03/29/2012 04:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Brothers Under the Bridge: Springsteen and Vietnam

Vietnam veterans keep me sane.

I know that runs counter to about a dozen interlocking pieces of America's cultural memory, but I'm betting Bruce Springsteen would understand what I mean.

To say Bruce and I live in different worlds is to put it very mildly. No one's likely to confuse the academic bubble of a medium-size Midwestern university town with the hothouse of rock 'n' roll stardom. What they have in common is that if you take either one of them too seriously, you run a serious risk of losing sight of bedrock social realities.

The problem is intensified by the fact that for at least three decades, America has been suffering from a case of cultural amnesia. Politicians and advertising producers traffic in nostalgia, invoking images of a never-never time when the world made sense. As David Sirota argues in Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now, you can trace the current situation to the invention of "trademarked" versions of the 1950s and 1960s which dominated 1980s politics and pop culture. An important part of that was Ronald Reagan's transformation of Vietnam from tragic mistake to "noble cause." Nothing stopping you from breathing a sigh of relief and going on as if nothing important had happened.

Unless, of course, you were there.

I wasn't, but I grew up in a military town -- Colorado Springs -- and I spent a lot of time with guys either going to or coming back from Nam. The rock band I played with had gigs on base and in the clubs on West Colorado Avenue, where GIs were a significant part of the crowd. I went through the draft lottery, got a bad number, and spent a year expecting to be called, unaware that Nixon was busying "Vietnamizing" the war. From 1967 until I moved to Illinois for grad school, Vietnam was a part of my consciousness every day. At which point, it more or less vanished from the conversations around me. It was like popping into an alternate universe where no one mentioned the most important thing in our lives. Sort of like being a civilian in the 2000s when you could prove your patriotism by heeding George Bush's advice and going shopping like nothing had happened. It wasn't until I was invited to join the Deadly Writers Patrol, a Vietnam vet-centered writing group based in Madison, that I began to reconnect with parts of myself that had gone into deep storage. One of these days I'm going to finish the novel; in the meantime, all I can do is say thanks. (Take a look at the DWP magazine here.)

Bruce's story differs in some important specifics, but I recognize the pattern. Coming from a working class background in New Jersey, Springsteen was a prime candidate for the draft. The drummer for his first band, Bart Hanes, was killed in Vietnam. Bruce didn't want to go -- very damn few of us did. On the version of "The River" included on his Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band Live box set, Bruce told the story of his experience with the draft. (Give it a listen). The key moment comes at about 4:50 when the crowd cheers after Springsteen tells them of his escape. "Nothing to applaud," he says simply. He knows that his escape didn't change the big picture. Someone else was going in his place.

He never forgot. Some of his best songs involve Vietnam: "Lost in the Flood," "Youngstown," "Brothers Under the Bridge," "Highway Patrolman," "Born in the U.S.A." The shadow of the war hangs heavy over entire albums, especially Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska.

More importantly, his concern wasn't abstract. In 1981, he met Bobby Muller, a Marine who'd founded the Vietnam Veterans of America after a bullet paralyzed him from the waist down. Taking the stage for a concert in Los Angeles, Springsteen addressed the crowd directly:

It's like when you feel like you're walking down a dark street at night and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody, you see somebody getting hurt or somebody getting hit in the dark alley but you keep walking on because you think it don't have nothing to do with you and you just wanna get home. Well Vietnam turned, turned this whole country into that dark street and unless we, unless we're able to walk down those dark alleys and look into the eyes of the men and the women that are down there and the things that happened, we're never gonna be able to get home and then it's only a chance....So, I guess all I'm saying is you gotta go down there and you gotta look and we got the easy part, because there's a lot of guys here tonight that had to live it, and live it every day and there's a lot of guys here that made it home to America but died and didn't make it down here tonight.

I don't think it's coincidental that his deepening involvement with Vietnam vets coincided with his path back from the near-despair of Nebraska. Ever since, he's an active supporter of veterans' issues and the veterans community has returned his affection. Witness these tributes from Muller and Ron Kovic, author of the acclaimed memoir which was the basis for the 1989 Oscar-winning film.

"Support the troops" has, unforgivably, become a cliché, empty words echoing in a historical vacuum. Bruce Springsteen gives us an idea of what it means to make it real.