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What Counts as a Patriotic Song?

Big kerfuffle over Bruce Springsteen’s playing CCR’s “Fortunate Son” at the big Washington Veteran’s Day concert last night. [1]The Vietnam-era song was a protest at the upper middle class men who got to avoid the draft while working-class men had to go. Springsteen’s working it into his set ticked off some at the concert, and also the Weekly Standard: [2]

The song, not to put too fine a point on it, is an anti-war screed, taking shots at “the red white and blue.” It was a particularly terrible choice given that Fortunate Son is, moreover, an anti-draft song, and this concert was largely organized to honor those who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The song is not an “anti-war screed”; it is a song protesting the unfairness of the draft, and how the burden of war-fighting fell disproportionately on members of the working class who were not in college, and couldn’t get, say, five Vietnam War draft deferments, like some former vice presidents we could name. [3] In that sense, performing that song last night was perfectly legitimate, even laudatory.

Even if it were an anti-war screed, so what? The lyrics [4]are written in the voice of someone who stands to be sent to Vietnam because of his class. It criticizes those who mouth patriotism, but who don’t want to send their sons off to die in a war they support. I think it was and is a perfectly valid and appropriate song to play at a concert meant to honor veterans. After all, they served. It is not critical of them, but actually defends them.

As the Washington Post points out in its report [1], Springsteen’s Born in the USA, which he also performed last night, is the same kind of song. It is about a working-class Vietnam vet whose family was ravaged by the war, but who keeps a ragged, jaundiced faith with America. It is a song about the price of mindless patriotism — and the way it chews up people down the class ladder, the ones who tend to fight our wars. The Reagan-era anthem was widely misinterpreted by Republicans and conservatives as a flag-waving celebration of America.

Neither Fortunate Son nor Born in the USA are hippy-dippy anti-war anthems. If they are anti-war, they are anti-war in the sense that they compel us to face up to the costs [5] that foolishly following our nationalistic emotions into war exacts on the men (and women) we send to fight. How is that inappropriate at a concert honoring veterans? Why do we have to maintain the fiction that all our wars were wise and just? How, exactly, does that honor veterans? Does patriotism require us to lie?

UPDATE: Wow, this just posted to the thread below:

Lovely essay, and right on the money. Thanks for recognizing that supporting the veterans doesn’t mean putting a happy face on the inequities that exist within our economic/social structure.

One thing I think you might reconsider: As the author of ‘Bruce,’ the biography of Springsteen published in 2012, I spent quite some time speaking with Bruce about his songs and authorial intentions in ‘Born in the USA,’ among many others.

And here’s the thing — the repeated ‘I was born in the USA’ in the chorus isn’t intended to show the narrator’s “jaundiced faith” in America. Quite the contrary, the chorus is a bitterly ironic commentary that a man could be born in the USA, perform the most patriotic task available to citizens (risking his life for the nation) and still be hung out to dry by an uncaring government and society itself.

“We Take Care of Our Own,” the lead single from 2012′s “Wrecking Ball” album uses the same verse/chorus construction, the “we take care of our own” chorus growing increasingly bitter as each verse passes.

Your essay was still on-point, though.

Peter Ames Carlin
Portland, Or.

Thanks so much for that, Peter Ames Carlin. I appreciate it greatly.

115 Comments (Open | Close)

115 Comments To "What Counts as a Patriotic Song?"

#1 Comment By Bagby On November 13, 2014 @ 9:34 am

True patriotism is a combination of understanding and love for one’s place in this world. As with any sort of wise love, this includes a recognition of the strengths and weaknesses, the righteousness and sins of the beloved. Those lovers who whitewash the character of their beloved delude themselves and risk harm to themselves and their beloved because of their belief in lies. Foremost among these lies is that the history of one’s country contains no tragedy.

Like Bill Kauffman, I am skeptical that one can really love the Great American Empire in toto. America is a gigantic contintental conglomeration of startlingly different states and peoples who say they are one nation and claim one flag. Perhaps it is possible, like Walt Whitman, to love this huge and rather ungainly Union, but that love must be very abstract. All loyalty and love begins with what is near and particular. One can love Virginia or New York City, or the Big Sky State of Montana. Perhaps it is possible for one to love Hollywood, California and rural Arkansas equally, but I rather think one will prefer one to the other, or reject both for their own private Idaho.

