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RON KOVIC, age 19, lies paralyzed in a Veteran's Administration hospital. He can feel nothing below his chest. He will never again walk nor make love to a woman: his condition is permanent and without hope. A "Yankee Doodle boy born on the Fourth of July," he had gone to Vietnam in defense of the American dream and to fight the scourge of communism. He has returned not as the conquering hero, but as a cripple, his spinal cord shattered by a volley of rifle fire. The young president's words linger in his mind, the words of the president whom he loved so much, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." He has served his country; he did not flinch; he is not a coward. Yet he is full of rage and guilt that he neither desires nor understands.
Born on the Fourth of July is Kovic's simple and moving account of his ten-year journey out of that bedridden impotence, towards a new reconciliation with life and an expiation of the Vietnam experience. In the telling, he leads us back through a Catholic working-class childhood in Massapequa, Long Island, his high school days and Marine boot camp. It is the story of the maturation of a young man who says his manhood has been "defiled." By the end, Ron Kovic is still paralyzed, but he is no cripple.
Vietnam itself is sketched sparingly, a vivid and ugly flash of memory, yet it dominates all of Kovic's thoughts and emotions, like the residual traces of a nightmare. It is the point of reference around which all else in the book revolves. His life does not seem so much to progress linearly, as centrifugally, with the Vietnam experience in the center, prefigured by his patriotic upbringing and predestining his whole future.
Born on the Fourth of July begins and ends with those sketches of Vietnam. Kovic's simple, sparse style, together with a certain personal detachment in his narration, give a chilling precision to the horrors he describes,
The attack is lifted. They are carrying me out of the hole now--two, three, four men--quickly they are strapping me to a stretcher. My legs dangle off the sides until they realize I cannot control them. "I can't move them," I say almost in a whisper. "I can't move them" ...Men are screaming all around me. "Oh God get me out of here!" "Please help!" they scream...We are moving slowly through the water, the Amtrac rocking back and forth. We cannot be brave anymore, there is no reason. It means nothing now...
Later, at the hospital, the litany of horrors goes on,
Directly across from me there is a Korean who has not even been in the war at all. The nurse says he was going to buy a newspaper when he stepped on a booby trap and it blew off both his legs and his arm. And all that is left now is this slab of meat swinging one arm crazily in the air, moaning like an animal gasping for its last bit of breath...
Kovic returns from Vietnam with still another sort of wound, equally paralyzing--a festering guilt. Vietnam was an expeditionary war, where the fighting was as confused as the moral issues. The enemy was not easily seen. Kovic carries the knowledge that he killed, although unintentionally, an American corporal and a group of Vietnamese villagers. His own body had been destroyed, and yet he had destroyed others.
Unlike the men who chose to resist the fighting, Kovic can never be graced with amnesty. His exile is permanent; it is the physical isolation of his wheelchair. America's image was sullied in Vietnam; Kovic's ruined body is the crying proof of this. He had believed that there was honor in serving one's country, and there was. But the war taught him it was in vain. He recalls in the third person,
He would give almost anything to be able to be kind to people again, but the big machine, the one that had given him the number and the rifle, had sucked it out of him forever. They had made him confused and blind with hate...How many more like him were out there hiding on a thousand other Hurricane Streets? He was a living reminder of something terrible and awful.
His only possible cure is spiritual. He has killed, but he can help stop the killing. He throws himself into the anti-war movement; he has found something his broken body can serve. A large part of the book is devoted to his activities in this direction, and Kovic succeeds well in recapturing the urgency and outcry of those years.
His efforts reach a culmination with the 1972 Republican National Convention. It is an emotional moment. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War, having converged from all over the country, assemble around the convention hall. Most are shut out, but somehow Kovic manages to enter. Enraged, near tears, he protests furiously, crying out at the awkward and indifferent Nixon delegates. "Look at me, look at your war!" The television cameras catch sight of him, Roger Mudd of CBS approaches, and for two minutes of national television all the pent up shame and rage and grief gushes out:
I served two tours of duty in Vietnam! I gave America my all and the leaders of this government threw me and the others away to rot in their V.A. hospitals. What's happening in Vietnam is a crime against humanity, and I just want the American people to know that we have come all the way across this country to let the American people themselves see the men who fought their war and come to oppose it. If you can't believe the veteran who fought the war and was wounded in the war, who can you believe?
MOST OF THE TROOPS who fought in Vietnam were like Ron Kovic, young, working class men who were either unable to obtain an exemption or, more likely, thought it an honorable or decent thing to fight willingly. The moral choice that more educated and wealthy individuals faced was whether or not to resist induction. For the most part, they did not go. Thus those who would be most prone to write of their war experiences never saw Vietnam: theirs is a literature of protest. A great silence lies over the fighting man's tour in Vietnam. It is not that we must write tragedies to know that they exist, but in a society which produces books on almost any conceivable subject, the silence on Vietnam is strange and disconcerting.
Born on the Fourth of July is an exception to this silence, and should be read. It is not brilliantly written; it is not an enduring piece of literature. A certain ideological simplicity mars what is otherwise a powerful commentary. His narrative often wanders into reminiscences that seem trivial. But precisely for these reasons, Born on the Fourth of July succeeds and is memorable. An intimate and convincing portrait of Kovic emerges: we permit him his autobiographical indulgences as well as his justified outrage. This serves to continually remind us that he is a real man choked with sincere anguish, longing to be heard, and not a literary fiction. Look at me, Kovic seems to say, and never forget the war that made me what I am.
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