Earlier this year, the award-winning 1990s TV show China Beach finally saw release on DVD. It’s interesting to watch a 20-year-old TV drama based on the Vietnam War, because the war was actually over nearly two decades before someone figured out how to present it in prime time.
That total of nearly 40 years is a lot of emotional distance to cover — especially since, by the time China Beach aired in the early ’90s, many Vietnam veterans and counterculture protesters alike were well into their 40s. One member from that generation was Bruce Springsteen, born in 1949.
Widely accepted as one of America’s finest songwriters and performers, he got called up for the draft but failed his physical. He never served in the armed forces and never set foot in Vietnam. Still, 11 after the U.S. left Vietnam (and almost a decade before China Beach entered the Nielsen ratings wars), he released one of the most powerful reflections on that era — the title track from his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A.
Of course, it’s a milestone in American pop music, and Springsteen pulls no punches. The protagonist gets placed into the Army because he “got into a little hometown jam.” He loses his brother in the war, and has nothing left except a picture of him and his girlfriend at Khe Sanh. After he returns home, he can’t get a job in the weak, recession-plagued economy. How much worse can it get?
Springsteen, of course, doesn’t want to give away the easy answer to that question, or any others. Is this song about returning war vets? Is it about America’s loss of innocence? Is it about the economy? The music, mostly consisting of two chords, a six-note synthesizer hook, and a band playing in take-no-prisoners mode, belies the lyrics. It was easy to ignore the words when the song crossed the U.S. airwaves like an air squadron of precision bombers, dropping the chorus of “BAAAAAWN INNA U.S.A.!” so often that it became easy to mistake it for an anthem and a battle cry for the American way of life — instead of a possible indictment of it.
But there are a couple of alternate story lines to consider: Some believe that “Shut Out the Light,” the B-side to “Born in the U.S.A.,” is a softer and truer contemplation of Vietnam’s effect on American society than that voiced by the louder, somewhat ambiguous A-side.
Another interesting point of view is perhaps found in the title track of Little Steven’s 1984 album Voice of America, which asks: “Can you hear me? Wake up! Where’s the Voice of America?” The timing is interesting with this release. Is there a suggestion that the voice of America isn’t Little Steven’s best friend and former employer the Boss himself?
Oddly enough, there is a song that skirts around similar themes but doesn’t bother to ask questions because the answers are already there — and have been for years. Steve Earle’s 1988 release Copperhead Road opens with the title track which, like “Born in the U.S.A.,” starts with a synthesizer lick, but this one causes many listeners to do an aural double take: Is that a bagpipe? Close enough, and appropriate, as Earle’s song makes a musical reference back to the original Scots-Irish settlers that made their homes in the hills of Appalachia. Then, the mandolin, then … the reverb drenched kick drum?
A bit odd so far, but eventually the vocals start and introduce the main characters: “My name’s John Lee Pettimore — same as my daddy and his daddy before.” Earle’s protagonist proceeds to tell a short family history of their involvement in the moonshine trade in Tennessee, and finally gets to his own involvement in Vietnam. “I volunteered for the Army on my birthday,” continues young Mr. Pettimore. “They draft the white trash first ‘round here, anyway.”
When he comes home from “two tours of duty in Vietnam,” he retools the family distillery into a dope growing operation. Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” didn’t see this coming. Earle’s final bridge flips the whole Vietnam perspective on its head:
Well, the DEA’s got a chopper in the air
I wake up screaming like I’m back over there
I learned a thing or two from Charlie, don’t you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road
By this time, the rest of the band has joined in and the whole song rolls along like some folk-metal Frankenstein: equal parts pirate sea shanty, barn dance, Dukes of Hazzard car chase and WW II Sherman tank brigade all rolled into one. It turns out that, for Earle’s fictional Pettimore family, involvement in the Vietnam conflict was just a way to take a break from making hooch. In fact, since he came home “with a brand-new plan,” the Vietnam experience is more like a business investment inservice than a war.
And, that’s it. There are no questions to answer. No existential musings on the state of America’s soul, or the American dream. Just business as usual, with a little post-traumatic stress disorder on the side. Back in the day, Granddaddy fought the Revenue man. In the modern world, it’s the DEA coming around in a helicopter. In other words, it’s just another case of the small businessman wanting less government interference; despite the grow-op, this is a right-wing neighborhood.
But life goes on in a way that can only be imagined by Springsteen’s protagonist. Other than his lost brother, he doesn’t mention any family, except perhaps the factory foreman and VA man — who both address him as “son,” which is sad but maybe appropriate in a land ruled by the almighty dollar. “I’m 10 years burning down the road — nowhere to run; ain’t got nowhere to go,” he screams, maybe only now realizing the emptiness and the awareness of being too old to believe in “Born to Run” as a lifestyle, like he once did.
Still, there’s a chance the young man from that unnamed “dead man’s town” will realize he’s a spiritual relative of the white trash hillbilly Pettimore clan who have learned not to overthink concepts like “war” and “death” — and probably can’t even spell “angst.” Perhaps his 10 years burning down the road will take him to Johnson County, where his Scots-Irish cousin John Lee the Third can help his Dutch-Italian spiritual relative discover that the true American legacy is less “Born in the U.S.A.” or even “Born to Run.” It’s more “Born to Run a Business.”