Like countless other people of his age, Bruce Springsteen stared at his own mortality in the mirror when drafted for the US Army aged 19 to serve his country in the Vietnam War. However, he just couldn’t bring himself to go and came up with an ingenious plan to dodge duty.
Springsteen has lived with the result of his actions for the rest of his life. It’s been a repeated source of anguish for him that his stunt led to somebody else may have been drafted in his place and died deserving their country while he was at home in New Jersey trying to make it as a singer-songwriter.
At the same time as The Boss was playing dive-bars, he had friends on the other side of the world fighting. Many people he knew didn’t return from Vietnam, and those who did were disparate souls to the young, innocent, wide-eyed teenagers that received their call-up. “I had some friends, very close friends of mine…guys who came home in wheelchairs, and then, I didn’t go,” the singer told Tom Hanks at Tribeca Film Festival in 2017. He went on to admit: “I was a stone-cold draft dodger.”
Springsteen then confessed that he carried out “everything in the draft-dodgers textbook. So, perhaps, I felt guilty about that later on. I had friends who went. I had friends who went and died. I had friends later on who were seriously hurt.” The Boss went on to say how it was a difficult journey to “come to terms with myself”, and he turned to music to clear his conscience.
His classic track, ‘Born In The USA’, saw Springsteen right his wrongs and celebrate the Vietnam veterans who valiantly served their country but were treated like dirt by the state upon their return. The Boss was adamant that veterans deserved a hero’s welcome for putting their bodies on the line for the country when he didn’t have the courage himself to fight.
In 1984, Springsteen told Rolling Stone how he evaded the draft and revealed, “I got a 4-F. I had a brain concussion from a motorcycle accident when I was seventeen. Plus, I did the basic Sixties rag, you know: fillin’ out the forms all crazy, not takin’ the tests. When I was nineteen, I wasn’t ready to be that generous with my life. I was called for induction, and when I got on the bus to go take my physical, I thought one thing: I ain’t goin’. I had tried to go to college, and I didn’t really fit in.
“I went to a real narrow-minded school where people gave me a lot of trouble and I was hounded off the campus — I just looked different and acted different, so I left school. And I remember bein’ on that bus, me and a couple of guys in my band, and the rest of the bus was probably sixty, seventy percent black guys from Asbury Park. And I remember thinkin’, like, what makes my life, or my friends lives, more expendable than that of somebody who’s goin’ to school? It didn’t seem right.”
Furthermore, Vietnam was the first war that the US didn’t emerge from victoriously; those who fought in Asia were largely ignored, which angered Springsteen. The veterans lived with the consequences of what they witnessed for the rest of their lives, and they were the lucky ones.
Living with the consequences of his actions as a teenager has been a double-edged sword for Springsteen. On the one hand, he avoided fighting a war he didn’t want to play a part in, and it helped spark his music career and the luxurious life he leads. However, The Boss has had to live with the guilt of someone else taking his place and potentially dying.
‘Born In The USA’ is Springsteen’s way of paying tribute to his friends, who he viewed as being superior men to him because they had the bravery to go to war when he didn’t. It’s a misunderstood song, as many see it as a flag-waving patriotic anthem when in truth, it’s The Boss kicking out at America’s disgusting treatment of their veterans rather than celebrating the land of the free.