Tuesday night a number of famous musicians performed on the Washington Mall at the "Concert for Valor", an event which was billed as a salute to America's veterans. But the following day, the fact that the concert went off without a hitch, was overshadowed by a controversy about one of the songs. Bruce Springsteen, Zac Brown, and Dave Grohl covered a 1969 Credence Clearwater Revival anti-war anthem called Fortunate Son. The conservative website The Weekly Standard seems to have gotten the ball rolling with this brief criticism, and it soon became a heated topic of debate on social media networks.
A number of pundits have weighted in with many calling the song choice anti-military, unpatriotic, or just plain inappropriate. But, judging from some of the complaints that I have read, the people voicing the criticism clearly haven't even bothered to read the lyrics. Because if they had, they would understand that John Fogerty was not directing his anger and cynicism towards the soldiers. He was aiming it at a system that favored the sons of the rich, and well-connected, when it came to deciding who would have to go and fight in Vietnam. However, no such preferential treatment was available to protect the sons of the working classes. The slogan that describes such a system was originally coined during the Civil War: "Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight".
The interesting thing is that the same music that was originally written, and performed, to protest the Vietnam War, is now the same music that has become the soundtrack of that war. It is pretty much impossible to make a decent movie, or even a video, about Vietnam that doesn't include the music of that era. And I am not talking about only anti-war movies. Even the epic Tom Hanks film "Forrest Gump" used Fogerty's anthem during the scene that introduced Forrest and Bubba into Vietnam. And the National Review has ranked "Forrest Gump" as one of the 25 best conservative movies of the past quarter-century.
Predictably, this controversy is dividing along partisan political lines. Conservatives are the ones attacking Springsteen and liberals are defending him. But some of the things being said about the Boss by conservatives leave me somewhat puzzled. I know conservatives like him, and listen to his music. New Jersey governor Chris Christie is proof enough of that. In fact, no less a conservative than Ronald Reagan sang Springsteen's praises when he was running for reelection as president in 1984. And I'm pretty sure that his campaign used his iconic anthem "Born in the USA" for their song. Although, I suspect that Reagan's team probably never bothered to read the lyrics to that song before adopting it. It is just as much an anti-war song as "Fortunate Son".
Lastly, it has been well-established that numerous service members were active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. A fact that tends to complicate the familiar narrative that has returning combat veterans getting spat-upon, and otherwise abused by hippies. The two groups did make common cause, and while there are always exceptions, most anti-war protesters directed their anger at the government and the military establishment. Not at individual soldiers. I guess the question becomes this: Is it possible to oppose a war, but still support the troops? Are the two things incompatible?