The Nature of the Soldier’s Experience in Vietnam

The Vietnam conflict was not the conventional type of war for which the U.S. forces were trained and equipped. Using guerilla war tactics (i.e. hit-and-run ambush, nighttime bombings and incursions, soldiers melting in with the civilian population) that were particularly suited for the jungles, the Viet Cong, with the assistance of regular North Vietnamese forces, were able to neutralize and frustrate the superior American military. (Reader’s Digest, p. 458.) This frustration is made clear by the following quote from American soldier, Larry Gwin: “Just how was one to fight a war that featured smiling children concealing grenades behind their backs and an army of snipers that dissolved into the villages by day, serving tea and bowing to the very soldiers they then returned to the treetops to pick off from the early-morning shadows?” (Jennings and Brewster, p. 396-397.)

After visiting Vietnam to entertain the troops, Johnny Cash wrote a song, “Singin’ in Viet Nam Talkin’ Blues, that gives a picture of what it was like for troops in Vietnam, consistent with the description above . (

One mornin’ at breakfast, I said to my wife
We been everywhere once and some places twice
As I had another helping of country ham
She said “We ain’t never been to Vietnam
“And there’s a bunch of our boys over there.”
So we went to the Orient: Saigon

Well we got a big welcome when we drove in
Through the gates of a place that they call Long Vinh
We checked in and everything got kinda quiet
But a soldier boy said: “Just wait ’til tonight
“Things get noisy. Things start happenin’
“Big bad firecrackers.”

Well that night we did about four shows for the boys
And they were livin’ it up with a whole lot of noise
We did our last song for the night
And we crawled into bed for some peace and quiet
But things weren’t peaceful. And things weren’t quiet
Things were scary

Well for a few minutes June never said one word
And I thought at first that she hadn’t heard
Then a shell exploded not two miles away
She sat up in bed and I heard her say: “What was that?”
I said: “That was a shell, or a bomb.”
She said: “I’m scared.” I said “Me too.”

Well all night long that noise kept on
And the sound would chill you right to the bone
The bullets and the bombs, and the mortar shells
Shook our bed every time one fell
And it never let up; it was gonna get worse
Before it got any better

Well when the sun came up, the noise died down
We got a few minutes sleep, an’ we were sleepin’ sound
When a soldier knocked on our door and said:
“Last night they brought in seven dead, and 14 wounded.”
And would we come down to the base hospital, and see the boys

So we went to the hospital ward by day
And every night we were singin’ away
Then the shells and the bombs was goin’ again
And the helicopters brought in the wounded men
Night after night; day after day
Comin’ and a goin’

So we sadly sang for them our last song
And reluctantly we said: “So long.”
We did our best to let ’em know that we care
For every last one of ’em that’s over there
Whether we belong over there or not
Somebody over here love’s ’em, and needs ’em

Well now that’s about all that there is to tell
About that little trip into livin’ hell
And if I ever go back over there any more
I hope there’s none of our boys there for me to sing for
I hope that war is over with
And they all come back home
To stay

In peace

Billy Joel’s song “Goodnight Saigon,” (1981) ( portrays a soldier’s Vietnam experience: “Remember Charlie, remember Baker, they left their childhood on every acre…” and gives a glimpse of the Viet Cong guerilla tactics: “They ruled the night…”

We met as soul mates
On Parris Island
We left as inmates
From an asylum
And we were sharp
As sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho
To lay down our lives

We came in spastic
Like tameless horses
We left in plastic
As numbered corpses
And we learned fast
To travel light
Our arms were heavy
But our bellies were tight

We had no home front
We had no soft soap
They sent us Playboy
They gave us Bob Hope
We dug in deep
And shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ
With all of our might

We had no cameras
To shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe
And played our Doors tapes
And it was dark
So dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we’d write

And we would all go down together
We said we’d all go down together
Yes we would all go down together

Remember Charlie
Remember Baker
They left their childhood
On every acre
And who was wrong?
And who was right?
It didn’t matter in the thick of the fight

We held the day
In the palm
Of our hand
They ruled the night
And the night
Seemed to last as long as six weeks
On Parris Island
We held the coastline
They held the highlands
And they were sharp
As sharp as knives
They heard the hum of our motors
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive

