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Barry Pearson

The Soldiers' Point of View, (Part Two)


So far we have looked at the process of becoming a soldier as it appears in the soldiers' own folklore.  Now we will turn to soldiers' ideas about overseas duty, behind the lines and in combat.  Keep in mind that we are not looking at the whole of any one soldier's experience, but at a cross section of oral accounts drawn from various folklore collections and individual oral histories. Some incorporate the traditional material or motifs we have already encountered. 

Fighting the Army: Resistance and Survival

Narratives about soldiers in combat zones often exemplify the themes of initiation and fraternity among soldiers, at least in relation to small groups or combat units apparently at odds with the rest of the world, including the army.  Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist and critic Bill Mauldin presented an especially sympathetic picture of the common GI in World War II [infantrymen] named Willie and Joe.  Although his cartoons cannot be considered folklore in their own right, Mauldin's perceptions of the daily experiences of their front-line enlisted men incorporate the same general motifs as the soldiers' own folklore.

As symbols, Willie and Joe embody the soldiers' vices and virtues, and their workman-like attitudes. Quick to complain about army food, army competence, or army life in general, they persevere nevertheless.  They represent what Mauldin sees as an exclusive fraternity of fighting men who despise their officers (though they may accept one into their company if he learns to behave properly), and resent all outsiders including rear-echelon troops and members of other branches of the service.  They learn to endure the physical and mental rigors of combat because they have little choice in the matter.  But they also know how to take their pleasure where they can.  Most importantly, they learn the rules of survival under fire and how to make do on their own initiative, despite the army.

Soldiers' folklore clarifies that in combat, as in basic training or base camp, a soldier's primary allegiance is to his co-workers or friends.  Soldiers share each other's trials and joys, and they depend on each other for companionship and for survival. Both literature and folklore emphasize the themes of fraternity a soldier's primary responsibility to a small group of companions. They also emphasize how his overriding concern for his own survival outweighs abstract notions of patriotism, political ideology, or even personal courage.

At war on two fronts, a soldier fights the enemy as well as his officers, who appear equally intent on getting him killed.  Mauldin's cartoons often contrast Willie and Joe's version of the war with their officers' perspective. [One of his cartoons] shows the dogfaces carrying officers' luggage and saying, "Oh, I likes officers.  They makes me want to live till the war's over." 13 Forced now to accept the system, they dream of a future encounter in which they will be treated as equals, beyond the jurisdiction of military authority.

The following Vietnam narrative describes the classic confrontation between the seasoned soldier and newly arrived officer:

There's a lot of talk in [the] army these days about the length of your hair, and even when I was in Vietnam it was a big topic.  You were supposed to keep your hair fairly short.  Some of the people I was with requested to stay in some of these outposts for thirty to forty days at a time and they were forever leaving for these little camps or outposts we had on tops of mountains.

One guy, I don't recall his name, but he was a captain. We didn't wear ranks and we didn't wear regular army uniforms.  We wore what we called these tiger suits, and we had about five or six different types to match the terrain.  Well, this one fella came off a mountain after being up there for forty days.  He looked like Rip Van Winkle; he had a full-length beard; he had hair that was down to his shoulder in length.  He walked into camp.  Naturally, you didn't even have to know he was in the area.  You could smell him twenty feet away.  He hadn't had his clothes washed in, like I say, forty days.  He'd been up there and he had one set of clothes.  He was a real frontiersman.

Well, anyway, the day that he walked into camp,...from the chopper pad we had some staff officer from Saigon.  He looked like he had just stepped off the plane from the United States.  He had polished boots, uniform pressed, just what you see on the posters.  Well, he took one look at this guy and cussed him up and down, asked him who he was, name, rank, and serial number.  He was going to get him court-martialed, and this and that if the guy didn't get a haircut immediately.  Well, this captain just told him where to go, turned around, and walked out of camp, and we didn't see him again for two weeks.  Nobody knew where he was or what he was doing.  We assumed he went back up on the mountain.

Note that in this case the protagonist tells the officer where to go and walks away, an act of rebellion Willie and Joe would only dream of doing.  Tales of these confrontations have symbolic value for the tellers and their audience, and they are often altered for greater artistic impact through exaggeration and selective highlighting.

It is probable that the World War II soldiers were more apt to work within the system whether they liked it or not. Such confrontations between officers and enlisted men occurred frequently in Vietnam, however, where personal appearance symbolized individuality and a rejection of regular army values.  Moreover, the frustration of an apparently undirected war effort and an overall decline in respect for authority gave the traditional tension between officers (called "lifers") and enlisted men a new and ominous direction know as fragging, incidents in which officers were murdered by their own men with fragmentation grenades. The following three oral history accounts of describe this type of open rebellion:

Sometimes a boot lieutenant will order a charge on a bunker.  Whenever it happens, he is shot before anyone can obey him, and artillery and air support are called for by the second-in-command.  Every Marine Corps unit has a phantom fragger.  In LAAM Battalion, this mysterious person killed thirteen officers in thirteen months on Monkey Mountain.


They're some pricks, let me tell you.  Like out in the field it wasn't so bad.  Because out in the field if you get a lifer you don't like, you just shoot him.  You have to wait until you get into an engagement with the gooks until you do it.  Then you say some Viet Cong did it and who's to tell you otherwise?  But I heard a lot of stories about that actually happening.  Like the only casualty of the fight on our side just happening to be some lifer who used to hassle everyone.  And people would blame it on luck! [Laughter].


