When I heard the song “Still in Saigon” the other day, I could have sworn a Vietnam veteran had written about his flashbacks and a need to process what was unprocessed as a young man.
Little did I know that the writer never set foot in Southeast Asia, let alone serve in the military. That got me wondering about the performing arts and how someone who never experienced war could capture its long-term effects on those who faced combat.
The song was written in 1981 and made popular a year later when performed by the Charlie Daniels Band. The songwriter, Dan Daley, was a journalist and author who generally wrote about the music industry. His protagonist soldier in this song recalls the war during the summer months when it rains, and when he hears certain aircraft flying nearby, despite having been discharged from the military and served in Vietnam 10 years earlier.
I took notice of the lyrics because I, too, left in 1971. But my flashbacks did not reach a crescendo until some 25 years later, when I sought help for “anger management,” and years later for the correct diagnosis, PTSD (post-traumatic stress [I’ve dropped the term disorder because of the stigma attached to it].)
The song captures the feeling many veterans experienced when settling back into civilian life. They live in the world “back home,” but are still in the war zone when certain triggering events and stressful circumstances flare up.
Actor Gregory Peck, who was honored this week by President Barack Obama for his portrayal 50 years ago of Atticus Finch in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, captures a wounded soldier’s true mindset while earlier performing as a television adman in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The movie depicts an up-and-coming operative whose thoughts often drifted back to Italy 10 years earlier and the war he and his generation had fought in, World War II.
Not all flashbacks were bad, particularly those of the girl he met and left behind in the war-torn country. (He later learns of the child their relationship had resulted in.) Unfortunately, his mind also dredges up incidents from combat, and he finds himself needing to deal with experiences not fully processed back home in peacetime. The war’s aftermath affects not only him but also his family, who struggles to understand how the young man (or boy in the Vietnam War case) had changed into someone at times unrecognizable.
Singer/songwriter Bobby Darin presented us with the essence of war in the movie Captain Newman, M.D. The 1960s creator of the songs “Splish Splash” and “Mack the Knife” was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying a serviceman in World War II who watched his entire aircraft crew die when their plane was hit, and he survived. He’s admitted to a military hospital where he’s treated for something previous generations had called “shell shock” and “battle fatigue,” terms used before medical professionals in 1981 formally recognized it as post-traumatic stress.
Darin fights images of nightmares projected from his subconscious. He cries out, swings at invisible enemies, and wishes he could have died along with the others. In time, he appears cured in the movie, and is sent back into battle, only to have his death wish granted.
By the way, neither Darin nor Peck, who played Dr. Newman, ever fought in war. But each understood it and helped non-combatants see its long-term effects. There really are no winners in most, if not all, wars. Ask those who are “Still in Baghdad.”