And we would all go down together
We said we’d all go down together
Yes, we would all go down together

“I was Only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green), was written (1983) and performed by John Schumann of the Australian band named Redgum. ( Australia has long been an ally of the United States and is a member of SEATO and ANZUS, two military alliances created by the U.S. after World War II. Australia has a history of supporting U.S. military actions, sometimes by sending its soldiers. “I was Only Nineteen” arose out of that context. “Nineteen” became a national hit in Australia, especially among Vietnam veterans. The single reached number one on the Australian charts for two weeks in 1983. Schumann wrote the song based on the experiences he heard from veterans. It is still performed whenever Vietnam veterans get together for a concert. All royalties from sales are donated to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. It is in the Australian Performing Right Association’s Top 30 Australian Songs of All Times.

Mum and Dad and Denny saw the passing-out parade at Puckapunyal.
It was a long march from cadets.
The Sixth Battalion was the next to tour, and it was me who drew the card.
We did Canungra, Shoalwater before we left.

Townsville lined the footpaths as we marched down to the quay.
This clipping from the paper shows us young and strong and clean.
An’ there’s me in me slouch hat with me SLR and greens.
God help me, I was only nineteen.

From Vung Tau, riding Chinooks, to the dust at Nui Dat.
I’d been in and out of choppers now for months.
But we made our tents a home, VB and pinups on the lockers.
An’ an Agent Orange sunset through the scrub.

An’ can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
An’ night-time’s just a jungle dark and a barking M16?
An’ what’s this rash that comes and goes—can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.

A four week operation when each step could mean your last one on two legs.
It was a war within yourself.
But you wouldn’t let your mates down ’til they had you dusted off.
So, you closed your eyes and thought about something else.

An’ then someone yelled out, “Contact!” and the bloke behind me swore.
We hooked in there for hours, then a Godalmighty roar.
Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon,
God help me, he was going home in June.

An’ I can still see Frankie, drinking tinnies in the Grand Hotel
On a thirty-six hour rec leave in Vung Tau
An’ I can still hear Frankie, lying screaming in the jungle
‘Til the morphine came and killed the bloody row.

An’ the ANZAC legends didn’t mention mud and blood and tears.
An’ the stories that my father told me never seemed quite real.
I caught some pieces in my back that I didn’t even feel.
God help me, I was only nineteen.

An’ can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
An’ why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
An’ what’s this rash that comes and goes—can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.


Puckapunyal: a recruit training center
Cunungra: a jungle warfare training center
Shoalwater: a place that the army used for military exercises
SLR: the personal weapon mostly used in Vietnam
Vung Tau and Nui Dat: Aussie bases in Vietnam
V B = Victorian Bitter, a very popular Aussie beer
ANZAC: the acronym for the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (“And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda – ANZAC Legend Begins”)
Rec: Recreation leave

The My Lai Massacre

Not only were the American forces frustrated by the Viet Cong’s guerrilla tactics, they were frustrated by their own country’s policies and tactics. “Washington had sent [them] there to fight a limited war, of dubious aims, against a people dedicated to absolute war, in a fight for their own survival.” (Jennings and Brewster, pp. 396-397)

“When GIs couldn’t tell friend from foe, they came to hate and despise them all. All “slopes” (“slopes” was the slang term for people of Asian descent, who have eyes that ‘slant.’) were dirt. Viewing all Vietnamese as less than human released American boys from their own humanity.” (Hillstrom, quoting Cecil B. Curry in Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army during the Vietnam Era, p. 66.)

Frustration led to tragedies like the March 1968 My Lai massacre, where the American infantry, led by lieutenant William Calley killed at least 347 (some say as many as 500) Vietnamese villagers. Calley was later charged with murder and court-martialed. He was tried and convicted and was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. (Reader’s Digest, p. 458.)

Upon announcement of the Calley verdict many Americans were appalled. President Nixon ordered Calley transferred from prison to house arrest at Fort Benning while his appeal was heard. State legislatures in New Jersey, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and South Carolina passed motions officially requesting clemency for Calley. Alabama governor George Wallace quickly named Calley an honorary lieutenant colonel in the Alabama National Guard. In Georgia, Governor Jimmy Carter proclaimed an “American Fighting Man’s Day” and asked the state’s residents to drive with their headlights on during daylight hours in a week-long protest. ( Eventually, Calley’s sentence was commuted to 10 years. He was released from prison in 1974 at the order of a civil court, after serving three years. (Reader’s Digest, p. 458.) Calley was the only soldier convicted of war crimes for the incidents that took place in My Lai.