He was a real prick, come straight from Germany.  It was spit-shine boots and the whole bit. He come over there and the first thing he did was he started having reveille at six in the morning. I told him that men just weren't going to be there.  I told him that I'd have my day crew there for reveille, which is eight out of twenty-four men.  And I said that the midnight-to-eight crew wasn't going to be there because they were just getting off work and they were going to bed.  And my other crew that was on evenings was still in bed and they weren't about to get up to say, "O,K., I'm here," and go back to bed.

I said that was their assigned time off and they didn't have to do that shit and he said, "Well, we'll see about that."  And this kept going on and on; and he was hassling me.

So, finally, there's these couple dudes, they were really strung out on some shit.  Like they had no mind; they were vegetables.  So the First Sergeant just kept hassling this guy and hassling this guy.

And the first time, he just went into his hootch [hut] you know, and threw a grenade in there and didn't pull the pin at about three in the morning.  He left a little note on it that said, "Keep hassling with us and next time this pin will be pulled."  So the sergeant let off for about two weeks, then he went back to his old ways again.  He started hassling people just like the old days.

Well, the dude who threw the grenade the first time finally got totally pissed-off.  And it was all over, the grenade went off underneath this sergeant's bunk and that was that.  And they [the army] had a hell of a time finding the guy who did it.  They suspected the whole company.  They'd ask everyone, "Well, what did you think of the First Sergeant?" 

"I thought he was a prick, Sir!"  So they couldn't narrow it down because all of us said that.  But finally the guy who did it broke down and confessed.



A soldier learns to rely on his own initiative and the support of his immediate group for survival during combat.  But soldiers, like all occupational groups engaged in dangerous activities, also look to supernatural help.  Some resort to prayer, but clinging to luck charms and maintaining some belief in other forms of magic are just as common.  Many soldiers carry personal protective amulets to ward off danger--anything to provide an added sense of security.  At the same time, soldiers scrutinize the world around them to identify possible connections between signs, behavior, and bad luck. Superstitions flourished in every branch of the service during both World War II and the Vietnam War.  The following narratives incorporate soldiers' notions of luck and magic.

Commenting on superstitions in Vietnam, one veteran pilot admitted:

You know, I was never superstitious at all until I got over to that damned place.  Even flying here in the states, I wasn't superstitious.  But the slopes are so treacherous, and the whole place is so different, that you just kind of wind up being superstitious.  Like when Joe and I went over there, we each carried a bullet from a .45 because we figured there's a bullet somewhere with our names on it and if we keep these in our pockets, we'll be accounting for that bullet.  Like, one time Joe came down to visit at An Khe, and when he left he dropped his bullet.  So I put it in my pocket and kept it for him, because everybody has a bullet that belongs to him, and if I had Joe's in my pocket, he'd be okay

.       My first day in combat, we got hit with RPGs.  I was out on the flight line, so I ducked into a bunker to wait out the shooting.  When I got back to my         tent, my bunk had a big slash in it and right on my pillow was about a six-inch piece of shrapnel from an RPG.  So I figured that one had my name on it         too and I carried it in the leg of my Nomex suit.

Another Vietnam veteran recalled:

I had a rosary that I wore the whole time I was out in the field.  About the time I lost the rosary was about the time I got taken out of the field too.  I lost the rosary one day and I was scared shitless for the rest of the time I was doing direct combat.  You know, when you're coming face to face with the enemy every day and like, they're shooting at you, man [laughter], it's easy to get superstitious about stuff like that.

In the first Vietnam account the long-standing soldiers' superstition, the notion that carrying a bullet in your pocket keeps you from being shot, is extended and a new amulet comes into being.  The theme of fraternity among soldiers is interwoven as the narrator protects his friend, Joe, by carrying his bullet for him.  In the second account, the good luck charm is religious.  Both examples underscore the belief among soldiers that magical protection can help to ensure survival.

In Vietnam, using magic to assert control over generally uncontrollable situations often led to practices that violated formal regulations.  Here, as with fragging incidents and drug use, we see the soldiers' world view in direct conflict with the military establishment:

Another thing they do, too, the same way, that's also against the regs [regulations], is retire a pilot's call letters if he gets zapped.  They make sure nobody in that unit ever gets the same call letters.  So the call letters are like a nemesis, you know, for the pilots, and if one is unlucky, everybody figures the bad luck can be passed along with the call letters.  So everybody has to keep remembering which call letters are no good in that unit, so no pilot accidentally gets call letters that belonged to some dead guy.

Other tales describing acts of sabotage and conspiracy demonstrate that soldiers' superstitions outweigh other considerations, such as the value of equipment or accepted notions of civilized behavior:

Like, there's all sorts of legends about lucky helicopters and unlucky helicopters, and lucky numbers and stuff like that.  Like they have this thing about never flying a helicopter once its pilot has been killed.  It doesn't make any difference if the co-pilot or anybody else in it gets killed, but if the pilot gets killed, nobody will fly that helicopter.  So what they do is try to get these crates out of the country, where nobody will have to fly them, because they're deathtraps.

So if a pilot gets killed, usually his ship is so shot up nobody can fly it anyway.  But sometimes the ship is okay--maybe a lucky shot got the pilot or a sniper got him.  Like this time I was on a flight and my chopper took all sorts of hits and nothing happened to me, but this buddy of mine was flying the same formation and one bullet hit his ship, right through the windshield and cut his jugular vein.  So they had to get rid of his ship even though nothing was wrong with it.

