Reviewed Elsewhere: Doug Bradley and Craig Werner, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War.

Lars Fischer's picture

Doug Bradley and Craig WernerWe Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. 256 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-197-6; $26.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-62534-162-4.

In We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley and historian Craig Werner aim to recover the "soundtrack of the Vietnam War," including the national memory of the war, but what they actually do is unearth the place of music in the lives of those who experienced the war firsthand. It is no small accomplishment. GIs breathed in the music of the 1960s, they thrilled to it, read deeply into it, and repurposed it to suit their existential needs. The book is filled with stories of survival—of surviving with and because of popular music—not to mention stories of coping, postwar, with the traumatic experience of combat with the curative power of music as a kind of sonic IV drip.

The book grew out of a discussion at the Madison, Wisconsin, Veterans Center between Bradley and Werner (who coteach a course on the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin–Madison) and other veterans. They conducted more than two hundred interviews for the project (though they do not use them all) and also draw upon oral history collections from the University of Buffalo Vietnam Veteran Oral History and Folklore Project and Texas Tech University's Vietnam Virtual Archive (it should be Vietnam War Virtual Archive). Finally, the historian Heather Stur shared the interviews she conducted for her excellent book, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (2011).

Bradley and Werner organize We Gotta Get Out of This Place roughly chronologically, and one of the book's virtues is that it is attentive to changing attitudes and opinions—chiefly among veterans—about the war over time. ...

Although the book is written for a general audience (including veterans, who are unlikely to find anything offensive in the authors' interpretation, especially as they privilege veterans' voices over their own), it is fundamentally about reception (though the authors do not use the term): it is a collection of stories that tell us how GIs received and interpreted the music of the period, and it shows GIs as both audience and as artists themselves. Bradley and Werner thus argue that music, for those serving in Vietnam, "provided release from the uncertainty, isolation, and sometimes stark terror" of the war zone. Music also functioned as "the glue that bound the communities they formed in their hooches, base camps, and lonely outposts." Long after the war ended, popular music served as "a path to healing" for so many who served (1–2).

... As the foregoing suggests, Bradley and Werner take a glass-half-full approach to their subject. The focus is on the power of music to sustain and to heal: music not only is good but also has the power to save. Questions of politics, of justice, of desperation and anger make appearances, but the authors do not foreground them.

It is not that politics and emotion are left out of the book; in fact, the interviewees discuss these themes with some regularity. But without a stronger authorial voice, the ways that the GIs experienced music as a vehicle for engaging the war politically, for thinking about their civilian and military leaders, or the protest movement, for example, is left to flow by like just another raft on the Mekong River of veterans' memories.

... one craves a little more political edge from the authors. While Bradley and Warner do well to convey the mix of genres to which GIs listened—southern whites listened to country, while black soldiers listened to soul music—they pull punches where they do not have to. ...

When veterans did finally return home, music played a vital role in their healing at a time when the American public seemed to hope that veterans would just go away. Bradley and Werner give particular attention to Bruce Springsteen for initiating benefit concerts for veterans and, of course, for writing "Born in the USA" (191). Here again, the authors could say more about the politics of the 1980s, but they leave veterans' redemption via Springsteen mostly to Vietnam Veterans of America's Bobby Muller's narration.

It is no easy task to write about the collective experience of millions of people, but Bradley and Werner manage to do so without overgeneralizing.

Michael Stewart Foley. American Music 36, 4 (2018), 530–533.