It’s that time of the week again, where I discuss the meanings of popular and misunderstood songs in my Enlightened Lyrics column. Last week, I covered the German New Wave song “99 Luftballons” and it’s meanings. Please do read it if you haven’t. This week, we explore the meaning behind one of my personal favourites. This song is by the one and only “The Boss”, it is the title track of his 1984 album. Guessed it yet? It’s “Born in the USA” of course (I’ll stop asking you, it’s always going to be in the title).
I can hear the sound of some people saying, “But there’s no hidden meaning to that song. Last week you basically cheated because the song was in German, and not many of us here speak a lot of German. But this week, we know what the song’s about.”
Is that so? Why don’t you do my job for me then?
“The song is obviously a patriotic song for the United States of America.”
Yeah, “obviously”, with lyrics like “to go kill the yellow man”, he’s just singing about America’s love for Pac-man.
You see ladies and gents, this song was, in fact, an anti-war song, and one of the biggest wars of the second half of the 20th century. Yes, the Vietnam War. 20 years of guerrilla warfare, casualties in the millions and probably some of the worst war crimes committed since the National Socialist German Worker’s party and Stalin. So where do we begin? Well, as my grandfather would quote, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”. And so we shall.
The first verse is as follows:
“Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up”
This first verse seems like the person Springsteen is describing is fairly lower class. The second line seems that the man’s birth may have been at home, granted that many people have had home births since the practice of hospital births came into fashion and people still do today, but this seems like an indicator of class. And we know by analyzing the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Fortunate Son”, that the conscription of the Vietnam War was toughest on the working class and those who could not bribe their way out of it. But this is only one piece of the puzzle.
Carrying on, the second verse goes:
“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”
Well, this seems like a happy verse. This too is about conscription. The gun would’ve most likely have been an M16 or an M14. The latter was used during the first half of the war as the standard US infantry assault rifle and the former was used during the second half of the war. This foreign land could be any country, but the clue lies in the following line. “Yellow”, as I’m sure most of you will know, is a less-than-polite term for Asian folk (discounting anyone from south Asia with a browner skin tone). Again, this could mean almost any Asian country, but the US has only been in actual combat in a few Asian countries. These are Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Laos. Although for the most part, they deny they were ever in Laos (that discussion is for another time).
So, which of these countries could it be? It’s not Japan, Springsteen was born after WW2, It wouldn’t have been Korea because Springsteen was 4 when it ended. So that leaves us with Vietnam, but the song was written 9 whole years after the war ended. That’s where there’s bit after the third verse comes in handy and basically solves all the problems regarding where the song refers to.
“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”
Hmmm… Saigon? I wonder where that is. You guessed it! Vietnam. Saigon is the old name for Ho Chi Minh city, the largest city in Vietnam. The city was renamed after Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the communist party of Vietnam who won the war. Also, the battle of Khe Sanh was one of the battles where the United States actually won, yes it’s a commonly thought that the Vietnam war was a “failure for democracy”. Leading to communism continuing in South East Asia and Vietnam remaining a communist one-party state until today. The Viet Cong was the nickname for the National Liberation Front (north Vietnamese forces) given by the west during the war. So, essentially, it’s definitely about the Vietnam War.
Moving past the setting of this song, what is Springsteen actually saying? After reading or listening to all the lyrics, there seems to be a linear, almost story-like structure.
After whomever Springsteen is singing as returns from “the foreign land” (Vietnam), he returns to the refinery which he must have worked for before his tour. The boss of the oil refinery (referred to as “hiring man” in the song) said, “son if it were up to me”. When this phrase is said to people who want jobs, it is to mean “we can’t hire you”. And when the unemployed man goes to see his “V.A. man” he tells him “son, don’t you understand”. The song’s protagonist visits the Department of Veteran Affairs, but gets told that the department can’t do anything about his employment situation.
This situation was incredibly common for many of the veterans that were lucky enough to survive the war. Personally, it was worse for the Vietnamese. The US used multiple herbicides and defoliants to clear the dense jungles in order to stop the Viet Cong’s guerrilla style tactics from working. They infamously used the herbicide known as “Agent Orange”, which is the subject of the R.E.M. song called “Orange Crush”. The herbicide is notorious for causing birth defects and turning the skin of the affected orange. I won’t go into much detail as the effects can be quite graphic. So don’t say I didn’t warn you if you google images of people affected by agent orange and get nightmares for a week.
Going back to the veterans, many of them managed to get back into society and get married, but those who didn’t were the source of the “homeless, unemployed, disabled” Vietnam War veteran stereotype we refer to. Like I said, there were actual examples of Vietnam War veterans who couldn’t integrate back into society. The most well known is arguably Ron Kovic, the marine who “Born on the Fourth of July” is about. After the war, Kovic wrote a book with the same name which was then adapted into a film with Tom Cruise by Oliver Stone.
The line, “He had a woman he loved in Saigon” is about the idea that most conscripts were young men who were far from home. These men may have felt lonely and wanted to seek out some company. According to Paul Hardcastle’s song “19”, “the average age of a combat soldier in World war 2 was 26, in Vietnam he was 19”. 19, you’re still new to the world, you want to explore, the events that define you are still yet to happen. If you grew from your teens into your early 20’s in active combat, that may change your perspective on life completely and send you one way or another. The path that they chose in Born in the USA, is the positive path (finding love to counteract the tragedy of war).
The last verse is once again about returning to civilian life. “Out in the gas fires of the refinery”, he’s now homeless and living near the old oil refinery he used to work for. The gas fires should refer to the fires lit in oil drums used to keep homeless people warm. It makes sense, oil drums from the oil refinery. And the last line, I find is the most powerful.
“Nowhere to run, nowhere to go”.
He’s clearly got no escape because he can’t find a job, he can’t reintegrate back into society and he’s mentally wounded. He knows that he can’t do anything about it, this is now who he is. He’s just a drifter, a hobo, a bum, whatever you want to call him. After you realise this, you wonder why Reagan tried to use this song to get elected again.
All in all, the song follows the events of a Vietnam War veteran who has trouble adapting back into society after returning from the horrors of war. This war, in particular, spurred many a song in protest and in remembrance. Those mentioned in this article include Fortunate Son, Orange Crush and 19. Do find the time, if the mood indeed strikes you, to listen to these songs as they will give you a taste of politically powered music (if you don’t listen to that sort of thing on a regular basis).
Finally, I agree that my only two Enlightened Lyrics so far are quite outdated, so please comment below if you have any requests. What I shall do is try to combine songs with similar meanings into the same post to save time, and those that have more complex meanings will have their own posts. So, fire away and see you next week.
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