Born On The Fourth Of July (Book Review): Vivid Memories, No Answers
The new book Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic will bring back a lot of memories to veterans, especially those of us who served in Indochina. Powerfully written, the book takes us through the author's early life, boot camp, Vietnam, rotten VA hospitals, and a short, peripheral visit in the anti-war movement where Kovic belonged to VVAW.
The book is written entirely from the perspective of the author and from his experiences, and we can relate too many of those experiences, the book never goes beyond these personal glimpses. Nowhere do we find a thread that points to the reason for Vietnam, nowhere do we come away with the understanding of why we were sent halfway around the world to bleed and kill, and were then dumped back into a system that would as soon as not have seen us die overseas.
The problem is not that there aren't experiences in the book to bring this out. In chapter after chapter our memories are jarred and emotions enflamed. On the war: "I felt that everything from my chest down was completely gone. I wanted to die. I threw my hand back and felt my legs still there. I couldn't feel them, but they were still there. I was still alive. And for some reason I started believing, I started believing that I might not die. I might make it out of there and live and feel and go back home again. I could hardly breathe and was taking little short sucks with the one lung I had left. The blood was rolling off my flack jacket from the hole in my shoulder, and I couldn't feel the pain in my foot anymore, I couldn't even feel my body. I was frightened to death. I didn't think about praying, all I could feel was cheated.
"All I could feel was the worthlessness of dying right here, in this place, for nothing."
On VA Hospitals: "The walls are almost as dirty as the floors and I cannot even see out of the window... I push the call button again and again. No one comes. I am lying in my own excrement and no one comes. I begin shouting and screaming..I have been screaming for almost an hour when one of the aides walks by."
The American Legion: "They (Kovic and another disabled vet named Ed) sat together watching the big crowd and listening to one speaker after another, including the town dignitaries; each one spoke very beautiful words about sacrifice and patriotism and God...but he kept thinking of all the things that had happened to him and now he wondered why he and Eddie hadn't even been given the chance to speak."
The police at an anti-war demonstration: "there is a tremendous commotion all around me. Someone is kicking the dead part of my body that can't feel anymore..."I'm a Vietnam veteran! Don't you know what you are doing to me? Kicking me and hitting me with their fists, they begin dragging me along. They tear the medals I have won in the war from my chest...The red-haired man throws my body into the back seat, my dead limbs flopping underneath me. "Get in there you fucking traitor."
By the end of the book one is shaken but left with no better understanding than when he started. Why did all of this happen? Was it all a mistake? Was his experience an isolated one? Maybe it's just an insane world where nothing makes any sense.
That's the problem with the book. The reason for it is that Kovic sees individual incidents but never sees them as a part of a whole, doesn't connect them with the overall pattern of his life or the lives and experiences of other vets or of the veterans organizations he belonged to. Vets have in fact learned something from the war and from our experiences afterwards, both fighting against the war and fighting for a better life in the civilian world.
Like the author a lot of us went into the service out of patriotism, a sense of pride in our country, a genuine desire to be on the front line defending "freedom." But we learned that "those beautiful words" were used to cover some not so pretty realities. Liberty didn't mean people being able to live their lives in peace in Vietnam. It meant liberty for the capitalists of this country to rip off Vietnam. The "pursuit of happiness" is more like the pursuit of profits. And as for "life," well, they would have given our lives as well as the lives of the Vietnamese in the pursuit of profits and their liberty to plunder the world.
When we came home, we ran into the police, the butcher shop hospitals, the "patriots" ready to glory in our blood. But what was happening did not remain a mystery. The police were used to stop us just like we were used to put down the Indochinese people. With guns and clubs the police defended they system of the rich in America as we had done with guns and napalm in Vietnam.
There is no profit in VA hospital. So it's no surprise that we who were no more than cannon fodder should be thrown on the trash heap when we are no longer good for any profit.
Yes, we saw and we learned that we were no more than a piece of toilet paper to be used and then flushed away. Yet this book draws no conclusions, points no accusing finger, and that is why it is being pushed. It is a well written book that tells the truth about the experiences of Vietnam veterans. Vets of that war wouldn't buy any John Wayne cover over our real life experiences. So the rich come up with an accurate description of those experiences and hope that we will either feel bad and just try to forget it, or feel bad and not tie it all together.
There's another reason this book is being pushed, and that is because of its author. The rich have used him in their war but to try to misdirect the struggle of veterans. In 1974 VVAW called a national demonstration in Washington, DC, to demand Universal, unconditional Amnesty; End the War in Indochina; Kick Nixon Out, and Decent Benefits for All Vets! Kovic tried to organize his own group and received the backing of almost every politician from Goldwater to Kennedy in his attempt to sabotage the VVAW demonstration. He began his "demonstration" on the same day to steal the press and, while thousands of people from VVAW were battling the police just to be able to march, Kovic and his 90 people were trying to beg Nixon for sympathy.
Kovic's group went out of existence after his demonstration; VVAW went on to demand a better life not only for vets but for all working people, pointing our finger at that rich, capitalist class that uses us again and again in their factories for profit and in their wars to protect and expand those profits.
The book is selling well and a movie is planned. We'll read the book and probably see the movie. We'll take it for what it is worth and remember. But we won't just shed a tear and feel bad. We'll take those memories, those experiences, those emotions, and turn them against the system that uses us and then throws us away.