The best books about the Vietnam War that strike a different note

Who am I?

Until today’s multiple catastrophes, the Vietnam War was the most harrowing moment in the lives of my fellow baby boomers and me. Drafted into the U.S. Army in early 1970, I spent 365 days in Vietnam as a combat correspondent. That experience changed my life, because as the Argentinian writer Jose Narosky has pointed out, “in war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” I have spent the past five decades trying to heal those wounds, writing three books grounded in my Vietnam experience, and have devoted my life to listening to the voices of our veterans, distilling their memories (often music-based), and sharing their words. 

I wrote...

We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War

By Doug Bradley, Craig Werner,

Book cover of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War

What is my book about?

In We Gotta Get Out of This Place, Doug Bradley and Craig Werner place popular music at the heart of the American experience in Vietnam. The authors explore how and why U.S. troops turned to music as a way of connecting to each other and the World back home and coping with the complexities of the war they had been sent to fight. Bradley and Werner also demonstrate how music was important for every group of Vietnam veterans—black and white, Latino and Native American, men and women, officers and “grunts”—whose personal reflections drive the book’s narrative. Together their testimony taps into memories—individual and collective—that capture a central, if often overlooked, component of the American war in Vietnam.

The books I picked & why

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Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War

By Meredith H. Lair,

Book cover of Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War

Why this book?

How music became so readily available to Vietnam soldiers is emphasized in Armed with Abundance. Trying to remedy the tenuous morale among GIs, the U.S. military provided them with “creature comforts” in an effort to make war easier, and certainly more palatable. Lair finds that consumption and satiety, more so than privation and sacrifice, defined the experience of most soldiers' Vietnam deployments. She reveals that in 1969 and 1970, for example, soldiers purchased nearly 500,000 radios, 178,000 reel-to-reel tape decks, and 220,000 cassette recorders. Rock and roll was there to stay! 

Soul Patrol: The Riveting True Story of the First African American LRRP Team in Vietnam

By Ed Emanuel,

Book cover of Soul Patrol: The Riveting True Story of the First African American LRRP Team in Vietnam

Why this book?

In 1968, Ed Emanuel was handpicked to be part of the first six-man African American special operations (LRRP) unit in Vietnam. Team 2/6 of Company F, 51st Infantry, was dubbed the “Soul Patrol,” a glib, albeit superficial, label that belied the true depth of their brutal war experience. “Silence was essential in the field,” he reminds us in his memoir, but when he and other members of the Soul Patrol rotated to the rear, “Otis Redding’s ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,’” he writes, “could be heard streaming from the jukeboxes of nearby bars and clubs.” Music gave the Soul Patrol much-needed solace. 

Dien Cai Dau

By Yusef Komunyakaa,

Book cover of Dien Cai Dau

Why this book?

“I think of language as our first music,” notes the celebrated poet Yusef Komunyakaa. His collection of Vietnam poems, Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for crazy) fuses images, sounds, and sights from Vietnam into a fearful, lyrical symmetry. Born James Brown in rural Bogalusa, Louisiana, he served in Vietnam as a correspondent and editor of The Southern Cross, the newspaper of the Army’s 23rd Infantry Division (Americal). “The Vietnamese knew what was happening in the American psyche when it came to race,” claims Komunyakaa, “and sometimes they expertly played on it.” The poem “Hanoi Hannah” in Dien Cai Dau is a perfect example of this: “Ray Charles!” His voice/ calls from waist-high grass/& we duck behind gray sandbags./ “Hello, Soul Brothers. Yeah,/Georgia’s also on my mind…Here’s Hannah again…"

“That gets your attention when you’re out in the middle of nowhere,” astutely observes Komunyakaa.

Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era

By Heather Marie Stur,

Book cover of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era

Why this book?

(Spoiler alert: I appear in Ms. Stur’s book, albeit briefly)

Beyond Combat is one of the few books that examines the role of the more than 60,000 women who served in military and civilian capacities in Vietnam and the gender stereotypes that accompanied them. In addition to nurses, who formed the largest group of U.S. military women in Vietnam, Stur highlights those who served under the auspices of the Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas program. These young college graduates were commonly known as “donut dollies” because of their girl-next-door appeal. “Our job was to lift the guys’ spirits,” recalls donut dollie Jeanne Christie. Music was one way the donut dollies did that. “Some of us DJ’d at various bases during our time in-country,” adds Bobbi McDaniel Stephens. “I took dedications from the guys,” a playlist she says included “Get Back,” “My Girl,” and “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother,” among others.

Gods Go Begging

By Alfredo Vea,

Book cover of Gods Go Begging

Why this book?

Vea’s novel is as ambitious, complex, and surreal a story about the horrors of Vietnam (and post-Vietnam) ever written. A Vietnam vet himself, Vea traces the efforts of several men and women who try to purge their Vietnam ghosts while finding a way to curtail the violence convulsing contemporary America. Jesse Pasadoble, the protagonist, is a defense attorney in San Francisco, hardened and embittered by his Vietnam experience. While his journey toward redemption, as well as that of an Army chaplain who goes AWOL in Vietnam, may require a “willing suspension of disbelief,” Vea skillfully pulls it off, helped in no small way by the many allusions to jazz, specifically the inimitable works of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Vietnam War, Vietnam, and masculinity?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Vietnam War, Vietnam, and masculinity.

The Vietnam War Explore 147 books about the Vietnam War
Vietnam Explore 101 books about Vietnam
Masculinity Explore 19 books about masculinity

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Friends, and Country, Hanoi Journal, 1967, and Officer, Nurse, Woman if you like this list.