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Born down in a dead man's town
By the 1980s, many of the once-thriving industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast became "dead man's" towns, turned into economically-depressed wastelands by the collapse of the midcentury American industrial economy.
For the first half of the 20th century, much of the economic growth of the United States was fueled by a thriving industrial sector. Heavy industry—mining, steelmaking, oil refining, automobile production, manufacturing, etc.—created millions of relatively high-paying blue-collar jobs, many of them concentrated in the Great Lakes region.
Changes in the international economy by the 1960s led to a rapid decline in those old American industries, creating the so-called "Rust Belt" of decaying postindustrial cities that provided Bruce Springsteen with much of his thematic material.
Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Admit it, these are the only lyrics you actually know.
Sing with us: Born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.! Born in the U.S.A.! Born in the U.S.A.! Born in the U.S.A.!
And so on... Not much to say here.
This chanting phenomenon was hilariously spoofed in the John Candy comedy Canadian Bacon.
Sent me off to a foreign man
To go and kill the yellow man
This blunt, racially-charged summary of America's mission in Vietnam was shared by many soldiers in the war.
Ultimately, more than 2 million Vietnamese died during the war. Although the South Vietnamese were officially allies of the United States, many American soldiers—frequently victimized by surprise guerrilla attacks from the Viet Cong—became hostile toward all Vietnamese.
During the critical battle of Khe Sanh, for example, U.S. Marines under communist attack refused assistance from South Vietnamese forces because, in the inflammatory words of Army Colonel Jonathan Ladd, "they couldn't trust any gooks in their [...] camp" (source).
For many of its participants, unfortunately, the Vietnam War began to seem like a race war.
Hiring man said, 'Son, if it was up to me...'
Returning Vietnam veterans faced bleak employment prospects, as the American economy stagnated badly in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Springsteen wrote "Born in the U.S.A." in 1982, a year that brought the worst unemployment crisis in America since the Great Depression.
The unemployment rate that year peaked above 10% and 1982 remains the only year since 1939 in which unemployment hit double digits.
Went down to see my VA man
VA = Veterans Administration, the government agency responsible for providing healthcare and benefits to former soldiers.
The Veterans Administration (renamed the Department of Veterans Affairs in the 1980s) has had an up-and-down history, occasionally lapsing into periods of ineffective bureaucracy.
The Vietnam Era was one of the worst of those eras, as the VA failed to offer effective medical and social services to former soldiers struggling to return to civilian life following the conflict. One result was an explosion of drug abuse and homelessness among Vietnam vets.
I had a brother at Khe Sanh
Khe Sanh, a small village in a remote area near the demilitarized zone that once separated North and South Vietnam, was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
Khe Sanh, located in rugged hill country a few miles south of the DMZ and a few miles east of Vietnam's border with Laos, was one of the most isolated positions held by the American military in the mid-1960s.
The Marines assigned the duty of holding the small base there questioned the value of the position. Marine General Lowell English once said, "When you're at Khe Sanh, you're not really anywhere; you could lose it and you really haven't lost a [...] thing" (source). But General William Westmoreland, supreme commander of the American effort in Vietnam, insisted on holding Khe Sanh, arguing that it would provide a valuable base for monitoring North Vietnamese activity along the border.
Late in 1967, Khe Sanh came under sustained attack from North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. The communists moved far beyond their usual guerrilla tactics, even using tanks in battle for the first time ever in South Vietnamese territory.
Heavy fighting continued through the first four months of 1968. The Americans and their South Vietnamese allies eventually prevailed, but at a cost of more than 10,000 combined casualties. In July 1968, one week after Westmoreland was removed from command, his replacement quietly ordered the abandonment of the base at Khe Sanh. The men who died there seemingly lost their lives for nothing.
Fighting off all the Viet Cong
The Viet Cong, more formally known as the National Liberation Front, was the communist guerrilla army that fought against American troops inside South Vietnam.
The Viet Cong presented a formidable enemy to American forces in the Vietnam War. Guerrilla soldiers who easily blended into the surrounding civilian population, Viet Cong fighters launched devastating ambush attacks against American soldiers with unnerving regularity.
The Americans' failure in "winning over the hearts and minds" of Vietnam's civilian population meant that the Viet Cong continued to receive significant support from the Vietnamese people throughout the war, ultimately dooming the Americans to defeat.
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
Thousands of American servicemen established sexual and romantic relationships with local women during the Vietnam War.
At least 25,000 "Amerasian" children were born to Vietnamese mothers and American servicemen. The vast majority of them would never have an opportunity to know their fathers.
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Even as the old industrial economy of the so-called "Rust Belt" sputtered and died in the 1970s and '80s, the emerging "prison-industrial complex" experienced unprecedented growth.
Largely fueled by the enforcement requirements of the war on drugs—launched to much fanfare by President Richard Nixon in 1971—the American prison population has swelled by orders of magnitude over the past several decades.
The United States now incarcerates a larger portion of its population than any other society in the known history of the world. Bruce Springsteen might say that we all now live in the shadow of the penitentiary.
Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go
Here, Springsteen sets up a stark contrast with one of his earlier hits, the joyfully freewheeling "Born to Run."
We can imagine the first-person narrator of "Born in the U.S.A." as an older, broken-down version of the teenage rebel singing "Born to Run," the cruel experience of Vietnam and its aftermath robbing him of even his hope.
It's been a long, hard road from "We gotta get out while we're young / Cause tramps like us, baby we're born to run" to "Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go."