Happy Veteran’s Day! We here at Music For Us hope you are having a safe holiday and are remembering why this day is a holiday.
This song is very near and dear to me, even though it came out after my period of enlistment. First and foremost, it’s about the United States Marine Corps, a service to which I gave a portion of my life. More specifically, it’s mostly about the individual Marines and not about the Corps itself.
It’s notable that Billy Joel, contrary to popular opinion, neither served in the USMC nor did he fight in Vietnam. However, he lived through the era and he wrote the song at the behest of a number of his Marine friends. Friends who told him their experiences, as they did fight in the war.
This song is about the Vietnam War but is about the people who fought it, which is a key difference and why this song is exceptional. Unlike many such songs, this song makes no attempt to make a statement about the war itself. This song is not a war protest song. It makes no political statement.
Goodnight Saigon doesn’t try to moralize about the war, or even about war in general. This song is about the people who fought, specifically about the Marines who fought in Vietnam – but it makes many positive references to their opponents.
To understand the song, it’s important to understand why it was written. In Joel’s own words, on the Howard Stern show in 2014, Joel said:
“I wanted to do that for my friends who did go to ‘Nam. A lot of them came back from being in country and really had a hard time getting over it, and still to this day I think a lot of them are having a hard time. They were never really welcomed back, and whether you agreed with the war or not, these guys really took it on the chin. They went over there and they served, and they never really got their due.
“It was all about them depending on each other. When they were over there, they weren’t thinking about mom, apple pie and the flag, they were doing it for each other – to try to help and save each other and protect each other. That really hit me.”
The song begins with the sound of helicopter rotors and the lyrics start with the Marines arriving on Paris Island, which is where people born on the eastern side of the Mississippi River are molded into Marines.
It explains how they left Paris Island in peak physical condition. It also introduces you to the fact that he never says, “I.” First, he was not himself a Marine but, more importantly, it was never about the fictional individual – but was about the soldiers, plural. At never about a single soldier. It’s not even strictly about a specific side of the conflict.
The song continues and tells you about their arrival in that country and how many young Marines had that experience as their entire life experience – that they died and wouldn’t be returning home to their loved ones and to resume their life as a civilian.
Joel goes on to tell you, as best as he can, about the experiences that the Marine friends shared with him. He tells you how it was boredom and doing without, with lots of hard labor, that was punctuated with periods of terror.
He tells you that the enemy was also adept at war fighting and that, in the midst of it all, it doesn’t matter who is wrong or who is right – and that you’re not fighting for for a cause or the people back home, but are fighting for the brother who stands beside you.
It’s in those times of terror, when your very normal and human instinct is to run away, that you fight – not because of any flag or country, but because the person next to you is fighting and because you’re closer than even brothers. You’re close enough to be willing to die together.
The song is not about those who died. It mentions the people who died, but it is about the warriors who survived. It’s about them, about them remembering back to their wartime experiences and about them remembering those they fought with.
That’s why it’s posted today. Veteran’s Day isn’t really about the men and women who died in war. That’s what Memorial Day is for. Today is for the warriors who survived, maybe never even having seen combat but had been willing to serve and take those risks.
Today is about service and those willing to provide it.
Billy Joel felt that the veterans had been given unfair treatment and that they’d returned home without recognition. He felt, and still does, that it doesn’t matter how one personally feels about the Vietnam War, or any war. That, regardless of one’s own opinion, it’s important to give recognition to those who provided service.
Which is exactly what today is about. Because this article is not about me, I won’t go into details. I will say that it doesn’t matter if you saw combat, you’re still a veteran and you still deserve recognition for your service – regardless of anyone’s opinions on the validity of conflict.
Which is why this is written. Today, we extend our thanks to the people who have served in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard. Today, we recognize you and we serve you (even if it’s just this article) as a way of thanking you for having the fortitude to serve in our armed forces, both in times of peace and in times of violent conflict.
Thank you for your service. How can we help?
Please have a safe, happy, and respectful holiday. If you see a vet, please consider offering them a beer!