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What Counts as a Patriotic Song?

In defense of Bruce Springsteen playing 'Fortunate Son' at the veterans' concert

Big kerfuffle over Bruce Springsteen’s playing CCR’s “Fortunate Son” at the big Washington Veteran’s Day concert last night. 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:

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. 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 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, 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 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.