of the Vietnam War without conjuring the technological overkill that accompanied the American presence. Two traditional observations about war remain true: it is a big, foggy, complex logistical machine requiring a mountain of resources designed both to defeat the enemy and support the combat troops; and, whatever else it is, war is always a celebration of markets. Historian Meredith Lair, author of Armed with Abundance: Consumerism & Soldiering in the Vietnam War, provides exhaustive detail to support what should be obvious: the American experience in Vietnam cannot be separated from its technology and consumption. In the Vietnam era, for a confluence of historical and cultural reasons, America’s fifties ethos of “policy of plenty” extended even beyond the military-industrial complex Eisenhower admonished his fellow Americans to resist. Added to the consumption of material resources required in war, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) created and funded directives after 1966 to fight a war on boredom and low morale among troops in the rear, who constituted by far the majority of Americans in Vietnam. That fact will come as a prodigious reality check to anyone whose image of Vietnam comes from Apocalypse Now, John Wayne’s The Green Berets, or Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

The Vietnam War was a veritable Vietnam, Inc., with an expansive list of Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) replete with intricate divisions of labor commensurate with General Motors or IBM: supply personnel and armaments personnel, communications specialists, construction engineers (often civilians working for RMK-BRJ earning top dollar), data processors (compiling the information that would be massaged to suit various military and political agendas), reporters, editors, and photographers for unit newspapers (some with circulation circa 90,000), and staffers for the command historian amassing interviews and logging details that would one day become the Pentagon’s official record of the war. As Michael Herr writes in Dispatches, “No one builds bases like Americans,” and build them we did, as large and complex as medium-sized cities―Long Bihn Post had 81 basketball courts while South Vietnam had 48 swimming pools―with some of the busiest airports in the world. General William Westmoreland compared the building of bases in Vietnam to “constructing the basic facilities for the population of a city the size of Toledo, Ohio.”

After 1965 and the escalation resulting from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, American popular music reached every corner of Vietnam as Doug Bradley and Craig Werner report in We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, which was Rolling Stone’s 2015 “Book of the Year.” “Whether via the radio waves that carried both sanctioned and underground stations; cassette, eight tracks, and reel-to-reel tape decks in hootches, the bands, many of them Filipino or Korean, strumming out Creedence Clearwater Revival and Wilson Pickett covers in the Enlisted Men’s Clubs; or the stages where USO shows and a few big-name stars entertained war-weary troops.” Impressive sound systems, the best of their era, began to appear during the mid-sixties, and in the rear big reel-to-reels were common, leading to informal tape clubs where anyone could create what we now know as mixtapes. The radio, however, still reigned supreme. As Christopher Waltrip observes in his essay “Radio: Broadcasting the Soundtrack of a Soldier’s Life,” “Besides his rifle, the most important thing in a soldier’s life was his radio.” While not everyone loved the programming on Armed Forces Radio Network (AFVN), almost everyone listened to it in spite of the directives from on high as to what could be played―“Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” were forbidden as was, for a while, the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Seepage in the playlist could be heard late at night, depending on the local affiliate. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was axed from the playlist for most affiliates, but Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret” was encouraged. Everyone ran their own very private fantasies while listening to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking” ―Kubrick used it in the soundtrack for Full Metal Jacket―and the song was apparently a personal favorite of Hanoi Hannah’s broadcasts on Radio Hanoi, which could be heard at night all over South Vietnam.

With in-country gross PX sales at $325 million for fiscal year 1969―never mind the cameras and sound equipment purchased on R&R in Bangkok and Tokyo―Lair was prompted to rhetorically riff off of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam novel The Things They Carried when she wrote about the Vietnam military consumer culture as “The Things They Bought.” Guns and butter, for sure; ten-cent beer, films, radios, and popular music as well, all handled (and censored) beginning in 1966 with the advent of the Entertainment Branch of the Special Services, officially described by the Army as “the largest, most inclusive combine of musical and theatrical activity in the world; it is the largest single producer of legitimate plays, musical shows, concerts, choral and instrumental groups, music and theatre festivals, thematic productions, and touring shows, as well as many other types of theatrical enterprise.” Whew!


To Be Continued.