How Vietnam war veterans inspired Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the U.S.A.' – Far Out Magazine

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There are many reasons to love Bruce Springsteen. After all, he is ‘The Boss’, and this title isn’t awarded for nothing. He’s an everyman, a blue-collared hero, with his finger invariably on the pulse of cultural and societal issues. This is precisely why he has managed to remain at the top of his game for over 40 years. What he writes is necessary, topical, and refreshing. 
Springsteen’s songs have a genuine density which is rare for an artist of his stature, and perhaps the best example of this arrives in the form of his most iconic anthem, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’, taken from the 1984 album of the same name. In Brian Hiatt’s 2019 book, Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs, he told the story of how Springsteen’s often misunderstood masterpiece came to fruition, and it was mainly inspired by the Vietnam war and his interactions with veterans.
The tale starts in 1968, with the young Bruce Springsteen having “every intention of dodging the draft”. Not wanting to go to Vietnam and potentially lose his life for an unjust cause, Springsteen attempted to convince a Newark, New Jersey, selective service board of his unsuitability by claiming “he was both gay and tripping on LSD”. However, this was unnecessary. He failed his physical test due to a concussion he suffered in a motorcycle accident a year earlier. 
Although he was relieved at the time, in the years following, Springsteen would feel guilty about not going to fight. “Sometimes,” he admitted in his autobiography Born to Run, “I wondered who went in my place.”
Fast forward a decade to 1978 and Springsteen read Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic’s memoir about his experience of enlisting in the Marines as a patriotic teenager. The book details the return from Vietnam after he was paralysed from the waist down and his subsequent transformation into an antiwar activist. Springsteen bought the book in a drugstore in Arizona, and remarkably, soon after, Kovic rolled up to Springsteen by the pool at The Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles.
The pair hit it off, and Kovic introduced him to fellow activist Bobby Muller, the co-founder of the struggling non-profit Vietnam Veterans of America. Subsequently, the legendary svengali, Jon Landau, helped to arrange Springsteen and the E Street Band an arena benefit concert for the organisation in August 1981, with a group of veterans, the majority of whom were disabled, watching from the side of the stage.
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Reflecting just how much of a legend Springsteen is, this was a turning point for the Vietnam veterans’ movement, the show raised enough funds for them to carry on. “Without Bruce and that evening,” Muller said, per Dave Marsh’s book Glory Days, “We would not have made it.”
When Springsteen returned home the following month, he began writing the songs that eventually became 1982’s Nebraska. During this period, he started writing a piece called ‘Vietnam’, which some commentators have suggested may have taken inspiration from Jimmy Cliff’s famous protest anthem of the same name. 
Springsteen recorded a couple of demos of the piece, which described the tale of a returning Vietnam veteran who is told everywhere he goes that he “died in Vietnam”. Some of the lyrics would eventually reappear on the B-side ‘Shut Out the Light’. However, one verse, where a factory manager claims he’d hire the veteran if was up to him, reappeared in a more concise form elsewhere. 
On the oaken table in his Colts Neck, New Jersey home, Springsteen had a screenplay called Born in the U.S.A. that was sent to him by the iconic screenwriter Paul Schrader. Soon after he wrote ‘Vietnam’, Springsteen lifted the title of the script and began to rewrite the song accordingly. The first chorus he wrote rhymed “born in the U.S.A.” with a “soon-to-be-discarded” line that sarcastically hailed “the American way”.
At the time, Springsteen was feeling particularly critical of the American political system. He had recently read the 1979 book Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, and according to Hiatt, one draft of the new song read like a “private venting over what he learned”. At one point in this draft, Springsteen marvels that Nixon never went to prison and offers up his own alternative punishment. He sings that they should have “cut off his balls”. 
This draft also makes clear, for any doubters, that Springsteen‘s reference to being sent to fight “the yellow man” in what became ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ was another piece of sarcasm intended as an antiracist sentiment and not some exceptionalist piece of patriotism, as many Trump supporters believe. In this version, he sings that they wouldn’t treat “the white man that way”, whilst also attempting to tell the story from the Cambodian perspective and the horror of bombs “falling like rain”.
Hiatt points out that for the narrator in ‘Born in the U.S.A.’, his birthright has been stripped of all meaning. However, as the uplifting music confirms, he’s determined to find his own way and “rediscover” what Springsteen “would later call ‘the country we carry in our hearts.’”
‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is an incredible song, with an even better backstory. It is one of the best examples of Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting ability and his power to speak for the masses in such a lucid manner. It’s just one of many reasons that we love him. It’s a testament to the sardonic quality of his writing that the song has been misinterpreted by many who are antithetical to ‘The Boss’.
Listen to ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ below.
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