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An Open Letter to Bruce Springsteen About Bush’s "War on Terrorism"

by Gary Leupp

Dear Bruce,

First of all, let me express my deep love and respect for you. I’ve been a fan of yours since the 1970s, when as a grad student in Hawai’i I heard “Factory” over my car radio. Yes! I thought, this is the music we need. My roommate had the “Born to Run” LP, and I played it so much he finally just gave it to me. I still have it; it skips in places, but of course I’ve now had the CD for years so I just show that LP–and all those other Springsteen LPs, right next to the Beatles and Dylan LPs–to my kids, as lovely museum pieces.

I went to Japan to study, in 1981. I bought the Japanese issue of “Born to Run,” with katakana all over the cover and a detailed Japanese-language commentary and lyrics translation inside–even before I bought a stereo for my apartment. Just wanted to have it there, in that little space without furniture, linking my worlds of Japanese studies and my American roots; I studied the Japanese lyrics, wondering if the translator interpreted the songs the way I did. I especially remember thinking about the translation of “Backstreets.” It wasn’t clear to the translator I guess whether “Terry” was male or female, and so the translation implies that the sense of loss and betrayal relates to an adolescent male-male thing, which kind of puts a whole different spin on the song than you probably intended, but I won’t go into that.

I confess that while in Japan I bought a bootleg album (“imprim? en France”) of one of your concerts and stupidly sold it before coming back to the States, and I only have a few tracks recorded on cassette. On that album, the lyrics on “Point Blank” were very different from the official recorded version. I think I liked them better, actually, and when I accidentally erased that from my portable cassette player, I hated myself for a while.

Another random memory. I remember talking to friends in Japan about your performances in support of the anti-nuke movement. This has particular relevance in the land of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I’ll be there at your Boston gig in October, with my twelve-year-old son. While I was trying to buy them over the phone the day they went on sale, he raced downstairs and said he’d been able to reserve them on Ticketmaster, but I needed to confirm the order within five minutes. We just barely made it.

Anyway, I love you, Bruce. You are the Boss, more than the Dylan of our time, in my opinion.

But to get to the point. Last week I received a latter from a young man in Spain. The letter was in Spanish which is not one of my languages, but I could sort of catch the drift of it. He’d apparently read some of my political commentary about the “War on Terrorism” that has appeared on CounterPunch and reappeared in Spanish translation on the web, and he asked me to write up a criticism about your position on the war. I was taken aback. I immediately replied (in English) that the Boss, in my opinion, is a deeply sensitive and compassionate man, and that while he doesn’t speak all that clearly about politics, he’s definitely on the people’s side, although sometimes his stuff has been misinterpreted or misused. I mentioned how you handled Reagan and all. For sure I defended you.

Basically what the youth was asking was, how could the author of “Ghost of Tom Joad” and “41 Shots” (he mentioned those songs) tell Time Magazine that he supported Bush’s attack on Afghanistan? I had no answer, since I don’t routinely read Time, on account of it not being a good magazine, and hadn’t read the article to which he referred. But surfing the net, I discovered that you were, actually, quoted in the July 27 issue as saying “the invasion of Afghanistan was handled very, very smoothly.”

Bruce, I must respectfully disagree. It was 41-shots magnified a thousand times. It re-empowered the Northern Alliance thugs. It produced massive disorder, which continues, and will get worse. It has probably killed over 4000 civilians, destabilized the region, and created more hatred for the U.S. than existed a year ago. Response to Sept. 11 was handled like the Bush administration handles most things: with extreme crudity, and total lack of interest in human life (your own trademark being precisely that interest, Bruce!) It pains me that you’d lend your good name to support any of that shit. Excuse my language.

You study everything you write about, you give attention to detail. Please give attention to Afghan detail. (November 10: CNN reports at least 128 civilians killed and a shrine leveled when allied planes bomb and destroy village of Shahagha, northwest of Kandahar. Maybe those victims deserve a song. And there are so many, many, many more examples.) Please think about why and how al-Qaeda developed, and why the U.S. was so damned eager to promote “jihad” against the Soviets in the 1980s.

I’ve been listening to the “Rising” CD and discussing it with friends. We agree, it’s beautiful, and there’s nothing in it that promotes the war. (Some commentators are disappointed that it doesn’t.) It’s what I hoped for. I’m ashamed to say as I put it into the CD player I worried that there might be something on it to validate the Spanish guy’s concern. But no, it’s classic Bruce, and I think those of us in the antiwar movement still mostly love you. But please, please, think hard about what you say in relation to this ongoing, crazy, limitless, global war that they’re calling the “War on Terrorism.”

I’m happy that you’re not saying “it’s all about freedom” (like Paul McCartney), or singing “let’s roll” (like Neil Young). I’m hoping you won’t follow the path of John Steinbeck, who wrote The Grapes of Wrath (a book which we both love) and then in his later years supported the Vietnam War. I’m hoping you won’t let “Rise Up” mean “America United Against the World.” You were born in the USA, but also born in the world, and the world does not want to see the Boss wave an imperialist flag while a government of corporate crooks, psychos and religious fanatics prepares, for no good reason, to send young American men and women to invade Iraq.

To that, I hope you say, like you once did to Lee Iacocca, when he tried to use you: “No thanks, Mister.”

Warm regards,

Gary P. Leupp

Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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