Born on the Fourth of July
Born on the Fourth of JulyINTRODUCTION
Born on the Fourth of July is a candid memoir by Ron Kovic published in 1976, the year after the United States pulled out of Vietnam and ended the war. It details Kovic's journey from a stereotypical all-American boy during the 1950s to an eager soldier in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. It also explores his paralysis from the chest down as a result of combat in Vietnam, his later disillusionment with American policy towards Vietnam and the war, and his involvement in the anti-war movement.
Kovic's memoir begins with his birth on the most patriotic of dates, July 4, 1946, and his childhood in the years after World War II, inspired by stories of heroism and bravery from the war. The novel ends with the reclamation of personal power through Kovic's activism and desire for peace and for accountability from the American government. This trend of protest, anti-war sentiment, and the demand for civil rights and human equality, all of which question the authority of American institutions, was a significant one during the 1960s and 1970s. It changed the landscape of American public discussion and its international image.
The violence of Vietnam and the violence associated with repression of widespread student protests was plastered all over American and international television screens. The seeming security and social stability of the 1950s had been replaced by this clamor, and Kovic's memoir contributes to the era in a way that acknowledges that America was looking at itself and questioning its identity. Was America's image that of John Wayne, swaggering and always victorious? Or was America's image that of confusion and violence, full of broken men coming home from a questionable war?
Born on the Fourth of July became the prototypical Vietnam War memoir not from a news correspondent but from a man who had actually been deep in the battle. This memoir moved control of the portrayal of the war away from the political and military administration and placed it in the hands of those who had actually lost life and limb for God and country. In much the same way, the book also represents the tumultuous times of the 1960s and 1970s.
In 2005, Born on the Fourth of July was republished with a new introduction by the author. In the introduction, Kovic takes stock of the forty years that have passed since he left his parents' house to join the Marines. He laments the war in Iraq and considers it a repetition of the same mistakes of the Vietnam Era: "So many similarities, so many things said that remind me of that war thirty years ago which left me paralyzed for the rest of my life." He also calls for a return of the spirit of protest and caring, a spirit he credits for his sense of the world's beauty and life's preciousness. For readers interested in first-hand accounts of the Vietnam War, the protest culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and even the conditions to which Vietnam veterans returned after the war, Kovic's memoir proves a valuable resource.
The first-person narrator, whom the reader knows to be Kovic, has just been shot, and battle continues to rage around him as he bleeds from the wound in his shoulder. Others around him are also suffering, as men are injured and killed by enemy gunfire. Chaos and bloodshed are mixed with cries for help as Kovic becomes aware that he cannot feel his legs, and therefore cannot get himself to safety.
An unknown soldier pulls him out of the gunfire and into safety, where others tend to his wound. He is surrounded by soldiers screaming in pain and terror, "like little children now, not like marines, not like the posters." When the attack lifts, Kovic is placed on a stretcher and taken to an Amtrac (amphibious vehicle), which transports him and the other injured soldiers across the river.
There is a quickness and urgency to both the narrative of the story and Kovic's actual plight. He is overwhelmed by the desire to get out of Vietnam, and the desire to live, which he believes he will do once he has made it as far as the hospital: "I want to live so much." When Kovic finally arrives at the hospital, a priest comes to his side and assures him that doctors will operate. Chaos and noise are mixed with the black humor of the doctors and nurses, who discuss the Green Bay Packers as they drive their fists into the chest of one soldier. Patients scream in pain and at each other.
A general walks up and down rows of the hospital ward, full of wounded men with no control of their bodily functions. The general's mission is to present each injured soldier with the Purple Heart. As the general pins the medal on each soldier, a private takes a photograph of the pinning as a souvenir for the family back home. The absurdity of these presentations in the midst of the chaos of the wounded is not lost upon the general, who decides against giving the photograph to an incontinent "nineteen-year-old kid who doesn't have any brains anymore."
Kovic spends seven days in the hospital, willful to live and writing letters home explaining what has happened: "I am hurt pretty bad but I have done it for America." He finally leaves Vietnam.
The first section of Chapter 2 is written in the third-person perspective. The bus in which Kovic has been riding arrives in Queens, New York, at St. Albans Naval Hospital, where he will begin his recovery in the neuro ward. American Legion members from his hometown of Massapequa visit and tell him he is a hero, but "[i]t would seem to him that he was always having to cheer them up more than they were cheering him."
After several weeks in the naval hospital, Kovic receives a large envelope containing a citation and a medal for Conspicuous Service to the state of New York, signed by the governor. Without comment, he puts the material back in the envelope and puts it all under his pillow. He is bathed and put through physical therapy, but he knows it will be a long road towards full recovery. He remembers the priest in the Da Nang hospital, who noted that his fight was just beginning: "Most of your learning will be done alone."
Ron Kovic was born July 4, 1946. As a young man raised in suburban Massapequa, Long Island, Kovic grew up hearing stories of bravery and valor from World War II veterans. A combination of cold war fervor, Hollywood images of military personnel, and a desire to achieve more than his working-class father led Kovic to join the U.S. Marines in September 1964. He was twenty-one years old when he was shot and paralyzed during combat in January 1968.
