I can’t claim to be a big Bruce fan, and in fact Born in the USA may be the only Bruce album I’ve ever owned. I do appreciate his music a lot more now that I’m older, and I probably should revisit his catalog. Anyway, I was thinking about the parallels between that song, and the way we approach Memorial Day in general here in the USA.
It’s no secret that if you go poll 100 random citizens a good percentage can not tell you what this day is about. We are not celebrating Veterans, we are not celebrating wars we’ve won, we are not celebrating 50% off sales on furniture, we are not celebrating anything. Memorial Day is a day to honor those who gave their lives while serving in the US military. Even among those who understand the purpose of the day, how many actually do anything at all today that can be interpreted as remembering or honoring those that died? And no, enjoying the freedoms they died to protect does not count. You are not honoring your grandfather who died at Pearl Harbor by being drunk in the kiddie pool by 2 PM.
So what is the connection to Bruce’s tune? Much like how many have turned Memorial Day in a jingoistic celebration of America’s foreign policy, many of those same people would tell you that Born In The USA is a rah-rah pro America tune. Reagan’s campaign staff made that mistake in 1984 when the song was on the charts. It is an easy mistake to make, and that mistake is the real genius of the song. It was originally written during the sessions for the Nebraska album, which is a very dark and somber look at America at a time when many questioned if its best days are behind it. Born in the USA didn’t make it onto that album, but when Bruce started to play with it again for the next album, the song jelled around a very bombastic riff and sing along chorus that on the surface, definitely sounds rah-rah America.
However, much like how we mistake the car and furniture sales and backyard bbqs as the point of Memorial Day, not looking beyond the first impression causes us to miss what is going on with Born in The USA. The song is about the hopelessness and despair experienced by a Vietnam Vet who saw his friends and family die in a war that was ultimately meaningless, and then comes home to a USA with a crumbling infrastructure, high unemployment and interest rates, and a general lack of enthusiasm for taking care of the Vets it sent to suffer in Vietnam.
That song isn't celebrating anything, and really Memorial Day shouldn't be a celebration either. There may be honor in dieing for your country, but it's something we should hope for less of in the future, not something we should celebrate with a party.
Born down in a dead man's town. The first kick I took was when I hit the ground. You end up like a dog that's been beat too much. Till you spend half your life just covering up.
Born in the U.S.A. I was born in the U.S.A. I was born in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A.
Got in a little hometown jam. So they put a rifle in my hand. Sent me off to a foreign land. To go and kill the yellow man.
Born in the U.S.A. I was born in the U.S.A. I was born in the U.S.A. I was born in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A.
Come back home to the refinery. Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me." Went down to see my V.A. man. He said "Son, don't you understand."
I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong. They're still there, he's all gone.
He had a woman he loved in Saigon. I got a picture of him in her arms now.
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary. Out by the gas fires of the refinery. I'm ten years burning down the road. Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go.
Born in the U.S.A. I was born in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A. I'm a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A. I'm a cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A.
Side note: The mistreatment of Vietnam Veterans has been overplayed in the press. Not that they weren’t mistreated; they were. However we’ve been screwing over our Veterans in America since Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Vietnam era Vets weren’t singled out for worse treatment. Maybe it was the contrast to the WWII hero's welcome that their fathers received that made it seem that much worse. I’m not really sure, but there is little to no evidence that Americans in general were more hostile to Vietnam Vets than they were after any other war.