Well, you know, you can't just go around throwing out helicopters, or you get the S4 raining pee on you.  So a couple of guys get together and make sure the helicopter's a wreck, and then they have to get rid of it and nobody can fly it again.  Everybody kind of conspires to wreck this helicopter, and everybody knows it's happening, but nobody ever does anything about it, because morale would go down among the pilots real bad if a pilot was forced to fly a deathship.


Yeah, well you know about the necklace of ears he wore around his neck?  He used to say that it brought him good luck, I guess it must have been because he should have been killed at least a dozen or so times [laughter].

Hero Tales

Let us now turn to another category of narrative that we will simply refer to as "hero tales."  Every occupational group passes along legends or anecdotes that describe the actions of outstanding individuals whose exploits elicit admiration or awe from the rest of the group.  These characters seem supernatural in their capabilities, yet their larger-than-life actions act as an index to indicate the values of those who tell of their adventures:

Every genuine folk movement creates its ultimate hero or heroine, and so it is here.  Such a figure has a basis in historical fact and functions as a prismatic image through which a total historical experience is concentrated and made readily available to those who have had their parts in it.  To the hero are attached attributes and experiences that symbolize those of the group; when they speak of him they are speaking of themselves, for his story is really theirs. 14

Vietnam, like other wars, spawned a number of hero tales that appear particularly ghastly to civilians safe at home.  But to soldiers who fought with these heroes, their exploits act out shared frustrations and fantasies. Consider the following tales:

The Geneva Convention rules claim it is illegal to kill the enemy by electrocution, but one radio man did anyway.  He was in a bog with a radio jeep when he saw the enemy approaching.  They were too many to shoot, and they weren't firing at him because they wanted the jeep intact.  He attached a wire to his antenna, dropped it in the water, turned the radio on to one thousand watts, and keyed it.  Not one gook survived.


Anyway, they came across these guys, and here they were, four Americans.  All they could see was about 400-500 NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers.  All their weapons were stacked and they looked like they were going through some sort of formal indoctrination.

Well, this guy just went berserk.  This American, this big guy from Alabama, running right at these guys.  He was 6'8".  He started running as fast as he could like a big tackle on a football team, throwing grenades, right, left, right, left, or at them right down the middle.  Bang, bang, bang, bang.

The other guys didn't even do anything.  They were so horrified that he would reveal his position and run through there.  He did live through that mission and they did get out of there okay.

While I was there he was put in for two medals of honor.  I don't know if he got either of the awards, but, the guy was just a psychotic towards killing.  It was just the sight of it, I don't know whether he got pleasure out of it, or what, but it was like a trigger mechanism in him.  He saw the enemy and he had to kill them.  He didn't rationalize or try to develop a plan with the others as to how to do it.  The sight was enough to trigger him to kill and that was the way he reacted to the situation.

The first legend presents the values or skills that were admired by the group: improvisation, self-sufficiency, and the ability to survive by killing the enemy.  The second tale, however, presents an ambivalent attitude toward bravery and self-sacrifice.  The heroic action is in the tradition of Sergeant York or Audie Murphy, but the teller and other soldiers do not clearly approve of the "big guy from Alabama."  He is "berserk," "psychotic."  Indeed, even those within the group object to his lack of control and especially to his willingness to risk their lives.  A hero can be brave, lucky, or crazy, as long as he does not endanger his comrades or overtly seek the approval of the military establishment.

Sometimes the soldiers' values invert popular notions of heroic action.  Consider the following five personal legends associated with two noteworthy, albeit nameless, individuals:

They tell a story about him sneaking through a Viet Cong perimeter at night and slitting the throat of every third or fourth man.  And this is with guards in camp and everything else.  Evidently it was a true story because they (the platoon) came across a Viet Cong campsite that had fresh graves and everything else.  Like he snuck out one night himself.  With his K-bar, which is a knife.  And they figure by the size of the camp site that it was a sixty-man company or so.  That's when they found the twelve graves.  And there was definitely a GI out of camp the night before and no one could account for him.  And people said they heard him leaving.  I guess everyone kind of knew he went on one of his little operations.  Well, he had a good chance of being disciplined or something along those lines.  Like he didn't do this kind of thing to win medals or shit like that; he did it for the love of killing.


He played cards one night with the Viet Cong in a whorehouse.  They just happened to come along on each other--them with their AK-47s (a type of Russian machine gun) and him with his M-16.  They were there in the whorehouse, playing their form of cards and he took them for everything they had.  After whoring and carousing all night they went to sleep and he killed all of them.


They used to sneak outside the perimeter at night.  You know, like you're not supposed to leave the company.  And especially not in the middle of the night.  They went AWOL (absent without official leave) in the fucking Vietnam in the middle of the night, man [laughter].  Like some nights you'd hear some explosions off in the distance and the next morning they'd come back.  Like those two were even more nuts together than when they were alone.  They would go out and set up their own ambushes.  These guys set up their own ambushes, they set up their own operations, like it was their own war!


Well, he lost a brother in Vietnam.  One time during a flood he took gooks while we were evacuating a town.  He wasn't evacuating, he was plunging gooks underneath the water [laughter].  "Get them now while you can!"  [laughter].


Yeah, well he was definitely nuts.  He was very kind towards kids; he just figured kids were kinds of caught in the middle of the war, but he couldn't stand gook males, you know, grown men, unless they were fighting on our side.  You know, like unless they were ARVNs (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and definitely fighting on our side.  But unless they were definitely fight on our side, well, either you're for us or against us, and that's just the way he took things.

The characters described in these tales are both heroes and antiheroes.  They surpass their peers in the business of killing the enemy, but they do it for themselves, breaking the rules and beating the system.