His youthful patriotism and allegiance to God and country made him a perfect candidate for life as a soldier. Kovic took great pride in the link between his birthday and that of the nation: "I'd open up all the presents and blow out the candles on the big red, white, and blue birthday cake and then we'd all sing 'Happy Birthday' and 'I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy'." Kovic's birthday came to represent a large part of his identity and assisted his decision to become a Marine.
In the years since the Vietnam War, Kovic has remained in the vanguard of anti-war movements in the United States and abroad. His memoir was adapted to the screen by Oliver Stone, and Kovic has used the publicity garnered by the movie and his book to continue his activism, most recently speaking out at large rallies against the Iraq War that began in 2003.
The remainder of this chapter reverts back to the first-person perspective as Kovic recounts, in detail, the humiliating aspects of life in a VA Hospital. Dreams of intimacy with the ideal woman are interrupted by the reality of having to be strapped into a metal gurney and wheeled down to a communal shower area for an enema. He has a yellow catheter to facilitate his urinating. Everything that had defined his manhood is gone in an instant. "This is a nightmare. This isn't like the poster down by the post office where the guy stood with the shiny shoes; this is a concentration camp."
In filthy wards with depressed men and the unspeakable stench of an enema room, Kovic tries balancing the romance of the hospital's location—"the place where Yankee Stadium was, where Mickey Mantle played"—with the fact that his feet will never again touch that grass. Other injured soldiers in the ward attempt to deal with the squalid conditions, and Kovic struggles to understand why and how he ended up in this place. His mother brings him a copy of the play Sunrise at Campobello, the story of Franklin Roosevelt's struggle to overcome crippling polio and eventually become president. Kovic's mother and sister watch as he hoists himself up on parallel bars in an attempt to walk, wearing leg braces, only to succumb to leg spasms and uncontrollable vomiting.
Kovic recounts his childhood, his love of baseball and the Yankees, and the special thrill of always having fireworks on his Fourth of July birthday. The reader meets Kovic's childhood friends and learns of their love of baseball, Westerns, cartoons, and war movies. Kovic also possesses a strong Roman Catholic faith. All these combine to create a highly idealized picture of mid-twentieth-century American suburbia. The obvious mobility Kovic and his friends share as children is repeatedly mentioned: "We were always moving, all the kids on the block and me, like there was no tomorrow." These childhood images serve as a juxtaposition, or comparison, of Kovic's current state.
Young Kovic and his friends live for Saturday afternoon matinees featuring prehistoric monsters, and war heroes like John Wayne and Audie Murphy. The heroism and bravery of war films like To Hell And Back and The Sands of Iwo Jima make a deep impression on Kovic and his friends. They march with the Cub Scouts during Memorial Day parades. They make rocket ships and mourn the day in 1957 when the Russians temporarily beat America in the space race by sending Sputnik into orbit. Most significantly, however, they play war games, with sticks and toy guns, in the woods near their neighborhood:
We turned the woods into a battlefield. We set ambushes, then led gallant attacks, storming over the top, bayonetting and shooting anyone who got in our way. Then we'd walk out of the woods like the heroes we knew we would become when we were men.
Growing into puberty, Kovic absorbs the prevalent anti-communist sentiment of the era. In high school, he becomes involved in wrestling. Although an athlete, Kovic is still shy and worried about girls and pimples, fantasizing that he could be a hero and thereby gain acceptance from his peers. Kovic also experiences the guilt of his awakening sexuality, thinking it is a sin, and the typical conflicts between teenagers and their parents.
The year before graduating and with the help of his father, Kovic gets a job at a supermarket near the Marine recruiting station. Smartly dressed Marine recruiters visit Kovic's school a month before graduation, significantly impressing the seventeen-year-old Kovic, who is already in awe of the military. President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 seems to signal the end of Kovic's idyllic childhood. Kennedy's words, "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country," echo in Kovic's mind when, in September 1964, he prepares to leave on a train for Marine Basic Training.
The second half of Chapter 3 focuses on the details of Basic Training at Parris Island, South Carolina. Kovic's training officers typify popular images of military instructors: "Your souls today may belong to God, but your asses belong to the United States Marine Corps!" For all the intensity of Kovic's introduction to military life, the lucid description of his training reflects only his first day. He presents the rest of his training using stream-of-consciousness narration, which is written to reflect the way a mind thinks and does not necessarily conform to the rules of grammar or syntax. Stream-of-consciousness writing is often used to depict confusing, fast-paced, or jumbled events that run together in the writer's memory. Intermingled in this explosion of thought, memory, and emotion are not only military orders, songs, and other training devices, but also excerpts of President Kennedy's famous speech asking for citizens to serve their country.
Beginning again in the third person, this chapter distances the reader from a scene that might otherwise have been proud and nostalgic—it is a distancing that Kovic himself also feels. Kovic and his family are preparing for the Memorial Day Parade, his first since returning home in a wheelchair. They are joined by two local American Legion members who come to help wheel Kovic out of the house and into the parade car and assure Kovic's family that "we're gonna make certain that his sacrifice and any of the others weren't in vain." Kovic, the Grand Marshall of the parade, is put into the car and informed that they will be picking up another wounded vet, Eddie Dugan, who lost both of his legs.
