Leaving Saigon

In a post last week, I tossed off a quick remark about the Charlie Daniels Band’s 1982 hit “Still in Saigon”: “This artifact of the coming-to-grips-with-Vietnam period in our history hits all the clichés.” A bit too glib, it occurs to me now. Thirty years ago, the clichés weren’t clichés yet.

American involvement in the war ended in 1973, and the war itself ended with a fizzle in 1975. It would be 1978 before popular culture dealt with it much. Coming Home and The Deer Hunter introduced movie viewers to the psychologically damaged Vietnam veteran (although he had first appeared in 1973, in a movie called The Stone Killer). Apocalypse Now suggested that the war damaged the psyche of everyone it touched, from soldiers to journalists.

The damaged vet made his appearances on the radio, too. “Front Line,” a previously unreleased track appearing on a 1982 Stevie Wonder compilation, is a bit of a hash—Wonder’s vet is damaged physically and psychologically, angry about the way he is treated by his family upon his return, but ashamed of his service, too. “Still in Saigon” might be his most overt expression.

Both songs allude to something we consider almost unspeakable now. The family of Wonder’s vet tells him, “Quit braggin’ about a war you shoulda never been in,” while Daniels’ vet says, “My younger brother calls me a killer.” Today, we respect the soldier’s service regardless of how we feel about his war. Even those of us who consider the Iraq War an immoral disaster would not call an Iraq vet a killer.

In 1982, it wouldn’t be long before our perceptions of Vietnam and its veterans changed. Within a few years, Vietnam movies were everywhere. The early Reagan era delivered patriotic bombast like Rambo and Missing in Action; more nuanced views and entirely different takes came along a few years later, from Platoon to Good Morning Vietnam. In 1988, Ronald Reagan famously called Vietnam vets “champions of a noble cause,” sparking controversy among those who had opposed the war in the 60s, but they’d already lost the argument. Three years later, during the Persian Gulf War, there was no cognitive dissonance in opposing that war (or war in general) but “supporting the troops.”

The irony, of course, is that for all our support, veterans come home from our recent wars, in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, just as damaged as they came home from the Nam. Nobody sings songs about them or in their voices; precious few movies are made about their experiences. If “Still in Saigon” sounds odd to us 30 years later, it might be because the simple act of popular music engaging with real people living real lives is so far beyond our experience today.

Or it might be because of Charlie Daniels himself. The singles Daniels made in the early 80s—“The Legend of Wooley Swamp,” “In America,” “Still in Saigon”—vanished as soon as they dropped off the charts, and your local good-times/great-oldies station isn’t playing them and never has. Even the context of their times—on a vintage Casey Kasem countdown, for instance—they sound weird and out-of-place, obviously (to our ears) the last gasp of a genre that’s ceasing to be relevant. It seems possible that “In America” and “Still in Saigon” became as popular as they did because of their subject matter—“In America” during the Iran hostage summer of 1980, “Still in Saigon” during that coming-to-grips-with-Vietnam period.

If you’ve got something to add about Vietnam and pop culture, please do. I’m sure I’ve missed something big and obvious.

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