The first tale shows a hero performing an almost superhuman feat, terrifying and killing the enemy.  But he works on his own initiative, against formal rules and without endangering his fellow soldiers.  The hero of the second tale faces the enemy in a chance meeting. He beats him at his own card game, outdrinks him, outcarouses him, and kills him in his sleep.  In the third example, both heroes continue to conduct their own war by breaking the rules again and daring to fight at night, something most soldiers fear doing.  Once again they beat the Viet Cong at their own game, playing by Viet Cong rules.  The hero of the fourth account also breaks the rules by taking an opportunity to kill Vietnamese without considering whether they are friendly or not.  But the teller rationalizes the hero's behavior, and the rationalization echoes the words and attitudes of countless other soldiers.

Altogether, these tales present a hero figure whose behavior provides a clear example of the soldiers' in-group values in opposition to America's popular image of heroic or even acceptable behavior.  From the soldiers' perspective these figures may appear larger than life and their actions extreme, but their behavior is not necessarily deviant.  I suggest that they are idealized representations of values that the soldiers shared--at least while they were in Vietnam.

Horror Stories

As we might expect, combat narratives include chilling accounts that appear to be parallel to the scare stories of basic training.  As traditional tales of sensational violence, or even the violent accounts that are splashed across the front pages of popular weekly newspapers, these tales are intended to shock us.  This intention does not mean that such stories are not true, but it does indicate that the teller is aware of their shock value and of the listeners' interest in the morbid.

First, let's examine an account from World War II:

The way you extracted gold teeth was by putting the tip of the blade on the tooth of the dead Japanese--I've seen guys do it to wounded ones--and hit the hilt of the knife to knock the tooth loose.  How could American boys do this?  If you're reduced to savagery by a situation, anything's possible.  When Lindbergh made a trip to the Philippines, he was horrified at the way American GI's talked about the Japanese.  It was so savage.  We were savages. 15

Horror stories portray atrocities and battlefield encounters with corpses.  Often they include rationalizations for the actions described.  The attitudes are no doubt derived from a set of conditions in which soldiers progressively dehumanizes his enemy, and become dehumanized in the process.  Forced to transcend personal fear or to function despite it, they may become inured to the presence of death; they may come to treat dead bodies casually or even maliciously.  Perhaps they will show hatred of the enemy by mutilating the enemy dead.  Perhaps they will find a grim humor in death and decay.  Soldier will do what they have to do to maintain some semblance of sanity in an insane situation.

To make killing easier, soldiers often replace ideological rationalizations of their actions with a gut-level hatred of the enemy.  They know that the enemy's job is to kill them, and theirs is to kill the enemy.  As a result, enemy soldiers become stereotypes rather than people, and the labels assigned them become part of the soldiers' in-group vocabulary.  Bill Mauldin once told Studs Terkel, "I never once heard an infantry soldier who'd been in combat refer to Germans as Nazis.  Or North Vietnamese or North Koreans as Reds or Commie Rats, or any of that stuff.  There were lots of ethnic slurs: slopes, gooks, and things like that.  I heard about krauts, square heads." 16

These terms have appeared in other narratives; they represent a form of folk speech.  As part of the soldiers' in-group language, they indicate a consensus based on traditional ideas, including racism.  In Vietnam the enemy was seen as physically and culturally alien.  Moreover, American soldiers were unable to distinguish friend from foe, the Vietnamese they were there to help from those they were there to kill.  Typically, American soldiers felt victimized by the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese were often brutalized as a result:

When you're over there, you don't know who the hell's who.  That's the problem.  I mean, I could be talking to you like tonight, say you were Vietnamese.  Tomorrow morning, I might walk outside, and you might shoot me in the goddamn head.  'Cause you don't know.  They're farmers, and we've seem 'em, but we've seen 'em with their tools out there hoeing down their rice paddies, and then you're walking back, and all of a sudden they drop their hoe and pull out their rifle.  You know, so who the hell you gonna trust?  So if you're walking down, and you can't care if he is sixteen or two years old, you think he's gonna kill you, you're gonna kill him anyways. 17

The sense of confession within these accounts suggests the confusion inherent in the Vietnam War:  Who was the enemy?  Why was the soldier fighting so far from home?

Mutilating the dead for souvenirs, for revenge, or as an insult to the enemy was far from unknown in Vietnam.  Numerous reports confirm the practice of collecting ears from the dead as described in a previous narrative. Consider the following three legends of brutality to determine whether any patterns emerge:

He had been a sergeant during his stay in Vietnam and he wore the ears of gooks that he had killed around his neck.  He cut off the ears, tanned the ears, and wore them like just a string of these ears, a necklace of ears.  You know, he could only keep ears so long before, well you know (laughter)--before they were really something else.  At one time, I counted 24 ears and they were always left ears--he never took two of a kind.  He always took one ear.

Another Vietnam veteran simply stated:

One of the trophies Marines took were ears.  After returning from Vietnam, he kept one in a jar hanging from the mirror in his car.  It ruined so many dates that he eventually had to get rid of it.

The final anecdote captures the blending of horror and humor:

I'll tell you a story about the 502nd.  They were called the headhunters.  And this actually happened.  The colonel of the place, I forget his name now, was really angry about what had happened to his men down at Dac Tho, because he had found a lot of his dead mutilated.

So what he did was offer a case of beer for every head of every gook that was brought in.  And some crazy son of a bitch, right in the middle of a public relations type thing, full of newspapermen in questioning him (the Colonel) about what had been going on, right--a sergeant from one of the companies came in with a head, put it on the desk and said, "Where's my case of beer?"