The American Legion members then recall a litany of young men from the community who have also suffered and died because of the war. Eddie informs Kovic that he was hit by friendly fire. Kovic finds that he can discuss his injuries with Eddie in a way that he cannot with non-veterans. The two young veterans reach the podium site at the parade and notice the banner: "Our Wounded Vietnam Vets … Eddie Dugan and Ron Kovic." This parade is not like the ones of his childhood however. Kovic and Eddie wave at the crowd, but it seems that the crowd is neither waving nor applauding but rather just standing there and watching Eddie and Kovic as if they were ghosts. Kovic is confused by the difference between his experience and his expectation; no one is shouting or clapping as he thought they would be, like they did at his Little League games. Instead, "he couldn't help but feel like he was some kind of animal in a zoo or that he and Eddie were on display in some trophy case."
The ceremony starts with a fervent declaration from the tall commander, his voice shaking as he bellows into the microphone, pointing at Kovic and Eddie: "We have to win … because of them!" But Kovic and Eddie, the focal points of this parade, are silent and not allowed to speak. Kovic is spotted by his childhood friend Tommy Law, another wounded Marine, and the two friends embrace each other and cry. A crowd gathers around the tearful reunion. Kovic notices that Tommy has the same hairline scar he used to see on the vegetative patients in the VA hospital. Tommy wheels Kovic away from the parade and the two friends go to the American Legion bar, where the older veterans approach them, wanting to share war stories. They leave the bar and go through the old neighborhood, amazed they are back together again, still alive.
The narrative shifts back to first person for two pages as Kovic thinks of his tangible manhood, the beauty of women he is noticing on the beach, and the frustrating fact that he will never again have sex. There is a shift back to third person, with several scenes at Arthur's Bar. Kovic spends a lot of time at Arthur's and is quickly becoming an alcoholic. He makes a spectacle of himself one night, getting so intoxicated that he urinates in the backseat of someone's car. After his father cleans him up and puts him to bed, Kovic feels "lost, more lost than he had ever been in his life."
After a section break, the perspective remains third person, but the setting shifts to Mexico. Kovic, in search of relief and relaxation, has come to a place called Village of the Sun, a resort for the wounded. He hears there are whorehouses that can cater to paralyzed men like him. In Mexico, Kovic travels around the city of Las Fuentes in cabs and in his wheelchair. When he decides to visit a prostitute, the first one runs from the room crying when he tells her he is paralyzed. The second one creates a positive experience for Kovic, and he visits many more whorehouses until there is a fight at one of them with his paralyzed friend, Charlie. Kovic returns to New York with a somewhat more focused sense to his life, determined to walk again using braces. He registers for college classes and moves into an apartment, but two weeks into the semester he snaps his right thigh bone while exercising, and he has to go back to a VA hospital for the next six months.
Again, Kovic's VA hospital experience is nightmarish, like "being in a prison." Bitter orderlies, arrogant and callous medical professionals, and outdated equipment exemplify the inadequate treatment that veterans received upon returning injured from war. The disdain that Kovic, as a soldier, initially felt for anti-war protestors starts to dwindle as he begins to question the significance of his two tours in Vietnam. If the government could treat him with such contempt in the hospital, then why had he lost so much for his seemingly ungrateful country? With the death of four student protesters at a Kent State anti-war demonstration in the spring of 1970, while Kovic is still trying to re-enter the mainstream by taking college courses and appearing professional, he suddenly has a feeling he had not sensed since the death of President Kennedy. "I remember saying to myself," Kovic writes, "The whole thing is coming down now." After witnessing a local protest, he is compelled to join his cousin Ginny's husband, Skip, at a huge anti-war moratorium in Washington, D.C. The scene turns ugly when police confront the crowd with billy clubs and tear gas canisters. The government's moral authority finally crumbles for Kovic:
The demonstration had stirred something in my mind that would be there from now on…. There was a togetherness…. In the war we were killing and maiming people. In Washington on that Saturday afternoon in May we were trying to heal them and set them free.
The final section of this chapter shifts to an inner monologue that Kovic has as he and his fellow veteran, Bobby Muller, are giving a talk to a high school audience. Kovic compares the scene to the day the Marine Recruiter came to speak at his high school. He remembers his shiny shoes and firm handshake, and every imaginable dream of military glory still in sight. As he sits, waiting for his turn to address the audience, Kovic considers the possibility that things might have been very different for him if, on that day, he had seen someone like himself, "a guy in a wheelchair." In the last sentence, Kovic nervously wheels himself to the lectern and begins telling the crowd about conditions at the VA Hospital.
Kovic relocates to California, going on speaking tours wherever people want to hear his story. He attends meetings of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), and makes appearances on their behalf. At one such appearance, actor Donald Sutherland reads from Dalton Trumbo's anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. The reading has such a profound effect on Kovic that he pushes himself onto the stage and reads one of his own poems. The response is over-whelming, and schools and civil groups call him after his appearance, asking for him to come and speak.
After this moment, Kovic's total transformation into activist seems complete, both in his eyes and in those of the public: "Every chance I had to get my broken body on the tube or in front of an audience I went hog wild." There is however, an obsessive element to his activism and he eventually alienates his inner circle with his zeal. Though he is finding success and fulfillment, there are still some aspects about his war experiences that he shares with no one, such as "the ambush in the village and the dead children laying on the ground."