Many songs have been written about the My Lai incident from all different points of view. (A list of sixty plus such songs can be found at Some people viewed Calley as a soldier just carrying out orders; some viewed him as a murderer who committed an evil act; and others thought that the people who were in charge of “punishment” (politicians, people in the military justice system and the news media) failed. The great division of musical reaction on this issue is a reflection of the broader public division on the war generally. Here are a few:

“C Company: Ballad Hymn of Lt. William Calley, written by Julian Wilson and James M. Smith (1971), sung by Terry Nelson, is largely pro Calley. (

translated from English to English

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Once upon a time there was a little boy who wanted to grow up
And be a soldier and serve his country in whatever way he could
He would parade around the house with a sauce pan on his head
For a helmet, a wooden sword in one hand and the American flag in the other
As he grew up, he put away the things of a child but he never let go of the flag
My name is William Calley, I’m a soldier of this land
I’ve tried to do my duty and to gain the upper hand
But they’ve made me out a villain they have stamped me with a brand
As we go marching on
I’m just another soldier from the shores of U.S.A.
Forgotten on a battle field ten thousand miles away
While life goes on as usual from New York to Santa Fe
As we go marching on
I’ve seen my buddies ambushed on the left and on the right
And their youthful bodies riddled by the bullets of the night
Where all the rules are broken and the only law is might
As we go marching on
While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street
While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat
While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat
As we go marching on

With our sweat we took the bunkers, with our tears we took the plain
With our blood we took the mountains and they gave it back again
Still all of us are soldiers, we’re too busy to complain
As we go marching on
When I reach my final campground in that land beyond the sun
And the great commander asks me, “Did you fight or did you run?”
I’ll stand both straight and tall stripped of medals, rank and gun
And this is what I’ll say

Sir, I followed all my orders and I did the best I could
It’s hard to judge the enemy and hard to tell the good
Yet there’s not a man among us would not have understood
We took the jungle village exactly like they said
We responded to their rifle fire with everything we had
And when the smoke had cleared away a hundred souls lay dead
Sir, the soldier that’s alive is the only once can fight

There’s no other way to wage a war when the only one in sight
That you’re sure is not a VC is your buddy on your right
When all the wars are over and the battle’s finally won
Count me only as a soldier who never left his gun
With the right to serve my country as the only prize I’ve won
Glory, glory hallelujah glory, glory hallelujah

“The Massacres of My Lai (Song My) and Truong An,written and sung by Thom Parrot (1969) from his album “Many Windowed Nights”, originally featured in Broadside # 103, December 1969.originally published in Broadside Magazine #103, December 1969 originally featured in Broadside # 103, December 1969. originally featured in Broadside # 103, December 1969. is a critical comment on the My Lai situation (looking for audio):

We went out on a mission, we were told search and destroy
Hunting for the Viet Cong, a task we don’t enjoy
For Charlie has a lot to lose and always has a gun,
But orders come down from the brass for everything we done.

Late in the day we came upon a village made of straw
Our officers had told us they were VC one and all
But we didn’t hear no shooting, though we fired off our guns
So we moved into the village like the big brass would have done

Well we never saw young men, we supposed that they were hid
So we rounded up all the old folks, all the women, all the kids
And we laughed as they were begging us, we were really having fun
And orders came down from the brass for everything we done

We slaughtered all the old folks, all the women, all the kids
And the we burned their houses down, and we’re proud of what we did
For we did it for America, for our wives, and folks, and sons
And orders come down from the brass for everything we done.

The battle was a safe one, and none of our boys died
For none of them had arms at all, though many of them cried,
But tears are weapons of the heart, and most of us had none,
And orders come down from the brass for everything we done.