The final account can be considered a legend, although it strains our credulity.  Framed as a narrative ("I'll tell you a story"), validated as true ("this actually happened"), the narrative offers a reason for headhunting.  Then it shifts to the outrageous (which is not to say it couldn't have happened), as a soldier tosses a head on the desk and demands his case of beer in full view of the press.  Certain elements, the severed head, the case of beer, the press (generally feared by the soldiers), and the embarrassed officer can be found in other narratives.  Keep in mind that in the act of repetition personal experience narratives become progressively more stylized or artistic until it is almost impossible to determine whether they are traditional.

Let's look at one final legend that is known to be traditional:

Well, they've got this island somewhere in the South China Sea somewhere.  And you know girls in Vietnam aren't exactly the cleanest in the world.  And the ones that are clean are working for the VC so as soon as you get near them they cut loose with a grenade or something, so the secret is not to go near them at all.

Well, a lot of guys don't get in on the secret, and not only do these girls have all the regular diseases, but they've got some that nobody has a cure for and they have more that nobody's even named yet.  But some guys never get the word, so they have this island where they keep these guys with these incurable diseases they picked up from some South Vietnamese lay.  And they just write home and say the guy's missing in action or dead, because they don't want these diseases to come back here, where there's no cases so far and no cure.

Those horror stories are designed to be both humorous and shocking.  Some are believable, others less so.  We may find the humor offensive, but for soldiers, humor is a tool for survival; it offers a way to face nightmares and share fears and self-doubt.  It also facilitates in-group bonding mechanism. Tales are often meant to offend outsiders, a function that explains why you might find them shocking and serves to reinforce in-group bonding.  The soldiers' joking relationship was a privilege reserved for those who had earned the right to participate.  Bill Mauldin noted:

While men in combat kid each other around, they have sort of family complex about it.  No outsiders may join in....if a stranger comes up to a group when they are bulling, they ignore him.  If he takes it upon himself to laugh at something funny they have said, they freeze their expressions, turn slowly around, stare at him until his stature has shrunk to about four inches, and he slinks away, and then they go back to their kidding again....Combat soldiers are an exclusive set, and if they want to be that it is their privilege. 18

Mauldin's perception of the combat soldiers' joking relationship comes from his World War II observations, but it applies equally to Vietnam.  As we turn from combat to recreation, our final topic, we can examine joking and storytelling more closely.


During their leisure time, such as rest breaks or lulls in combat, soldiers entertain themselves as best they can and usually try to forget about the war around them.  They talk about their playtime as much as any other subject for several reasons:  First, many of their most memorable adventures occur during their leisure.  Moreover, these tales form a type of entertainment in their own right; they are told and retold not simply during recreation, but as a form of recreation.  During bull sessions soldiers entertain each other with humorous anecdotes and discuss all manner of topics ranging from social commentary to outright fantasy.  Generally enlivened by alcohol, and in Vietnam by drug use, storytelling engenders social cohesion.

Base Camp Life

Let's consider three personal experience narratives describing base camp life in Vietnam:

Life in Vietnam is very, very monotonous, at least out in the base camp.  Roughly five or six individuals is the sole extent of your world. These are the only people that you can talk to.  Anyone else that you talk to outside of this sphere is done through an interpreter.

Well, we all lived together with the Vietnamese.  We had to isolate ourselves in one area and we called it a Team House. It was sort of like a little homey atmosphere.  We had lounge chairs, more or less like a little bit of Americana in Vietnam.  Of course, the thing there was the bar.  I mean we had our refrigerator.

About 4:30 or so we all started drifting in.  The day's work had been done by then; we would take it easy for an hour or two.  However, we did work in the evenings.  We usually knocked off about 3:30 or 4:00 and would sit in the court and drink beer, Coke, mixed drinks, or what have you.

One particular day we were in there throwing our little war stories back and forth, bitching about how great it would be to get back to the States and all sorts of things.  All of a sudden we started hearing all of these loud bangs.  The Team House was sealed off so you couldn't see what was going on outside.  Then two of the guys got in an argument. "Nah, it's not incoming. Nah, its just artillery going out. Nah, someone's just blowing up something."  The next thing you know the whole ground underneath us started shaking and everybody started running.  Before we knew it everything was just pancaked out.  We had incoming rounds and they just mashed all the buildings down.

A half an hour after it was all over we went back into what used to be the Team House.  We found those cans of beer which hadn't been broken, so we were just trying to finish up what we had.  And we went on talking about what we were going to do and what we had done.  And life went on.


In Vietnam we had a routine that was followed every day.  A part of it was that after the evening meal we would retire to the enlisted men's club to drink and play cards--card playing being secondary to drinking.  After about three hours, I was fairly drunk most nights.

On this one particular night the VC decided to say hello and leave their calling card with a mortar attack.  Well, I heard the siren go off telling us that we were under attack.  I stumbled to my room and got my equipment in a drunken stupor.  While I was inside a round went off very close by and I tore out of my hut headed for the relative safety of my bunker.  Halfway across a fifteen-yard opening I stepped in a hole and twisted my knee.  Well I crawled to the bunker just like I was first cousin to a snake.

When the attack was over, I reported to the sick bay and had to spend the next day in the hospital.  When I got back to my office, my friends decided to be funny and put me in for a purple heart saying that the wound was received due to enemy action.


There were always about three battalions of VC near our base.  Because we were expecting an attack, we had to have our guard tripled which required all the personnel to be on duty most of the night.  We had had our evening drinks when the alert occurred.  We had to put some drunks in one of our guard towers.  They were both in the tower near our airstrip.