During a demonstration outside the Nixon re-election headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, police wheel Kovic away from the protest, beat him, and lock him up with other protesters. Despite his disability and no matter how much he proclaims that he has been in the war, there is no mercy extended in his case. "You should have died over there," one of the arresting officers tells him. Yet, the police who have detained him express an ambivalence about Kovic and the war. Kovic notes that he "can see the fear in their faces. They have just beaten up a half-dead man, and they know it." They admit to Kovic that they too were against the war.
At a speech in Compton, Kovic meets Helen, a single mother of two who falls in love with him. The relationship, however, is fraught with confusion and fear. Afraid of the intimacy, Kovic flees to New York, but he then relents in his loneliness and proposes to Helen. It is clear, though, that their relationship is doomed and that Kovic is simply going through the motions. It is not long before Kovic gets nauseous at the thought of the relationship and leaves Helen for good. He retreats to a bitter and angry period of isolation.
Kovic is with a large group of protesters as they make their way through the southern states on the way to the Miami Republican Convention in the summer of 1972, to protest President Nixon's possible re-election. Kovic begins to feel guilt due to a retrieved memory, and he thinks that he could have prevented the death of a corporal.
Kovic manages to get himself on the convention floor and is surrounded by Nixon supporters wearing "Four More Years!" buttons. He hopes to yell loud enough in the direction of CBS anchor Walter Cronkite to get some airtime. Reporter Roger Mudd speaks with Kovic, much to the chagrin of White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler. Other veterans, Bobby Muller and Bill Wieman, gain access to the convention floor in hopes of being heard. Kovic and his companions disrupt Nixon's acceptance speech, but are quickly drowned out by Nixon's supporters and locked out of the convention hall after being hauled outside by Secret Service agents. Although Kovic and his companions are able to confront Nixon, they do not get any airtime and the president's supporters are outraged at their presence. One of them spits on Kovic's face, calling him a traitor: "'I served two tours of duty in Vietnam!' I screamed to one newsman. 'I gave three-quarters of my body for America! And what do I get? Spit in the face!'"
The final chapter begins with a third-person perspective, a flashback to the war, thus coming full-circle from the beginning of the memoir. The details of Kovic's war experience are finally revealed to the reader: Kovic accidentally killed an American corporal in the confusion of a firefight and has been racked with guilt since "[t]he good guys weren't supposed to kill the good guys." The sympathetic response of his superior officers does nothing to assuage Kovic's guilt. Thinking the only way to redeem himself is to prove his heroism with combat zeal, he welcomes the opportunity to lead a scouting team.
Kovic's guilt is exacerbated however, when his unit, under the direction of a commanding officer, ambushes the enemy in a village while on patrol. After opening fire on a hut, they discover they have in fact wounded and killed a number of children and old men. This event, as well as the realization that there were no guns in the village, as the lieutenant had thought, and that their confidence was entirely misplaced, cause the men of the unit to begin to break down. The lieutenant screams at his unit:
You men! You men have got to start listening to me. You gotta stop crying like babies and start acting like marines!… You're men, not babies. It's all a mistake. It wasn't your fault. They got in the way. Don't you people understand—they got in the … way!
Images of death are now all too commonplace for Kovic and his fellow soldiers. The situation begins to overwhelm Kovic as he realizes that there is no heroism in these two events. He begins "taking all sorts of crazy chances" in a misguided effort to go home a hero without actually being killed. All the while, he is terrified of the war and haunted by the deaths of the corporal and the villagers.
In the final section of the book, Kovic returns to the moment when he is wounded, with which he started his memoir. The battalion is gearing up for a serious offensive after a lull in combat activity. Kovic and his unit are chastised for being in sloppy formation and carelessly not wearing their helmets. Since these things had not mattered much for quite some time, everyone begins to feel an incredible foreboding about the patrol. For Kovic though, one thing is certain: "No matter what happened out there, I thought to myself, I could never retreat. I had to be courageous." He is determined to show true courage and make up for past mistakes.
In an attack that miscalculated the enemy's strength, Kovic's unit is "raked by mortars and heavy machine-gun fire." The attack shatters the image on the field moments before, of Kovic's unit "armed to the teeth, walking in a sweeping line toward the village. It was beautiful, just like the movies." The narrative seamlessly shifts again from first to third person as Kovic recounts the moment he is shot: "All I could feel was the worthlessness of dying right here in this place at this moment for nothing."
The final pages of the memoir remind the reader of Kovic's idealized and romantic childhood of Westerns, Little League, and Mickey Mantle. Appearing italicized, it is a great contrast to the shattering events of the pages immediately before. This recollection is the stylized rhetoric of Americana that Kovic grew up with—the boy who had fireworks on the birthday he shares with his country. The final words of this section, however, are not italicized. They are in normal print, and portray the return of reality: "It was all sort of easy. It had all come and gone."
The memoir's postscript is a copy of a letter sent to Kovic's parents by Lt. General L. W. Walt. It expresses the deep gratitude, respect, and admiration that Lt. Walt has for Kovic. The letter reinforces the fact that Kovic is indeed an honorable soldier who possesses the strength of character to make an even greater contribution to "a free and peaceful world," than the contribution he made in Vietnam.
Masculinity has long been narrowly defined in American culture, and in the mid-1960s, it came to be represented by physical prowess, bravado, control over emotions, and sexuality. Images of manliness litter Kovic's childhood: the war games that he and his friends play in the woods, the smart uniforms of the Marine Recruiters, John Wayne's confident swagger, Audie Murphy's fantastical theatrics, and the intense training of his wrestling coach and boot camp instructors that help assemble the young Kovic's conception of what makes an individual a man. And the greatest place to exhibit masculinity, it was held at the time, is on the battlefield. Manliness equates to valor in battle, strength in bravery, and stoicism in the face of the inhumanity of war.