This story that I’ve told you really happened, you can bet
It was in the village of My Lai or Troung An, I forget
For we liberated both those towns with our freedom loving guns
In the name of god and country, for our wives, our folks and sons

“The Cry of “My Lai, written by Johnny Adams and Ivan Meece, sung by Ivan Lee (1971) (, is another song that condemns the massacre, with the narrator telling Calley that “the devil possesses your soul” against the background sound-effect of an infant crying. He asked: “Hey lieutenant, can you still hear the small babies cry?” He also wondered if Calley had acted as if in a childhood game: “Did the frightened child remind you of a smiling boy, who plays war at home and the gun is only a toy?”

An armed man and a woman were challenged by a soldier to die
here in a ditch at My Lai a small baby cried
Any man that would do this is bound to be possessed by the devil himself in disguise
They may set him free, but he’ll still hear the small baby cry
They may set him free, but he’ll still hear the small baby cry

Hey Lieutenant you’re not God don’t you know
You’re just a Lieutenant and the devil possesses your soul
You’re just a Lieutenant and the devil possesses your soul

Did the frightened child remind you of a smiling boy?
Who plays war at home and the gun is only a toy
Did anyone pray where was God that day?
Was he old enough to ask why?
Hey Lieutenant, can you still hear the small babies cry?
Hey Lieutenant, can you still hear the small babies cry?

Now war is hell and death will never die
But a baby noise is not a reason why
Has God grown weak and the devil strong?
Can a man to man justify?
They may set him free, but he’ll still hear the small babies cry
They may set him free, but he’ll still hear the small babies cry

Hey Lieutenant will death set you free from My Lai?
Hey Lieutenant can you still hear the small babies cry?
Hey Lieutenant can you still hear the small babies cry?

Last Train to Nuremberg, written and sung by Pete Seeger (1971) (, pointed the finger at several layers of society that Seeger thought had blood upon their hands. Nuremberg was the place where the criminal trials of the Nazis took place after the second World War. Thus, Seeger placed those responsible for My Lai atrocities in the same category as the Nazis, facing justice for their crimes.

Seeger points to the two soldiers involved: Lieutenant William Calley and Captain Medina, the commanding officer of the platoon in question. Medina faced court-martial for these war crimes, but was acquitted in 1971. Seeger then suggests that politicians, Richard Nixon and “both houses of Congress” bore some responsibility. He wants to know “who gave the orders?” and who “planned the campaign?” Seeger then turns his attention to the military-industrial complex, asking the question: “who manufactured the bullet?” Finally, Seeger points the finger at all Americans, singing: “do I see the voters, me and you…who paid the taxes? Tell me, is that blood upon my hands?” The reference to a football game related to the rumor that President Nixon watched a football game on TV after he was informed about the My Lai incident.

Last train to Nuremberg!

All on board!
Do I see Lieutenant Calley?

Do I see Captain Medina?
Do I see Gen’ral Koster and all his crew?

Do I see President Nixon?
Do I see both houses of Congress?

Do I see the voters, me and you?
Who held the rifle?

Who gave the orders?
Who planned the campaign to lay waste the land?
Who manufactured the bullet?

Who paid the taxes?
Tell me, is that blood upon my hands?
If five hundred thousand mothers went to Washington
And said, “Bring all of our boys home without delay!”
Would the man they came to see, say he was too busy?
Would he say he had to watch a football game?

Last train to Nuremberg!

All on board!

“Pinkville Helicopter,” also known as “My Lai Helicopter” was written and sung by Thom Parrott (1971). It paints a very descriptive picture of the horrors that occurred at My Lai. (

As they flew over Pinkville, the choppers could see,
The slaughter that went on below them.
And they radioed the dying of the women and kids,
So that general headquarters would know them.

Then one circled down to a place on the ground
Where there were children who were wounded and crying.
And he took them in the chopper to take the kids out
So that they wouldn’t be among the dying.

They were on their way out when below them they saw
A little two year old baby
So they went down again and the pilot got out
Muttering “The whole world has gone crazy.”

The baby was cradled in the captain’s arms
Wounded and crying and bloody
When a lieutenant came up and said “Put the kid down
And get your chopper on out of here, buddy.”

The captain looked down at the lieutenant’s gun
That was smoky and hot from the killing.
He said “If I have to give my life for this child,
Then, by God, you know that I’m willing.”

Then the gunner who stood in the helicopter’s door
Called out to the lieutenant,
“We’re calling your bluff. There’s been killing enough.
If your gun starts more, mine will end it.”