The Air Force had a jeep-mounted patrol on the airstrip and on their second round, the drunks in the tower stopped them and told them to turn out their lights because we were on alert.  They refused and our drunks opened fire with automatic weapons.

When we heard the shooting we all got ready because we thought the VC had a sapper team on the compound.  Well, into our office stomps an irate Air Force type cussing and swearing.  We all just laughed and this made him madder and all he could do was stomp out.

Despite the differences in contecontent and style, each narrative describes the routine of drinking, a familiar, controlled method of passing the time, interrupted by life-threatening confusion.  The situation in the first narrative is resolved by a return to the usual routine as it would usually be experienced by the small group who live and work together.  Although they are participating in a war, their world revolves around the bar with its home-like atmosphere and comfortable socializing.  Although their fragile retreat is destroyed, they return to the familiar acts of drinking and storytelling.  The Team House is rebuilt, tradition continues, and life goes on.

Although similar in content, the second story is presented in a more sophisticated narrative style, a tighter focus more dramatic punch line.  It's more descriptive, more action oriented, and more humorous as it balances drunkenness, danger, and a military decoration.  I suggest that it has been told more often, and, through successive retellings, shaped or edited into its present form.

The same narrator tells the third anecdote.  Although it also involves drunkenness and confusion, this narrative focuses on inter-service rivalry, enlisted men besting an officer, and American soldiers shooting at each other, an unfortunately common occurrence in Vietnam.  Vietnam veterans concur that they were often in danger of being accidentally killed by Americans; it seems that it was sometimes as difficult to distinguish friends as foes in Vietnam.

Alcohol and Drugs

As you probably noticed, alcohol is the primary ingredient in the three stories above.  Bought, bartered, stolen, or distilled, booze remains part and parcel of the stereotypical soldier's experience.  Drinking alcohol has long been among a soldier's rights and privileges and very much a part of our popular notions of how soldiers behave.  Soldiers drink to forget war-time pressures, to relieve boredom, or simply because it is something to do with the boys.

Liquor lubricates song and storytelling sessions and serves as a subject for both.  Here are two fragments of drinking songs that are parodies of the calypso hit "Rum and Coca Cola."

When the sailor boys are on the shore,
They drink their beer and then some more.
But when the boys are out to sea,
They stick to Alky [torpedo alcohol] and Pepsy [sic].

        Drinking Alky-Pepsi Cola,
         Just to keep the old gloom away.
         Drinking Alky-Pepsi Cola,
         Anytime of night or day.


        On Saipan island it is clear,
         Enlisted man gets just one beer.
         While officers get the whiskey and wine,
         Making whoopee all the time. 19

Recreational drug use in Vietnam paralleled increased drug use at home. Although it was officially frowned upon and in many cases ignored, drug use was not considered deviant but acceptable by the common soldier. do.  Drugs were a cheap way to relieve boredom and they provided a pleasurable means of coping.

In the field most of the guys stayed high.  Lot of them couldn't face it.  In a sense, if you were high, it seemed like a game you was in.  You didn't take it serious.  It stopped a lot of nervous breakdown. 20

Much like the preparation and consumption of illegal alcohol in World War II, drug use in Vietnam also held certain symbolic meanings such as protest, a rejection of the army, and an expression of individualism.  Drug use generated its own subculture, notable for both its numbers and alienation from the establishment.  According to Larry Ingraham, "Drug use was the governing metaphor to express the private soldier's anti-Army sentiments.  It was the ultimate in getting over on the system a disapproved behavior which cannot be regarded as mutiny or refusal." 21  As we might expect, narratives of drug use take on overtones of bragging. They also exemplify the repeated themes of beating the system and breaking up the monotony of daily routine:

I was a smack-freak over there.  It was some great smack.  I didn't shoot up, I smoked it.  See, what you would do was take about half of the tobacco out of a cigarette, put your smack in, and fill the rest with tobacco, and you can't smell it or nothing.  You can go right up in front of an officer and be smoking and it smells just like regular tobacco.  I used to do that all the time.  In fact, our First Lieutenant used to smoke it straight in a pipe right in the orderly room.  He'd sit in the back and get higher than a kite....

I wouldn't know how many units were out in the field doing it.  I guess it would be kind of dangerous in the front.  But back in the rear, I'd say at least seventy percent of the people were either high on smack or cocaine, one of the two.

It was mostly a matter of being bored shitless. You'd just sit around most of the time with nothing to do.  Besides the stuff was really cheap, too.  Like a vial of cocaine or heroin, whichever you wanted, about as big as the end of your little finger starting from the last knuckle, there, which was pure cocaine or pure heroin, which would sell on the street over here from 75 to 150 dollars, depending on how it was cut, would sell over there for $2.40.  And an ounce of grass would cost you, at the most, a dollar.

The dramatic increase in drug use, especially heroin use, among soldiers in Vietnam can also be understood as symptomatic of their basic need to reject their immediate circumstances through withdrawal or escape from reality.

As with alcohol use, drug use was often a social act involving storytelling and other group behavior.  Torn between military authority and the social pressures of companions, soldiers found it difficult not to do drugs and still maintain the trust and support of their peers.  Group identity and trust helped soldiers make it over, and, by extension, humor, alcohol, drugs, and storytelling all served to strengthen relations within the immediate group--usually at the expense of regular authority. In this way drugs may be viewed as tools of a sort, and drug use a method of survival.

