The song Bruce Springsteen wrote was all about bitter irony. This was the story of a Vietnam vet who returned home to his own country scarred by his experiences in the war, only to discover that the economy in his hometown was crumbling and he had little hope of a better future or even a job. After serving his country, his country failed him, leaving him with "nowhere to run / ain't got nowhere to go."
This story, which fills Springsteen's four verses in "Born in the USA," is bleak stuff. It's these sad verses that give the song's anthemic chorus its meaning (as Springsteen intended it, anyway); "I was born in the USA!" is not so much a rah-rah patriotic cheer, in this context, as it is a heartbroken lament. Is this really what it means to be an American, to suffer in a pointless war and then suffer doubly in unemployment and hopelessness upon the war's end? Is this really the American Dream? I was born in the USA! It's not supposed to be like this…
In his songwriting, Springsteen employs a simple but effective lyrical structure, playing up the irony by offsetting his ringing choruses with dismal verses. The three bleakest lines in the song all lead directly into the iconic chorus: "You end up like a dog that's been beat too much / 'Til you spend half your life just covering up / Born in the USA!"… "Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man / Born in the USA!"… "I'm ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go / Born in the USA!"
In only one case does Springsteen deviate from the song's regular architecture; after the third verse, instead of launching into the chorus, he instead adds an extra verse. It is no accident that that extra verse features the emotional apex of the song, emphasizing the many overlapping human tragedies of the Vietnam War: "I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off all the Viet Cong / They're still there, he's all gone / He had a woman he loved in Saigon / I got a picture of her in his arms now". Khe Sanh was one of the bloodiest (and also, perhaps, most pointless) battles of the Vietnam War, where American troops desperately fought off a communist attack against an isolated jungle outpost, only to see the US military abandon the base shortly after winning the battle. What was the point of the sacrifice of the men lost there? What did their deaths achieve? Why should they have left their lovers alone, left their children fatherless?
So that was the song Bruce Springsteen wrote, as sad a song as you'll ever here on Top 40 radio.
But that wasn't quite the same song most fans heard. Springsteen's songwriting depended upon a delicate balance of chorus and verses… but for most listeners the chorus simply overpowered everything else around it. Most fans loved the chorus and didn't even hear the verses; accordingly, most fans missed the irony entirely. Millions of people shouted out their lungs, singing along with The Boss to "Born in the USA / I was born in the USA / I was born in the USA / Born in the USA"… but all the sad bits—Khe Sanh, the hiring man down at the refinery, the shadow of the penitentiary—simply faded away. "Born in the USA" became a simple patriotic (if not jingoistic) new national anthem for the age of rock and roll.
So which "Born in the USA" is a better song, the one Springsteen wrote or the one most of us heard? You'll have to be the judge of that.