09/19/2012 01:24 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

The Music, Media and Mayhem of Vietnam


Vietnam. The term comes trip-wired with disagreement and controversy. Hawk vs. dove, hippies vs. establishment, peace and love vs. war and hate, and on and on. As a Vietnam veteran, I am convinced that we will argue about Vietnam until all of us baby boomers are dead and gone.

But there is a way to cut through all the commotion and bullshit, and that's though music. Which is exactly what my colleague, UW-Madison Professor Craig Werner, and I are doing with our UW-Madison course this semester. Titled "The U.S. in Vietnam: Music, Media, and Mayhem," the class of nearly 100 students is encouraged to see music as the connective tissue that helped soldiers to return home and to remain connected to the world they left behind. Rock 'n' roll, soul, pop, and country. Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Aretha Franklin, and CCR. I fell into a burning ring of fire. Take another little piece of my heart. Nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide. "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die" and "Fortunate Son," and the song more than one Vietnam vet has called "our national anthem" -- "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."

For those old enough to watch the Vietnam War unfold on the evening news, the music of Vietnam blurred with the sounds rising from the streets of America during a time of challenge and change. For those like our 18- to 21-year-old students born long after the last helicopters sank beneath the waves of the South China Sea, movies and mini-series have repeatedly presented Vietnam as one part of an era defined by its music.

For the men and women who served in Southeast Asia, music was what inexorably linked them to their generation. They sang along to the Beatles, Merle Haggard, and the Temptations before they went to war, and they listened to them after they came back home. But for Vietnam veterans, music was more than just background. It was their lifeline, a link to life "back in the world," the purest way of connecting with the things that enabled them to "keep on keeping on." From the peaks of the Central Highlands to the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta to the "air-conditioned jungles" of Da Nang and Long Binh, Vietnam soldiers used music to form bonds, express their feelings, and hold on to the humanity the world was trying to take away.

Our course helps tell the story of the Vietnam War through the music-based memories of those who were there: male and female; black, white, Native American, and Chicano; from the Northeast and the deep South, the Midwest, Rocky Mountains and California; combat soldiers and support troops, the former known as grunts and the latter as REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers). We pair the music with some of the best journalism, fiction, poetry, and film of the era and encourage our students to make their own sense of what was going on, and going wrong, in America and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.

We want The Huffington Post readers to join in the conversation and see how significant a role music plays in the Vietnam story and just how relevant the issues of that time are today. We'll do this is by sharing two to three student posts a week so you can see what they're thinking and saying. Just how we'll do this is by employing call and response. A central element of African-American cultural traditions, "call and response" is both a form of democratic pedagogy and a way of tapping into what educational theorists call "multiple intelligences." In his book A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Craig describes call and response like this:

"The basic structure of call and response is straightforward. An individual voice, frequently a preacher or singer, calls out in a way that asks for a response. The response can be verbal, musical, physical -- anything that communicates with the leader or the rest of the group. The response can affirm, argue, redirect that dialogue, raise a new question. Any response that gains attention and elicits a response of its own becomes a new call. Usually the individual who issued the first call responds to the response, remains the focal point of the ongoing dialogue But it doesn't have to be that way."

For now, we're asking groups of 10 to 12 students to "respond" to a particular "call" (novel, short story, poetry, nonfiction article, etc.) each class (we meet twice a week for 75 minutes). We encourage them to probe and question and think critically -- and invite them to explore the more than 150 songs we've assembled for them on a series of playlists. We'll select the best two or three student posts of the week to share with HuffPost readers as our students reflect on how music responds to the world the soldiers/vets were living in and what call it's making to us as we grapple we the problems we're facing in our world today. Those posts, in turn, serve as the calls that spark intense class discussion. Sometimes that takes us deeper into the music in its original context: Sometimes it spins out toward today's world.

What emerges is a mosaic, a collective story of sacrifice, struggle and survival. It's an intensely individual, profoundly political story, but the politics are actual, not ideological. At its core, Vietnam was a blues experience, an attempt, to use the words of African-American novelist Ralph Ellison, "to finger the jagged grain of a brutal experience and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism."

As the reverberations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continue to shatter our daily quiet, we hear their echoes in the voices, and the music, of Vietnam. Our course provides insight into the Vietnam experience that has thus far been muffled. By listening to these songs, hearing these voices, and reliving these experiences, we learn more about who we are, where we've been, and, perhaps, what lies ahead.