Pursuant to the insanity of right wing complaints about Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Zac Brown singing ‘Fortunate Son’ and ‘Born in the USA’ last night at a Veterans Day event on the National Mall, we have an actual Washington Post reporter who apparently can’t read plain English rock lyrics, either.

So, starting right now, let’s agree: Songs like “Fortunate Son” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” while they criticize the armed forces, aren’t anti-American in the sense that, for example, the Islamic State is anti-American. By offering a critique of our nation’s policies, they celebrate its promise. (Emphasis mine)

Although I agree with his conclusions, I do not agree to this premise. The amazing thing here is that Justin Moyer has actually provided the lyrics to the reader, and they do not say what he thinks they say. In fact, I hereby offer $100 to anyone who can find a word of criticism towards the armed forces in this song:

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.
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.
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 now”
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 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

Springsteen’s genius is to tell a story that isn’t about military life or wartime service, but the connection between foreign and domestic injustice — a line stretching from Ferguson to Fallujah, with a sad acknowledgement of the consequences when broken governments do not not take care of people or soldiers. A judge tells his narrator to ‘go to war or go to jail,’ but the song actually says nothing at all about the military. In fact, Basic Training may be the first experience Springsteen’s narrator has ever had with order and predictability at home; the process of turning civilians into soldiers does have positive effects. I have seen it up close.

So Born in the USA presents a stark picture of the American criminal justice system, wealth inequality, and the faraway distraction of war that somehow makes them both acceptable to the chattering classes, but it is not an anti-military song or even an anti-war song. Springsteen’s radical idea is that we are a violent society because we are impoverished, afraid, and punitive.

Unfortunately, that is a message that mainstream media is not very good at telling, especially at venerable institutions in cities like New York and DC where an embarrassment of money and power can only be accessed by acceptable reporting. Mr. Moyer lives among those chattering classes; many of his sources are the very people who make us poor and scared and angry in the first place. He works for one of the media giants that has consistently failed to help Americans understand who is screwing them, and how, because those people are the ones running today’s Fourth Estate.

Out here in the hinterland, we join the military to escape that great screwing-over. We want to get away from our little towns with their shuttered factories; we serve because our families need health care, or because we got caught shoplifting, or because there is no hope in the urban blight. I served alongside an athlete who gave up his college football scholarship to support his pregnant sister with the income because their dad was dead and their mom disabled. So there are a million reasons to join the military, but most of them boil down to a lack of good choices — and for altogether too many of us, a military barracks is actually a safer, saner place than anywhere we have ever lived before. 

But then we come home to our empty towns and the empty futures they offer. Even as dangerous as the military life can be, it has been a socialist worker’s paradise compared to the civilian world. Alienation and anger are the predictable results; many who leave the uniform cannot make the transition. Some of them end up in jail or worse.

As far as I can tell, Justin Moyer isn’t a veteran. He’s a musician who puts the “punk” label on his LinkedIn profile, but who still doesn’t understand what he’s not hearing in Springsteen’s song. If he did, he would know just how offensive his premise is to those of us who have lived these lyrics.

  • very eloquently put 🙂 thank you

    • True story: my best friend in HS was a congressman’s son. He wanted to achieve success outside of his dad’s shadow, and he felt an obligation to serve his country BECAUSE he was a “fortunate son.” So he joined the Marines, and three years later I followed his example by joining the Army. And now you know the rest of the story 🙂

  • Maheni

    I think some people try to recite more of what they hear than what they actually know. It happens all of the time, anyone take a dictation class before? It is amazing to see how many natural errors you can get. This one of course is just a far stretch from the truth, followed by what I suspect is “a way to get good ratings”.