So they flew the kids out to the medics who said,
“War is hell. Even babies get wounded.”
The pilot just looked at his gunner and shook.
Said “To kill them was what was intended.”
The things that we’ve seen up in Pinkville today
Well we won’t even try to describe them
But this wasn’t war, it was a pack of mad dogs,
Just killing to see people dying

As they flew over Pinkville, the choppers could see,
The slaughter that went on below them.
And they radioed the dying of the women and kids,
So that general headquarters would know them.

“Song for Hugh Thompson, written by David Rovics’ (1998) and performed by Rotdorn (, is about Hugh Thompson Jr., a U.S. army warrant officer and helicopter pilot, who tried to stop the My Lai massacre. Before the last few survivors were about to be killed by U.S. soldiers, Thompson and his helicopter crew arrived on the scene and told the soldiers that if they did not stand down, they would be shot by the helicopter’s gunners; thus, preventing the last few people from being murdered. Thompson reported the incident over the radio, and later to his superiors. He then evacuated the civilians, including a 2-year-old boy that he found clinging to his dead mother. He ordered two other helicopters to fly eleven Vietnamese to the hospital at Quang Ngai, then reported the massacre to higher headquarters. He also got a cease-fire declared, sparing countless more civilians. He received the Soldier’s Medal in 1998 (the highest award for valor not involving combat).

Hugh Thomson was a pilot, just like many more
Fighting for Old Glory on a far-off, foreign shore
He was on a lethal mission, only one of many
Following his orders to kill the enemy, to kill the enemy

He flew low above the village, searching for the foe
When he saw a wounded child on the path below
He thought this to be a sure sign that the enemy was near
So he radioed for back-up and more choppers did appear…

“Help the wounded,” he cried out, “and beware of an attack”
And then the child died by a bullet through her back
And when he looked around for the culprits of the scene
It was a company of men in U.S. military green…

The dead were in the hundreds, strewn all around
In this place called My Lai, which once had been a town
There was a hut of huddled children, soldiers had them in their sights

Train your weapons on the G.I.’s, and his ‘copter crews obeyed
And stood among the children, tattered and afraid
The whole town had been murdered, but for some kids and widowed wives
And Hugh Thomson made sure that those remaining would survive…

It was a fifteen-minute stand-off in a knee-deep sea of red
Amidst the moaning of the dying and the silence of the dead
Hugh Thomson was a soldier and he served his country well
On the day he saved the lives of a dozen kids in hell…

“Morning In My Lai, by Nelson Truehart, presents a more sympathetic position of the soldiers’ point of view. (

Up in the morning, soldiers all go around
His only order was to destroy the town
Men and women, little boys and girls
Who was the enemy in his world

His mind was so tired from fighting their way
Onward the enemy on that dreadful day
Listen people come to his plea
After all he’s fighting for you and me

He’s begging to someone, please hear my cry
Don’t let me spin high for fighting in My Lai

How can we judge a man when you don’t know what went on
Calley were behind you, we want you to go home
Listen people he played his part so well
Protecting others, now he‘ll live through hell

Oh, he’s begging to someone, please hear my cry
Don’t let me spin high for fighting in My Lai

The Ballad Of My Lai, Matt McKinney asks whether the soldiers’ conduct was “duty or sin” and who should make the judgment. (

There once was an Army lieutenant
Handsome, dashing and gay
Married the one that he loved
Remembered him each time she prayed

Said she was foolish you see
His words brought tears to her eyes
Said child be still, with my courage and skill
What need for your prayers of —-

Mary, you go to your chapel
Pray to your god on your knees
Mary, when you light your candle
Don’t bother to light one for me

One day at the start of a battle
Near a village in South Vietnam
People were running and hiding
To escape the death from the guns
Women and children alike
Too old and too young to fight

In a ditch they were found,
their blood stained the ground
These words echoed again

Mary, you go to your chapel
Pray to your god on your knees
Mary, when you light your candle
Don’t bother to light one for me

Now who will stand in the judgment
And say this is duty or sin
We sent him into the battle
In a war we never could win

We placed the gun in his hands
And sent him to that foreign land
With courage and skill and a license to kill
Now the judgment is in the higher hands

Mary, you go to your chapel
Pray to your god again
Mary, when you light your candle
For our sakes light one for him
For our sakes light one for him