After he is injured, Kovic agonizes over the symbol of his lost masculinity, his physical inability to have intercourse with women. Other characteristics that Kovic once considered to exhibit masculinity, however, have proven to be false. Like Tim O'Brien's soldiers in the short story "The Things They Carried," the image of masculinity compels the soldiers in Kovic's unit to feign bravado in the fear of combat in Vietnam. When they break down into sobs after accidentally killing a hut full of children, the lieutenant commands them to act like "men, not babies." As a paraplegic who has seen the cold comfort that manliness offers, Kovic's inability to reproduce these notions of masculinity that are reinforced by the wider society, allows him to create new forms of manliness.
In the wake of his life-changing injury, Kovic is able to redefine what it means to be a man. As bravery on the battlefield earned him nothing but paralysis and pain, he comes to see bravery on the home front as a true measure of a man. Speaking on behalf of a new ideal and working on behalf of peace becomes the new definition of manliness for Kovic, which frees him from previously held constraints. In scenes throughout the book, veterans fight for and support each other in their struggles to expose the realities of Vietnam in ways that would have been considered unmasculine before their war experiences. On several occasions, Kovic hugs veterans affectionately and cries in public. In the end, Kovic exhibits a masculinity that is much more concerned with the constant strength that generates life, not death. In his activism, Kovic's masculinity is renewed and harnessed to fight injustice.
Duty to God and Country
In Born on the Fourth of July, masculinity is closely tied to military service. For a young boy growing up in the mid-1950s, there was no question about serving God and country, especially in the victorious aftermath of World War II. War stories and television spy dramas were the staples of a diet geared towards growing American boys into future soldiers and men. Certainly, it seemed as if the world was a simple place where there were good guys and bad guys, and in this setting no one ever questioned the significance of the allied defeat of the Nazis. The same sentiments were not so easily transferred to the war in Vietnam. Yet, this was the attitude that Kovic's generation possessed upon entering the Vietnam era, buoyed by President Kennedy's words about acting in service on behalf of one's country. The memoir questions the usefulness of this unexamined loyalty that sent thousands of young men to Vietnam.
Experiencing battle and a debilitating injury force Kovic to question the extent to which he was obliged to unquestionably obey his government's call to arms. The loss of confidence in political leaders was something to which most could adjust, but the loss of a spiritual foundation—usually coupled with patriotism—often proved more difficult.
The final examination of this theme lies in the reactions of parents as their sons join and die in the military. There does not seem to have been any serious discussion for or against Kovic's decision to join the Marines. Kovic's father was present when he enlisted, yet does not seem to have overtly supported or opposed his son's decision. After Kovic is injured, his family's presence is felt, but there is no strong condemnation of the war, the military, or the government. In fact, they aid Kovic in a very silent and honorable way. Their view of the military and patriotism would have been a very influential part of Kovic's upbringing and perhaps the memoir indicates that there ought to have been a more loudly expressed opinion on the part of parents.
In the eyes of many during the 1960s, protest was the opposite of patriotism. Patriots unswervingly supported the president and the troops, while traitors questioned the government and demanded answers. As the war progressed into the 1970s, the tension between war supporters and anti-war protestors became stronger. As a Marine, it seemed an insult to Kovic and his fellow soldiers that people were demonstrating against their efforts and their risks in Vietnam. It also did not help that these people seemed to be fringe elements of society, such as student activists and hippies. However, even after Kovic had endured harsh condition in VA treatment centers and had felt his own marginalization after returning from his tour, it took the deaths of four student protesters at Kent State in May 1970 to cause Kovic to consider activism on behalf of the anti-war movement. The memoir presents the subculture of activism and examines the power that protest has to change national and foreign policy. The tension between the opposing war factions comes to a head on the floor of the Republican National Convention, when Kovic gets spit on in the face by a Nixon supporter who calls him a traitor.
The Vietnam War
The French, who had a long history of involvement and colonization in Indochina, were defeated by the Vietnamese at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. This victory ended French occupation, and divided the country of Vietnam in two—the communist North and the anti-communist South—sparking a civil war. As part of the United States's cold war policy of containment, which aimed to prevent the spread of communism, the United States supported South Vietnam. The North was supported by China and East Germany, and led by Ho Chi Minh.
President Kennedy began the U.S. involvement in Vietnam with a small number of troops. However, after the controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident on July 27, 1964, in which U.S. airmen mistakenly thought they were under attack from North Vietnamese forces, President Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which elevated the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam and essentially started the war. With over half a million troops committed at the height of U.S. involvement, generals and government officially repeatedly emphasized American dominance over the North. However, the Tet Offensive of January 30, 1968, illustrated otherwise, as the North Vietnamese army attacked nearly every city in South Vietnam to the surprise of U.S. forces. The war continued to escalate; many soldiers were required to serve involuntary second tours; and opposition to the war gathered public support.
