The movie, starring Robin Williams, loosely told the story of Armed Forces Radio Station DJ Adrian Cronauer. He was gone by the time I arrived in-country in February 1968. It’s odd I don’t remember listening to the radio during my two tours on boats in Vietnam, but I must have since I remember popular tunes of the time.
Other things I recall quite clearly – boating along the river, our wake slapping the shoreline on either side, women washing clothing on the river bank as naked kids played in the water, snakes undulating across the current in front of our bow, and old women with black teeth, stained from chewing betel nuts. The sight of a peasant with a bamboo shoulder pole, two perfectly balanced baskets bobbing in rhythm with each fast step, timed so the bounce of the pole coincided with a locked leg, making the heavy load easy to carry, was fascinating. A worker’s ballet, if you will.
The languages spoken between the servicemen, villagers, and civilian base workers were a combination of Vietnamese, French, English, and words made up for the era. Sometimes, it was difficult to distinguish which language the word originally came from, but it wasn’t important. “Di di mau” was an alteration of the Vietnamese expression for “get lost.” It became a word used to mean “leave quickly.” “Boocoo dinky dau” in French meant “much crazy in the head.” “Number ten” and “number one” in English meant the worst or best on a scale of one to ten. “You number ten, boocoo dinky dau” meant you were really crazy. Many French words had become part of the Vietnamese language, the French having previously ruled Vietnam for over sixty years. Making myself understood by most Vietnamese people was a dance of speech and expressions that worked surprisingly well.
Much of what most people (who hadn’t been there) think they know about the war comes from movies. Most films depict one intense battle after another. For some, it was a constant battle, but that wasn’t the norm. Statistically, the vast majority of military personnel held support roles, never seeing combat. Any army must be fed, dressed, supplied, and rested, resulting in an enormous opportunity for support personnel to interact with the civilian population. The relationship between soldiers and the resident population can have a huge impact on the outcome of any war. The Viet Cong were South Vietnamese citizens who saw Americans as the enemy. Other Vietnamese gave their support to our soldiers in spite of the constant danger from the Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
I saw both sides of those relationships. In many cases, I was sadly disappointed in the manner many of our servicemen interacted with the civilian population. Unfortunately, military training at the time did not include interacting positively with a culture having such different customs and values. I hope that’s changed for today’s soldiers.
I had many good mornings in Vietnam. I’m not referring to the war, but the beautiful country and everyday people I saw behind the curtain of conflict. I closely observed folks who cared deeply about their families and neighbors, who had little interest in political or communist ideals. The vast majority just wanted to live ordinary lives where every day began with a “good morning in Vietnam,” able to simply focus on a happy, peaceful existence with family and friends.