It’s become a perennial favorite pastime at elections large and small: Whenever some hapless politician selects Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a campaign song, the sneering left wing intelligentsia gleefully pounce on the occasion, claiming that the iconic anthem is not the hymn to patriotism suggested by its title, but rather an anti-America protest song.
Now, I’m generally in favor of laughing at politicians and their buffoonery. I’m also well aware that The Boss is not exactly a card-carrying Republican, but as a fellow native of the Garden State, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let his patriotism be called into question. It’s true that Born in the USA is a not a one-dimensional, rah-rah, “Go America!” cheerleading song. There are enough of those already, and musical merits notwithstanding, most of them are pretty boring. Born in the USA is something better. It’s a thoughtful critique of America’s government when they get things wrong (which, let’s face it, is most of the time), without detracting from the fundamental glory of America, the country.
The confusion comes from misguided ideas about what constitutes patriotism. It is not patriotic to sycophantically cheer for everything the government, the military, or the bureaucracy does. Unquestioning obedience is born out of fear, not love. To be a true patriot is to love your country, unconditionally, warts and all. It also involves feeling pain when the thing you love engages in self-destructive behavior. Just as we feel pain and a duty to intervene when a beloved family member is battling a drug addiction, a toxic relationship, or merely wasted potential, so does the patriot weep for his country when it heads off down the wrong road towards tyranny or imperialism.
It could be argued that no one has loved America more than the men who created it. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find a harsher critic of government policy and abuse of power than Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. These men were not traitors to their country, quite the opposite; they just wanted to make sure their creation—their child—would grow up healthy, strong, and well-behaved. True love sometimes means tough love, and it’s incumbent upon all of us, if we really care, to apply that tough love to our country when it’s called for.
That’s what Springsteen was doing with Born in the USA. He didn’t write it because he hated America; he wrote it because he loved America, and was sorry to see it involved in pointless wars, where American fathers and sons were sent to their deaths for no justifiable purpose.
The lyrics of the song deal with what happens to American soldiers who are sent off to fight in wars, like Vietnam, to serve the nebulous interests of government power brokers, how they are beaten and bloodied and ultimately cast aside once they have outlived their usefulness to the military. Bruce isn’t saying America is a bad country; he’s saying that it’s wrong to treat veterans like expendable pawns rather than the brave servicemen they are, a message any red-blooded conservative should be able to appreciate. Being pro-soldier and anti-war is certainly preferable to the alternative, which is what many so-called patriots seem to be demanding.
So yes, if a politician wants to run on a platform of perpetual war with no end game and no exit strategy, continuing to chew up and spit out our veterans as if they were no more valuable than shell casings, then it’s true that Born in the USA is rather a poor choice as a campaign anthem. However, for those brave enough to challenge the status quo, and demand that our men and women in uniform be treated like human beings again, I can’t think of anything I’d rather sing along to.