Over the next decade, thousands of American troops were killed or injured, and little progress appeared to be made against the North. Under President Nixon in 1970–71, the United States extended the war to neighboring Cambodia and Laos. In the face of rising anti-war sentiment at home, Nixon steadily reduced the number of troops in Vietnam, and in 1973, signed the Paris Peace Accords, which ended the war and called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. In 1974, Congress cut all funding to the South Vietnamese government in Saigon, leaving them without an ally against the North. The North marched into South Vietnam, taking all major cities. The U.S. embassy evacuated its staff on April 30, 1975, and Saigon fell to the North that day.
Vietnam was reunified into one communist country under the name Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with Hanoi, the former capital of North Vietnam, as its capital city. The Vietnam War is the longest war in U.S. history, lasting eleven years.
The Anti-War Movement
Opposition to the war began early on college campuses, as many of the men drafted to fight in Vietnam were college aged. In 1965, the first organized burning of draft cards was held. The burning of draft cards, along with draft dodging and conscientious objection, became symbols of the opposition, as individuals refused to participate in what they considered an unjust war.
As troop involvement increased, the anti-war movement did as well. President Johnson increased the number of troops and bombings in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, and protesters became more vocal in their opposition. In October 1967, protesters led the March on the Pentagon, hoping to besiege the national symbol of military might, a move that strengthened the national anti-war movement and ultimately weakened Johnson's presidency. By 1968, less than a quarter of American citizens supported Johnson's war decisions. Demonstrations were held across the country, and were often televised, which allowed protesters to get their message out to a large audience. The hand gesture that had meant victory in World War II—holding up two fingers in a V shape—was repurposed by protesters as a peace sign.
On October 15, 1969, a National Moratorium was held in Washington, D.C., and across the country in which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took part in local and national demonstrations against the war. A second moratorium was held on November 15. Anti-war sentiment began to build amongst the troops as well, with many soldiers wearing peace signs on their uniforms. Veterans returning from the war, such as Ron Kovic, were vocal in their opposition, and formed a group known as VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War).
The United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, sparking protests across the nation. At a protest at Kent State University in Ohio, four students were killed by the National Guard. The nation was outraged, and over one hundred colleges went on strike in response. Nixon, overwhelmed by the national anti-war sentiment, agreed to withdraw fifty thousand troops. By the end of 1970, U.S. involvement in Vietnam began to dwindle, but the war would not end for another five years.
Many historians and scholars believe that the anti-war movement had a direct effect on the outcome of the Vietnam War, ultimately turning public opinion against it. Additionally, it is suggested that the anti-war movement had detrimental effects on both Johnson's and Nixon's presidencies. The movement is often cited as an example of how the American people can have an effect on government policy and proceedings. Though there was occasional violence, the anti-war movement was overall a peaceful one.
The standards by which critics approached Born on the Fourth of July upon its publication seem different from the usual reviews given to memoirs or first-person accounts. Most critics took into consideration that the book was not the product of a trained writer with literary aspirations or pretensions. That said, the consensus was clear that Ron Kovic had produced a powerful and, in many regards, timeless war classic. Published as it was just a year after the end of the war, the book was lauded for its honesty and forthright portrayal of a young man and his country caught up in uncontrollable situations. Donald C. Galbasini's review in the October 1977 issue of the American Bar Association Journal, calls Born on the Fourth of July "a very readable story of what war does to human beings." Galbasini also cites Kovic as a "one-time hawk [turned] antiwar dove," thereby reflecting the thematic tension of the memoir.
It should be noted however, that there is still not much significant critical work on the memoir, especially when compared with the criticism on the Oliver Stone film adaptation of the book. Although the regular questions of adaptation were raised, and the film did have some differences from the book, it still remained true to the text—especially since Kovic co-wrote the script and worked closely with Stone. In an interview with Accent on Living, Kovic recalls that there was interest in adapting his memoir to film very soon after it was published in 1976. Of the film, Stuart Klawans in the Nation says that it, like the book, "has the urgency of truth told—or screamed—against a deafening Muzak of lies." Klawans adds, "the film wants to shout down the sentimentalization of the Vietnam War, the sweet-talk about national healing, [and] most of all the current pieties of the war's veterans." Like Klawans, most critics praised the gritty reality of the film and its depiction of the courageous Kovic. The memoir's triumph was indisputable in 1989, when Oliver Stone turned it into a major motion picture starring Tom Cruise.
Alan Murdock's review of the Akashic Books reprint of Born on the Fourth of July (2005) on the anti-war website, Invisible Insurrection.com, brings up some interesting issues. In his ability to move beyond the initial parameters of criticism on the book, Murdock is able to ask important questions of Kovic in hindsight:
Does [Kovic] consider there to be a just conflict, or do all wars fall within this model of harm? If his idealism had been rewarded with a clear enemy, a clear objective, and a clear victory, would the reality of war be different?
These questions are not necessarily a pointed criticism or attack on Kovic's integrity, but they serve to put the book and its author under the critical eye of a twenty-first-century perspective. In a post-September 11 world, can there still be justifiable reasoning to fervently anti-war sentiments? Does the government have to be more careful about the way it deploys the military in a world that knows of the mistakes of Vietnam? It remains dangerous to affix contemporary sentiments and perspectives on any book that is so clearly of its time and place, but Murdock's review deserves consideration when absorbing the impact Born on the Fourth of July has had, and continues to have, on the reading public.