I suspect every part of the Union has its own appeal, and its own case for love and affection. Imagine the benefits of localism or regionalism. Wouldn’t we all rather have an Arkansas filled with people who loved Arkansas for being Arkansas, and committed to making it the best place it can be? I would much prefer that to a bunch of flag-waving jingoist nationalists who were ready to surrender Arkansas’ resources for Washington’s imperial dreams. Unfortunately, the jingo line sells, and the political races are defined by arguments about who “believes in America” with the most blind passion and least circumspection.

To my mind, love of one’s country must include a grave suspicion of all who wish to whitewash the distinctions of American places and speak of them as if they are all the same. The patriot knows his country’s history, and loves his land in triumph and in tragedy. A Virginian loves Virginia no matter how Virginia has damaged itself, and no matter what the Feds do to Virginia. To be clear: nationalism is not patriotism because it is not a love for places as they are, but rather only how they are generalized under Washington.

It seems to me I have said this poorly, and the point deserves a better advocate than I. I have no more time this morning, and so I must submit the sentiments as they are, and with apologies for my shortcomings.

#2 Comment By Aaron Gross On November 13, 2014 @ 9:40 am

M_Young, I’d thought this was some kind of “official” concert, like the Beach Boys on the Mall. I didn’t follow the links. If it was a privately sponsored after-party, then, as we used to say in the Seventies, “Never mind.”

#3 Comment By FL Transplant On November 13, 2014 @ 9:52 am

One point that’s not been noted is that Springsteen began crusading for Vietnam vets back in the early 80s. He gave disabled vets priority seating in his concerts, fund-raised for vets organizations, has both publicly and privately supported their causes, and in general has been the only high profile entertainer/singer who’s done more than cheaply play up his public patriotism with a couple of “I love our heroes” call-outs in his concerts. He’s done more for vets than any other entertainer currently out there.

#4 Comment By smith On November 13, 2014 @ 10:00 am

I can see why some veterans would have objected to the song choice, but the Weekly Standard criticizing it is really too rich.

This is the same publication that was delivered in bulk to Dick “I had better things to do during the War” Cheney’s office every week.

#5 Comment By Chris 1 On November 13, 2014 @ 10:10 am

[NFR: What’s wrong with old white guys? Not to be a noodge, but would you feel comfortable with someone dismissing the opinions of others by saying, “This is all about young black gals getting their tiny knickers in a knot…”? — RD]

LOL! As a proud member of the old white guy club I can honestly say there’s nothing wrong with us that a bit of humility and humor can’t fix. 😉

#6 Comment By Adam On November 13, 2014 @ 10:14 am

He can play what he wants to play. This is America. As a veteran I’d say one of the biggest reasons to serve is to protect the rights of others to say things you might completely disagree with. One of my favorite songs when I was in was Metallica’s “One”. It’s about a soldier so greviously wounded he has no way to communicate to the outside world but he can feel and hear everything. Soldiers aren’t a bunch of patriotically mindless drones that like nothing better than sitting around listening to John Phillip Sousa marches.

#7 Comment By arrScott On November 13, 2014 @ 10:42 am

A patriotic song is (1) a song that (2) expresses love of or praise for one’s country, or that offers reasons why one’s country may be praiseworthy of deserving of one’s loyalty.

That’s my definition anyway, and it’s why I don’t regard God Bless America as a patriotic song. It offers not one word of praise for America, and it offers not one word of suggestion of why America might be worthy of praise.

GBA also fails the first half of my definition: It’s not a song. It’s a prayer, recited against the backdrop of turgid music. And as a prayer, it’s a terrible prayer. It consists of two parts: A listing of some of America’s many blessings, followed by a plea to God to bless America. I imagine God’s thought upon hearing GBA is a disappointed sigh, “Those rich mountains, those fertile prairies, those protecting oceans white with foam, those are My blessings, you ingrates.”

Also, it was FDR’s official campaign song in 1940, when he sought a third term. Gotta figure that if only we could somehow alert Fox News to this fact, there’d be less clamor to treat God Bless America as a de facto second national anthem.