Storytelling and Group Identity

Another element associated with the development of group identity that emerges in the narratives is humor directed at military incompetence, especially in other branches of the service. Consider the following narrative:

One of the funnier things.  We had what is called MACV, Military Assistance Command.  It means we were supposedly experts who were to help the regular Vietnamese army.  They were separate from the Special Forces people.  At this one camp they decided they had a new big mortar and they were going to help us defend our camp.  So they started to fire rounds just for effect; to place rounds where they would place them if we came under attack.  Well, as it turned out they really didn't know as much about it as they claimed to and they started putting rounds into our camp.  Before you knew it, we didn't have a camp anymore.

One particular night a Vietnamese guard started firing away at brush or shrubbery.  So we got excited and ran to our work positions. I was at a mortar position, and the next two guys above me, who were supposedly Special Forces experts on weapons, were standing there cussing each other.  "The machine gun doesn't work.  I can't load it.  What's wrong with it?"

And I went up to see if I could help them.  The only thing they did is they forgot to put the cartridge in the magazine case through the lever and pull the safety twice.  You have to pull the handle twice to get it to fire.  If you just do it once it doesn't do anything.  Anyway, they were in such a state of fright and excitement that they couldn't do this.

And it was pitch black, and I went up there, and I was not weapons qualified.  Each man specializes in a certain area and these men were supposedly experts and I went up and I'm not very good with this thing, but I could see what was wrong and I lifted the magazine up and, here they were, they had the bullets turned around in the wrong direction. [laughter].  And it was just a matter of reversing the feed order, turning it around so that the hammer was hitting the firing pin instead of the bullet [more laughter].  They were quite embarrassed about that.

Despite the danger, night attacks broke up the monotony of the general routine and provided topics for conversation.  And if the Viet Cong would not cooperate, soldiers broke the monotony by attacking each other.

We used to have tear gas battles with other companies.  It was the going thing; it was like you had water fights when you were in the Boy Scouts.  We'd get all of these tear gas "frags" and run over to the next company.  It was only about 100 yards or so down the road.  And we'd go down there one night and set thirty or forty gas bombs off in their hootches [huts] and run back up.  Then you'd see all of these guys run out coughing and shit and you'd sit there laughing your ass off and shit, you know.  You'd better wear your gas masks the next night because you knew they were coming to get you [laughter].  It got really ridiculous after a while.  It got so you could sleep right through one of the tear gas raids, there were so many of them.  You'd build up kind of an immunity.  Plus, if you stayed in your bunk, you know, all you had to do was pull the covers over your head and it filtered a lot of it.  Your eyes would water and burn and shit, but usually I was too damn tired to get up.

Other soldiers showed their macho by playing dangerous games or otherwise risking their lives.

I spent a lot of time on the Mekong River and we used to water ski right on the Mekong River even though we were within a thousand years of the border.  We had all these international boats going up and down the river and you'd see these crazy Americans out there with their water skis.  I believe we were the only ones in the interior of Vietnam to water ski [sic] around in a hostile area, and this was strictly Special Forces.

Alcohol, drugs, storytelling, pranks, and other forms of play helped fill out the soldier's free time and kept him from dwelling on the thought of when he would return to combat.  But we can also note that work and play seem to overlap; danger intrudes on leisure-time fun, and soldiers simulate battle or play other dangerous games.  Base camp lore provides a somewhat jaundiced view of the soldier's lot.  We see the soldier laughing at his situation and at himself, squeezing ironic humor from the dangerous and depressing conditions in which he serves.

Let us conclude by looking at two folksongs, the first from the Pacific theater during World War II and the second from Vietnam.  To my mind these bits of song sum up the soldier's perspective:

        They sent for the Army,
         To come to Tulagi,
         But General MacArthur said "No."
         And this is the reason,
         It isn't the season,
         Besides, there is no USO.


            Bless 'em all, bless 'em all,
             The long and the short and the tall.
             Bless all the admirals in ComSoPac,
             They don't give a shit,
             If we ever get back.

            So we're saying goodbye to them all,
             As over the gang plank we crawl.
             There'll be no promotions,
             This side of the ocean,
             So cheer up my lads, bless 'em all.


        They sent for the Navy,
         To come to Tulagi,
         The gallant Navy agreed.
         With one thousand sections,
         In different directions,
         My God, what a fucked up stampede

            CHORUS: 22

No doubt you've detected in this song a note of exclusiveness, a to-hell-with-everyone-else attitude.  The song presents the soldiers' conviction that they expect little sympathy, much less help, from outsiders.  But it also presents a certain pride, and a sense of community that implies, "that's okay; we'll do the job ourselves."

The next song shows the soldier at his ironic best, laughing at himself that's reminiscent of the blues line, "I'm laughing to keep from crying."

There were a lot of songs that we used to sing over there. Most of them we made up on the spot and most of them just got forgotten.  Let's see; I remember one that everyone kind of knew. Are you ready for this [laughter]?

        We like it here, we like it here,
         You're fuckin' A, we like it here;
         We shine our boots, we clean our brass,
         We don't have time to wipe our ass!

        In the morn, we start KP [kitchen patrol],
         Somehow I know, it's always me!
         We like it here, we like it here,
         You're fuckin' A, we like it here.

The Soldier's Perspective

Let me reiterate that we have looked at a limited amount of material that I consider representative of soldiers' folklore and oral commentary.  As a folklorist, I recognize that my concerns have influenced what I chose to included. Historians, anthropologists, or literary scholars might have chosen other examples, perhaps more informative or artistic.  I selected the most traditional accounts that have withstood the test of time and link one soldier to another.  Further investigation of a larger body of songs and narratives would no doubt give us some new directions to pursue, but we would probably encounter many of the same general themes and attitudes.  From this perspective, folklore has given us a relatively "packaged" look at the things soldiers know and practice.

