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Antiwar Messages: Horriffic, Yet Timeless
The Vietnam War, like many wars, spawned a rich artistic tradition of commentary that depicts the ravages on those who actually fought it. Throughout time, artists have created works that support the political views of the common man. Delacroix in his famous painting, “Lady Liberty Leading the People”, depicts an enormous Lady Liberty symbolizing the freedom that men fought for during the French Revolution. Picasso, in his cubist painting “Guernica”, puts to canvas the plight of the Spaniards during the Civil War. In contemporary music, Bruce Springsteen is the quintessential conscience of a nation as is best exemplified in his Born in the USA album in which he shrieks, croons, and moans about the mental and physical trials of returning Vietnam veterans and their anguish upon returning home to a country that has rejected them.
The quiet plucking of the guitar strings intensifies in a single count of eight through the introduction of Springsteen’s “Shut Out the Light”. The chord progression repeats through the bass line, yet becomes heavier as the tambourine layers in and we hear a more prominent note repeating as a new steady bass. The first verse tells of a Vietnam War veteran returning home from serving in the army suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. The verse flows into a haunting chorus:
“Oh mama mama mama come quick
I've got the shakes and I'm gonna be sick
Throw your arms around me in the cold dark night,
Hey now mama don't shutout the light.”
Throughout the song, the chorus returns repeatedly with increasing power, depicting the veteran’s fear. He is paralyzed by the notion of being alone with the memories of the war.
John F Kennedy began sending financial aid to Vietnam in 1961 , but Lyndon Johnson, who was elected in 1964, committed the United States army to war when two U.S. ships were attacked by the Vietnamese at the Gulf of Tonkin. As the war escalated under President Kennedy and then most of all under President Johnson, the prospect of being drafted became less and less appealing to young American men. Many soldiers came back from the war with physical injuries, with an inordinate number afflicted with emotional trauma. In part, the trauma was due to the rejection of the war by the US population who treated soldiers with disdain and disrespect upon their homecoming. “Shut Out the Light” paints a painful portrait of the mental illnesses individual soldiers faced while “Born In The USA” expresses collective anger that soldiers were being sent meaninglessly to their physical and/or emotional death. “Born in the U.S.A.,” one of Bruce Springsteen’s most famous songs is also one of his most misinterpreted. Many believe the song is patriotic, and it is played at many Fourth of July barbeques as a celebration of all things “American,” but it is in fact a harsh critique of American government policies in Southeast Asia.
Both “Shut Out the Light” and “Born in the USA” tell of the impact of combat and the suffering soldiers encountered upon returning home. “Born in the USA,” rages about the injustices of the war and “Shut Out the Light” explores a quieter type of individual psychological damage. The two songs mirror one another, in lyric, perspective, and even “A” side and “B” side placement on the original record released in 1984. The two songs are bookend reflections on the horrors of Vietnam. There is a consistent theme of loss running through both songs. In “Born in the USA”, Springsteen tells the story of an ex-convict who is sent to jail and ends up in the army. This same man expresses the futility of war when he tells that he had “a brother in Khe Sahn (South Vietnam)” who is “all gone”. “Shut Out the Light”, begins with a soldier who is mentally whole, but comes home a broken damaged man. The end of the song ominously hints of suicide as the soldier approaches the “cold black water” and “stares across the lights of the city and dreams of where he's been.” The experience of being surrounded by shooting, killing, and death severely damages any human being. “Born in the USA” is perhaps the more subversive of the two pieces as it contains an extremely up-tempo powerful melody embedded with a sinister undercurrent. “Shut Out the Light” is more obvious in its theme as the dark aura in the repetition of the phrase “shut out the light” frames the almost disturbing lyrics.
The themes of these songs remain relevant today. “Shut Out the Light” and “Born in the U.S.A.” were released in 1984, but connect thematically to new songs protesting American combat in Iraq. Neil Young’s song “Let’s Impeach the President,” released in 2006, makes the Iraq conflict grounds for George W. Bush’s impeachment. “Let's impeach the President for lying, and misleading our country into war.” In Iraq, the United States is once again involved in a war that seems to be unjust and unsubstantiated. The pain young men felt upon returning from war from 1964 to 1975 was as horrific as it is today yet we don’t seem to pay any more attention to it now as a country than we did then. The man in Shut Out the Light will relive the war for the rest of his life. Our policy makers still do not fully address that our troops may come back with PTSD and suffer paralyzing physical disabilities that often incapacitate them for the rest of their lives. Springsteen and artists who have followed make us ask how can a country founded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can send young men into foreign altercations without regard for the consequences when they return home?
The Fort Hood gunman was a psychiatrist treating soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there is not yet conclusive evidence to substantiate his rampage, he was clearly affected by the continuous retellings of the horrors seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. He heard the equivalent of the Boss‘s retellings every day as he treated his patients. This inexcusable massacre must remind Americans to consider the far-reaching implications of posttraumatic stress syndrome.
58,236 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1975. 4,367 Americans have been killed in Iraq since combat began in March 2003. While there were nearly 13 times more Americans killed in Vietnam there is a constant thread between the two wars. Springsteen voices soldiers’ difficulties finding work, their isolation when they were made to feel unwelcome upon returning home “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary, Out by the gas fires of the refinery, I'm ten years down the road, Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go.”
Bruce Springsteen’s antiwar message is timeless and is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. As the war in Iraq and now Afghanistan drags on with casualties climbing over 4000 while thousands of others are maimed for life, Americans further burdened coupled with an economic recession are disillusioned. While we welcome our returning GIs at Baseball games and with public tributes, our soldiers are still returning with the same PTSD, the sense of displacement that Vietnam vets felt. Both Shut Out the Light and Born in the USA expose some of the horrors of the Vietnam War. The undeniable power of art and music keeps us honest and makes us reflect upon the consequences of our leaders’ policies.