The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is a long black granite wall in Constitution Gardens, next to the National Mall, with the names of the servicemen and women who died during the Vietnam War etched into its panels. It was established on 13 November 1982, when it listed 57,939 names, which has now grown to 58,220.
All the songs on the list were released from the post-war 1980s era, a time which saw a major revival of interest in the Vietnam War, having dipped in the mid-late 70s period. The song of the era revealed how the war was remembered in the subsequent decades, from patriotic tributes, personal memories from veterans and the families of soldiers, to recriminations and trying to understand the history of the war. Other frequently referenced themes are Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - often connected (in songs) to stress, shell shock, flashbacks, nostalgia, feeling, and dreams related to an event; songs referenced the treatment of veterans back in the US – such as lack of govt support, unemployment, unwelcome (no parades etc.), and blamed for the war and its controversies etc.. Moreover, songs referencing a disabled Vietnam War veteran appeared frequently; Agent Orange: a herbicide / defoliant used by the US, which had long-term negative health effects, especially found in 80s songs.
One particular theme is the 1980s Reagan-era trend of nationalism, or attempt to overcome the "Vietnam Syndrome" - the perception that domestic controversies over the war led to the US taking a less interventionist position in US foreign affairs. This term also applied to veterans, who may have felt guilt or shame about the war, influenced by the domestic climate they returned to in the US. (1) Ronald Reagan spoke about this on 18 August 1980: "for too long, we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome...We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died...They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern". (2) Many war films of the period fitted into this climate of trying to overcome the Vietnam Syndrome, such First Blood [Rambo] (1982), Uncommon Valor (1983), and Missing in Action (1984).
The early 1990s, and then early 2000s saw another revival of interest in the Vietnam War, in song, films, and literature, often compared to contemporary events and wars, such as the First Gulf War in 1990, and the US War in Afghanistan (2001–present), and the Iraq War (2003–2011), and in turn, more attention was paid to the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Wall.
This forms part of the larger Vietnam War Song Project, an interpretive examination of over 6,000 Vietnam War songs identified, revealing how the war's significance is represented through music. The project also collects spoken-word recordings about the conflict. The goals of the project are: (1) to critically analyse the song lyrics, searching for historical, social, and cultural themes, and collecting data on the genre, location, ethnicity, nationality, language, and time period of the recordings; (2) to learn about the Vietnam War, and the music and artists associated with it; (3) to preserve the physical records for the future, as artifacts of the 20th century. This unique collection of voices advances scholarship by providing insights into people’s views about the war over time as represented in music, looking at diverse communities and vibrant music scenes. It is crucial in developing our knowledge of the war and the humanities, through the use of a digital research platform.
Hugo Keesing, Wouter Keesing, C.L. Yarbrough, Justin Brummer
University of Maryland, Modern Songs of War and Conflict: Keesing Collection on Popular Music and Culture, 2023