Together, our speakers have provided us with a collective portrait of the soldier's world.  While accounts may vary, an overriding concern with setting the record straight runs through their testimony.  Grasping for words, images, metaphors, and traditional examples, the speakers face the frustrating task of explaining their fear, their grief at the death of a friend, and their feelings toward the enemy, toward civilians, and toward their branch of the service. They seem to feel that the full story has not been told.  Often they contrast what they thought the war would be like with what they learned in combat.  Perhaps their descriptions differed from your own preconceptions about the soldiers' lot.  The lessons they learned in the field of fire changed them, and to a certain degree, they can never share the wisdom they gained or the disillusionment they suffered.  As survivors, they advise us how to deal with similar hazards, and we should pay attention to the methods of survival implicit in their words.  Yet, at the heart of it, it's not what they learned, but how they learned it that gives their accounts meaning.  And they are probably right: unless you have been there, you simply don't share enough reference points to understand.

Nevertheless, the contributors tell us their stories and, by extension, the stories of the war they fought in.  Regardless of educational background or facility with language, their words, like their actions, make history.  Although limited, personal, and interpretive, each accounts presents an ordered version of past events that has been shared with the interviewer. 

As witness-now-truthteller, each soldier filters his experience through a present-day understanding of what he and his comrades did.  And here we see a significant difference between war as perceived by those who fought in World War II and Vietnam.  Both groups of soldiers learned and changed in combat, but the contexts in which they recall and recount their experiences differ radically.  Americans appreciate the former and expect the latter to apologize.  The intervening years have reinforced the essential rightness of the World War II veteran who meets with his fellow survivors to commemorate famous battles.  For the Vietnam veteran, however, history and popular opinion vacillate between condemnation and guarded support.  The World War II soldier who fought in the "good war" and is proud of its outcome tells his story differently from the Vietnam veteran who returned from a war without resolution to a country that didn't seem to care. It should come as no surprise that the Vietnam accounts are imbued with bitterness.

The force of tradition, the constraints of the interview situation, the malleability of memory, and the perspective of the present all work to shape the history we can know through folklore.  Yet, despite these shortcomings, these marginally artistic, completely human documents can add to our understanding of the past.

Legends, tales, songs, and reminiscence have taught us much about the soldiers' world and what they think of their military experience.  Soldiers comprise a folk group that passes along traditional forms of folk expression, and despite the differences between World War II and Vietnam, these traditions and the values they articulate remain remarkably constant, including the repeated themes of initiation, fraternity, group loyalty, resistance to authority, and survival.

Following initiation into the barracks group or combat unit, the soldier owes his primary allegiance to the group and adheres to its traditions as a means of self-preservation and a source of companionship.  These group traditions include resisting authority and refusing to play the game by the regular army's rules; instead soldiers have developed their own set of rules predicated on their overriding concern for survival.  Although balanced by group preservation and the desire to win the war, survival remains the primary objective.  To this end, soldiers employ all manner of "tools" or techniques to preserve their lives and sanity.  Their tools range from humor to magic, from mutual dependency to fragging (or stories about fragging).  Soldiers accept the need to kill their enemy but place that need in the context of group and self-preservation.  Their heroes can violate the Geneva Convention or risk their own lives by their actions, but they shouldn't endanger their comrades. To outsiders, their behavior seems extreme, but to the soldiers it is acceptable conduct.  Adept at killing but not at taking orders, soldiers conduct the war on their own terms, not on those of their officers or the politicians back home.

Finally, we should remember that folklore is not necessarily a mirror of culture, and the things soldiers think make good stories are not the things they personally do.  But the approach of folklore, listening to what soldiers talk about and examining the way they say it, illuminates the soldier's traditional perspective and adds dimension to our understanding of war and American society.



Unless otherwise indicated. all materials in this unit are drawn from my collection and the Maryland Folklore Archive, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

1. Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), p. 227.

2. American Folklore Society, Folklore and Folklife (Washington, D.C.: American Folklore Society, 1984), p. 4.

3. Frederick Turner, Remembering Song: Encounters with the New Orleans Jazz Tradition (New York: Viking Press, 1982), p. 29.

4. The New Anecdota Americana: Five Hundred Stories for America's Amusement (New York: Grayson Publishing Corp., 1944), p. 142.

5. Richard M. Dorson, American Folklore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 275.

6. New Anecdota Americana , p. 140.

7. Dorson, American Folklore , p. 273.

8. Richard M. Dorson, American in Legend: Folklore from the Colonial Period to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), p. 304.

9. Larry Ingraham, The Boys in the Barracks: Observations on American Military Life (Philadelphia: Ishi Press, 1984), p. 82.

10. Robert Price, The U.S. Songbook , 1955, Library of Congress.

11. George Carey, "A Collection of Airborne Cadence Chants," Journal of American Folklore 78 (1965), p. 59.

12. Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), pp. 39, 44.

13. Bill Mauldin, Up Front (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1944), p. 214.

14. Turner, Remembering Song , p. 25.

15. Quoted in Terkel, Good War , p. 62.

16. Ibid., p. 361.

17. Quoted in Paul Starr, The Discarded Army: Veterans after Vietnam (New York: Charterhouse, 1973), p. 18.

18. Mauldin, Up Front , p. 58.

19. Alan Lomax, "Army Folksongs," Archives of Folksong, Library of Congress.

20. Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 139.

21. Ingraham, Boys in the Barracks , p. xv.

22. Price, U.S. Songbook .


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