It’s 1968. You’re a ‘citizen soldier’ in an immoral war. Crank up the tunes.

American soldiers listened to a record player as they stood in a trench at the beleaguered U.S. Marine outpost in Khe Sanh, South Vietnam.
American soldiers listened to a record player as they stood in a trench at the beleaguered U.S. Marine outpost in Khe Sanh, South Vietnam. Getty Images

“We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place, ’cause, girl, there’s a better life for me and you.”

Those lyrics, recorded by Eric Burdon and the Animals, were not written as anti-war. But 50 years ago, soldiers in Vietnam made the song their anthem.

The year 1968 violently exposed deep social fractures in America over race and war. Replacement troops inevitably imported those fractures to Vietnam.

Many of them draftees, the new arrivals had been inducted and trained after the confidence-shaking TET debacle, assassinations of leading antiwar figures, violence on streets and campuses, and exponential growth of the black-consciousness and anti-war movements.

The times they were a-changing: By summer’s end, many soldiers viewed the war as pointless. “The Things They Carried” (Tim O’Brien’s novel) included counter-cultural questioning of authority and sharply-different racial perspectives.

Also, music. This citizens army brought folk, blues, soul, rock, country and popular songs of protest. Armed Forces Radio blasted the subversive sounds of ’68 through our ubiquitous transistor radios.

In-country, a total absence of information (not spun through military news) made us value our music as more than a connection to home. Even songs that never mentioned war moved us to question beliefs that undergirded the war and to comprehend Vietnam’s counter-realities.

Official “reality,” particularly for black soldiers, had been profoundly debunked by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the year before on April 4, 1967 in his “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence” speech. He connected racism and Vietnam and pointed out that black soldiers were disproportionately drafted, assigned combat, wounded and killed.

Three weeks later, Mohammed Ali, refused to be drafted, explaining that no Vietcong had hurt him. Ali posed the quintessential question: Why would black Americans go 8,000 miles to kill brown men to protect democracy, freedom and basic rights that black soldiers were denied at home?

Black soldiers, no matter their background or military status, could not help but wonder likewise.

When news of MLK’s assassination on April 4, 1968 reached us, I was sharing guard duty with several soldiers whose elated and appalling comments unmasked the deep racial fissures that were present and accounted for in Vietnam.

I was on guard duty again when my sergeant-in-charge’s gleeful reaction to Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination (“elite-liberal-antiwar-chicken”) on June 5 portended a deepening rift over the war amongst soldiers, particularly enlisted and “lifers.” Both assassinations intensified racial and political tensions till the bitter end.

Throughout the deadly summer, “we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place” feelings turned defiant, initially with peace symbols and profane acronyms suggesting what the military could do with its war, and later with mounting insubordination and resistance toward incompetent authority and commands perceived as worthlessly risky or morally indefensible.

Army testimony before Congress cited “fragging” (attempts to kill one soldier by another) incidents: 126 in 1969, 271 in 1970, and 333 in 1971.

Vietnam was a policy quagmire. For soldiers, it was a moral swamp, largely because our moral authority, our churches, were silent about the war. Many soldiers seeking moral guidance from chaplains found little support; like many others, I got a pep talk to stay the course.

Failure to speak against this moral morass made another Animals’ song, “Sky Pilot,” my favorite: play, rewind, play on my friend’s cassette player in a tin warehouse-barracks where 50 GIs clustered their bunks by music genres. Each listen fortified my repulsion. Military chaplains (Sky Pilots) who “bless” the war by silence, elevating national loyalty over moral tenets, “will never, never, never… reach the sky.”

“You’re soldiers of God, you must understand. The fate of your country is in your young hands. May God give you strength. Do your job real well. If it all was worth it, only time it will tell.”

Fifty years tells much; we’ve learned little. The war machine, however, learned well: Wage war but manage domestic narrative by controlling information and images. Orchestrate emotional symbolism distracting from war realities. Disengage most citizens with an all-voluntary military. Create a more homogenous mindset among troops by making the Army less pluralistic.

Though not representative of America (heavily loaded with poor, rural/urban and color), “citizen soldiers” contributed profoundly to ending the war through their resistance in Vietnam and their antiwar actions at home. Politicians were unable or unwilling to act; the armed services remained committed to military solutions until Congress began cutting funding, finally ending the insanity in 1975.

Growing resistance among soldiers and veterans greatly influenced that decision. Which raises questions: With churches still silent, Americans disengaged, protest music faint, and a homogenous military culture, what is gained and lost by today’s all-volunteer vs. Vietnam’s drafted army?

Who acts to end our current wars’ unhalting march toward record length, cost and destruction?

Peter Berres of Lexington is a retired educator and military veteran who served in Vietnam. Reach him at peterberres@gmail.com.

Previous columns in this series:

50 years, on Vietnam War still calls for soul searching

Tet Offensive revealed how U.S. arrogance, deceit can backfire

It’s 1968. A young private learns My Lai is far from the only lie

In ’68, a young GI’s beliefs are rattled by another country’s Declaration of Independence

You’re a ‘citizen soldier’ in an immoral war. Crank up the tunes.