In the following excerpt, Shor explores how the myths of patriotism and masculinity led thousands of Cold-War era young men, including Kovic, into the Vietnam War and how they managed to break free of those myths through antiwar activitism.
Born on the Fourth of July was released in an abridged audio version on cassette. It was published by Caedmon and is narrated by Ron Kovic. It is available from Audiobooks.com.
The film adaptation of Born on the Fourth of July (1989), was directed by Oliver Stone, and the screenplay was co-written by Kovic. Tom Cruise plays Kovic, and the film garnered critical acclaim and numerous awards, including two Academy Awards and four Golden Globes. The movie is available on VHS and DVD from Universal Studios Home Video.
"Myths," contends cultural historian Richard Slotkin, "are stories drawn from a society's history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society's ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness—with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness may contain." In Ron Kovic's searing autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July, he confronts those myths that structured his life growing up in a working-class suburb of Cold War America and led him to the war in Vietnam as a gung-ho Marine. Revealing the symbolizing power of the patriotic ideology of the period, Kovic's narrative embodies both a personal and collective story of the conscious and unconscious authority of a variety of myths. In coming to terms with how those myths created an illusory and innocent persona, Born on the Fourth of July traces in non-linear fashion the disillusionment of a starry-eye young man. Resonant of testimonies from other Vietnam veterans, Kovic's journey traverses a "landscape" that, from the perspective of John Hellman's study of the myths of the Vietnam legacy, "is an awful inversion of American assumptions and values—a nightmare version of the landscapes of previous American myth."
In following Ron Kovic's flight to escape the nightmare of myths that haunted his passage into the history of the Vietnam War era, this paper will underscore the development and transcendence of those myths. In particular, by highlighting those moments in Born on the Fourth of July where patriotic and military myths created compelling and contradictory consciousness that armored and eventually wounded Ron Kovic, one can better understand how, in Slotkin's terms, "myths reach out of the past to cripple, incapacitate, or strike down the living." While crippled by those patriotic arid military myths, Kovic's transfiguration by the end of his narrative suggests an alternative consciousness to patriotic militarized masculinity. Kovic's autobiographical voyage thus becomes an example of Sam Keen's understanding of how individuals achieve freedom and authenticity by demythologizing and demystifying "the authority or myth that has unconsciously informed … (one's) life."
Kovic's consciousness of his patriotic heritage was rooted in being born on the fourth of July. "Being born on the exact same day as my country I thought was really great. I was so proud." The military and mythological components of that patriotic pride were part of a Saturday ritual that included watching war movies with John Wayne and Audie Murphy and then attempting to re-enact the adventures of their all-American heroes. "We turned the woods into a battlefield. We set ambushes, then led gallant attacks, storming over the top, bayoneting and shooting anyone who got in our way. Then we'd walk out of the woods like the heroes we knew we would become when we were men." As noted by Christian Appy, the "celebration of military culture so central to many WWII movies and enacted in childhood games undoubtedly played an important role in shaping a glorified view of war among many young boys of the Vietnam generation."
Kovic's march to militarized masculinity was also inevitably connected to the celebratory myths of Cold War America in its struggles to defeat communism around the globe. Watching "I Led Three Lives" on television in the 1950s led Kovic to recall "how brave he was, putting his life on the line for his country, making believe he was a Communist, and all the time being on our side, getting information from them so we could keep the Russians from taking over our government." Bombarded by media images that reinforced an anti-Communist ideology and perpetuated the myth of a noble and generous America, both Kovic and the country would go to Vietnam "believing it was a replay on a smaller scale of World War II: a struggle to defend democracy against aggression, which we surely would win, not only because we were more powerful but because the right was clearly on our side."
Kovic's desire to join the Marines was not only an obsession of the pumped-up young warrior-in-training, but also an aspect of the mythologizing that Marine recruiters conveyed to the impressionable Kovic in high school. "The Marines," exclaimed a Marine recruiter, "have been first in everything, first to fight and first to uphold the honor of our country … There is nothing finer, nothing prouder, than a United States Marine." Relying once again on a mechanistic approach to body and mind, the recruiters asserted that "the Marine Corps built men." Responding viscerally to the call. Kovic's enlistment reflected the patriotic and militarized conditioning of body and mind reflected in Sam Keen's observation that "(e)very man is 'the Manchurian candidate,' a hypnotized agent of the state waiting to be called into active service by the bugle call of 'Duty,' 'Honor,' 'Patriotism.'"
The section in Born on the Fourth of July on Kovic's basic training in the Marines brings into sharp focus the ideological and mythological components of a patriotic militarized masculinity. Utilizing the passive voice to accentuate how he was being shaped into an instrument of punitive agency, Kovic comments: "They were driving him and pushing him and shoving him, screaming and bullying him through this whole crazy thing." Calling recruits "babies," "ladies," and "maggots," Kovic refers to the constant "cursing" that followed the recruits throughout basic training and underscored the misogynist and homophobic derision with which the drill instructors bombarded the recruits. As Appy notes in his study of basic training experiences for working-class recruits, "(w)omen and gays were referred to interchangeably as the epitome of all that is cowardly, passive, untrustworthy, unclean, and undisciplined."
