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LTY Exclusive: Doug Bradley, Vietnam War veteran, author, and scholar, on BORN IN THE U.S.A. @40

June 4, 2024

I just re-listened to Born in the U.S.A., released forty years ago today back in 1984. Yeah, that year, the one we all grew up worrying about since all of us had read George Orwell’s alarming novel, 1984. Afraid that the omnipresent Big Brother would make an appearance, and our lives would never be the same again.

But Bruce Springsteen’s best-selling, chart-topping 1984 album was different…Or was it? During my recent listen, my head was filled with vivid images of broken down cars and endless highways, dead end jobs and burned out romances, deserted streets and hard luck towns. Aching hearts... unrequited love…lust and hopelessness.

Many of us share happier Born in the U.S.A. reveries and memories, as well. But recently as I listened again, and I mean really listened, I recognized that Born in the U.S.A.—the entire album, and not just its oft-misinterpreted title track—really could be about old soldiers like me, guys in our thirties in the 1980s, trying to navigate America after we’d spent the best years of our youth at war, both in Vietnam and back home in a divided America.

And, crazily, all of what’s in Born in the U.S.A. hits me harder now, as I turn 77 in 2024. Not just because of that brutal, divisive, unwinnable war that I and others of my generation were sent to fight, but because America has become the gloomy, dystopian place Springsteen portrays in much of Born in the U.S.A. His is a world of lost love, hard work, and the staggered pursuit of happiness. Even the humor—and there is humor in Born in the U.S.A.—reminds me of the gallows humor we used as a coping mechanism in Vietnam when you had to find something to laugh about in the absurdity of that ugly war. That's why the Country Joe & The Fish song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin'-to-Die Rag,” was so popular with us GIs. “Ain’t no time to wonder why/Whoopee, we’re all gonna die…”

Glory days indeed…

I kept trying to tell myself I was wrong, that I was overreacting, much as I had when I came home from Vietnam and was so angry at my country. That helped to explain why, like so many of the narrators in the Born in the U.S.A. songs, I would get in my car and try to drive away the pain and the hurt. Go searching for something that would give me a reason to live. And, for many of us Vietnam vets, we found that hope and sustenance in a woman. Someone who didn’t judge or question but listened. Held us tight and got us through the night. Nowhere is that accentuated better than in “Cover Me:”

“I’ve seen enough, I don’t want to see any more; cover me…”

Our wives/lovers did that for us. Covered us with their love. Protected us. Brought us back home. And they did that each and every day…

Lord knows we needed it. After all, we were born in the U.S.A. It was our hometown, our playground, in the 1950s and 1960s. We sat on our World War II daddies' laps and felt their surge of relief, hope, and optimism. We did what we were told and pledged allegiance to the flag. And when Uncle Sam told us we had to follow in our fathers' footsteps and go and stop Communism in Southeast Asia, three million of us did. Little did we know that we were “goin’ down,” that being a soldier in Vietnam and a Vietnam veteran bought you a ticket on that “downbound train.” That we were all on fire, needed a spark. We were guns for hire, alright, but was the joke on us? Where was the U.S.A. when we needed it?

Now I don’t quite know if I dreamed all of that, or if I actually felt that way when I first heard Born in the U.S.A. in 1984. Or even if I finally realized it all when I just recently played the album again. And again... And again...

“There’s a war outside still raging..." Was that then, 1984, or is it now? Don’t we all still want to "sleep beneath peaceful skies?”

“Time slips away and leaves you with nothing…” I know this better now in my late seventies than I did forty years ago in my late thirties. And just as I did back then, I still often feel like turning out the light, bolting the door, and going out there no more.

But then I look around, at today, and I say, no, not yet. Forty years on, we still need to listen, to heed the warnings of both Springsteen and Orwell. To speak out and stand up. In 1984, Orwell warned us about Newspeak, how it would control our minds, believing that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

And Bruce reminds us that we’d not only lost our innocence but we also lost the American dream. That part of being born in the U.S.A. is a struggle against brutality and injustice. That’s why we have to keep on fighting, no matter how many times we hit the ground.

So I join arms with Bruce, with my Vietnam brothers and sisters, reminding the U.S.A. that I’m still a soldier in the winter’s night, and I still have a vow to defend. No retreat, baby; no surrender.


Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, co-author with Craig Werner of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, and author of DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle, now also available as an audiobook. His music-based memoir, The Tracks of My Years, will be released by Legacy Book Press in the spring of 2025.


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