#8 Comment By Annek On November 13, 2014 @ 10:55 am

M_Young:

“A guy who was drafted in Vietnam could (can) be proud of doing his time and identify with ‘Fortunate Son’.”

Perhaps a guy who served in Vietnam could identify with ‘Fortunate Son’. It would seem, however, that he could just as easily not identify with it, so why play a song that could predictably stir up some controversial emotions in the men the event is supposed to be honoring. It doesn’t seem like the wisest decision.

#9 Comment By Anne On November 13, 2014 @ 10:57 am

@Aaron Gross,

Problem is any song about class inequity in the draft (or war service in general) will likely involve rage and resentment.

#10 Comment By LaurelhurstLiberal On November 13, 2014 @ 11:16 am

Interesting discussion. So, what are Iraq War/Afghanistan classic songs?

When I think of that time, I think of Green Day and the Gorillaz, but I served Stateside.

#11 Comment By Richard Parker On November 13, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

“Like Bill Kauffman, I am skeptical that one can really love the Great American Empire in toto.”

I think the Empire ought to be split up into about 7 to 8 new nations.

#12 Comment By Reinhold On November 13, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

“[NFR: The Ramones? What’s un-American about the Ramones? Beats there a true American heart that doesn’t wanna be sedated? — RD]”
Remember that Johnny Ramone was a raging Reaganite and he and Joey had many fights over this, especially when Joey wrote his anti-Reagan ballad “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” (which actually was pretty uncontroversial, criticizing Reagan for visiting an SS cemetery, which the Jewish Joey Ramone felt as a slight against Jews).

#13 Comment By Carol On November 13, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

“Also, it was FDR’s official campaign song in 1940, when he sought a third term. Gotta figure that if only we could somehow alert Fox News to this fact, there’d be less clamor to treat God Bless America as a de facto second national anthem.”

Since FOX has been mentioned in this thread for unknown (to me) reasons, please let me say that I watched FOX for much of the day yesterday and this topic was discussed on many of its shows. But the reactions of the FOX contributors were not what you here at TAC would think. First, I never knew there were so many Springsteen fans at FOX. All of the commentators I heard had no problem with the songs Bruce sang (except for one FOX contributor who shall remain nameless and it wasn’t O’Reilly). Eminem’s language was actually more of a topic yesterday than Springsteen, but there wasn’t much outrage, or even anger, about it. Everyone seemed to be of the opinion that if you hire Eminem, you know what you’re getting and the military is strong enough to handle whatever he said, especially since many veterans have used that language themselves. The best line I heard on FOX about this was, “When you hire Eminem, don’t expect Peter, Paul, and Mary.”

#14 Comment By Jamie Wilson On November 13, 2014 @ 3:42 pm

It’s not whether or not it was patriotic that is important. Veterans Day should make our vets feel proud and strong. A song about the unfairness of it all – well, it was at best a Debbie Downer moment and at worst a poorly veiled pacifist symbol. Leave the “it’s not fair” songs for the other 364 days of the year, maybe?

#15 Comment By Peter Ames Carlin On November 13, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

Lovely essay, and right on the money. Thanks for recognizing that supporting the veterans doesn’t mean putting a happy face on the inequities that exist within our economic/social structure.

One thing I think you might reconsider: As the author of ‘Bruce,’ the biography of Springsteen published in 2012, I spent quite some time speaking with Bruce about his songs and authorial intentions in ‘Born in the USA,’ among many others.

And here’s the thing — the repeated ‘I was born in the USA’ in the chorus isn’t intended to show the narrator’s “jaundiced faith” in America. Quite the contrary, the chorus is a bitterly ironic commentary that a man could be born in the USA, perform the most patriotic task available to citizens (risking his life for the nation) and still be hung out to dry by an uncaring government and society itself.

“We Take Care of Our Own,” the lead single from 2012’s “Wrecking Ball” album uses the same verse/chorus construction, the “we take care of our own” chorus growing increasingly bitter as each verse passes.

Your essay was still on-point, though.

Peter Ames Carlin
Portland, Or.