Going into the Vietnam War, soldiers like Kovic were indoctrinated with the belief that they were on a noble mission. Yet that mission from its outset was steeped in the ideology of anti-Communist interventionism and the mythologies of American military an technocratic triumphalism. Playing out the frontier myths of "cowboys and Indians," U.S. ground troops found it difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate the "good guys" from the "bad." For Kovic, such difficulties in the mission were reflected in the following:
He remembered how difficult it had been when he had first come to the war to tell the villagers from the enemy and sometimes it had seemed easier to hate all of them, but he had always tried very hard not to. He wished he could be sure they understood that he and the men were there because they were trying to help all of them save their country from the Communists.
Kovic's ultimate sacrifice, nonetheless, was undertaken with both bravado and guilt. When he is hit by a bullet, his initial thoughts are that "I was getting out of the war and I was going to be a hero." However, when the next bullet smashes into his body, severing his spinal cord, he loses all feeling in his body. Reflecting afterwards that "the wound is my punishment for killing the corporal and the children," Kovic only slowly begins to realize that all the armoring and mythologizing that constituted his patriotic militarized masculinity had been fatally pierced. Transcending both the wound and the myths of patriotic militarized masculinity would require additional trauma and eventual transfiguration.
The wound that left Ron Kovic a cripple was intimately bound up with those myths that "reach out of the past to cripple." Yet, those myths of patriotic militarized masculinity would not be confronted until his paralysis of body and mind were further subjected to the crises surrounding the continuing Vietnam War. Among those crises were his own personal struggle over the loss of masculinist sexuality and mobility and the political battle that was part of what one historian of the domestic impact of the Vietnam War has called "The War Within." From the harsh and harrowing portrayal of hospital conditions for Vietnam veterans to his activism as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kovic fought that war within as a transfigured warrior.
In a torrent of self-loathing and self-pity, Kovic acknowledges the trauma caused by his condition:
I am twenty-one and the whole thing is shot, done forever … and now I am left with the corpse, the living dead man, the man with the numb legs, the man in the wheelchair, the Easter Seal boy, the cripple, the sexlessman, the sexlessman, the man with the numb dick, the man who can't make children, the man who can't stand, the man who can't walk, the angry lonely man, the bitter man with the nightmares, the murder man, the man who cries in the shower.
Beyond the broken-down body, Kovic's spirit was sorely tested by the dehumanizing conditions in the VA hospitals. The harrowing description of the filth and neglect in these hospitals is a key to the indictment against the government. At one point Kovic comments: "It never makes any sense to us how the government can keep asking for money for weapons and leave us lying in our own filth." The transformation that he undergoes from "love or leave it" patriotic to critic of the government is directly related to the dehumanization and abandonment he experiences in these hospitals. "I feel myself changing, the anger is building up in me. It has become a force I cannot control … I am lying in my own excrement and no one comes." Even his cry of "I fought in Vietnam and I've got a right to be treated decently" is contested when one hospital aide retorts: "Vietnam don't mean nothin' to me or any of these other people. You can take your Vietnam and shove it up your ass." Being made to feel like shit is part of the transformation that Kovic and other veterans make in seeing the whole war in Vietnam as a waste and beginning to protest both the conditions in the hospitals and the never-ending war.
Acknowledging that his experiences in the hospital had changed him, marking "the end or whatever belief I'd still had in what I'd done in Vietnam," his anti-war sentiments are galvanized by the news of the murder of four students at Kent State. Vowing to go to Washington to demonstrate, Kovic recounts his amazement at the sense of solidarity and carnival-like atmosphere that he observes in the capitol. But his transformation from mere observer to full participant is inflamed by an attack on the demonstrators by the police. Kovic concludes his account of the demonstration with a poignant and revealing juxtaposition: "There was a togetherness, just as there had been in Vietnam, but it was a togetherness of a different kind of people and for a much different reason. In the war we were killing and maiming people. In Washington on that Saturday afternoon we were trying to heal them and set them free."
Kovic's own healing process and his transfiguration from "a thing to put on a uniform and train to kill" into a human being who cares for others and respects himself required encountering those myths underlying patriotic militarized masculinity and engaging in a political activism aimed at healing and self-healing. As psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton noted in his case study of Vietnam Veterans, "political activism helped anti-war veterans recover from much of the emotional and psychological trauma of their wartime experience." Moreover, breaking through the myths of patriotic militarized masculinity also resulted in a form of post-traumatic stress where Kovic was forced to recognize the pain he caused others and himself in killing. Overcoming a form of "toxic masculinity," Kovic found that manhood could be measured by your care for others and respect for yourself.
Source: Fran Shor, "Transcending the Myths of Patriotic Militarized Masculinity: Armoring, Wounding, and Transfiguration in Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July," in Journal of Men's Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring 2000, p. 375.
Galbasini, Donald C., Review of Born on the Fourth of July, in the American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 63, No. 10, October 1977, pp. 1440-42.
Klawans, Stuart, Movie Review of Born on the Fourth of July, in the Nation, Vol. 250, No. 1, January 1, 1990, pp. 28-31.
Kovic, Ron, Born on the Fourth of July, Akashic Books, 2005; originally published by Pocket Books, 1976.
Murdock, Alan, Review of Born on the Fourth of July, Invisible Insurrection, www.invisibleinsurrection.org (May 26, 2005).
"Not a Pretty Picture," in Accent on Living, Vol. 34, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 68-76.
"Born on the Fourth of July." Literary Themes for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/born-fourth-july-0
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