So all that had to be heroes,
Went off to do their chores,
None of them really would have known,
How far a bloody war goes,
They’re dying to make it home.
— Garry Frost, “Compulsory Hero” (1988)
She kisses my lips softly at first, then puts her tongue into my mouth. I am running my hands through her hair and she tells me she loves that. She is unbuttoning my trousers now and her small hand is working itself deep down into my pants
Ron Kovic is fantasizing. The woman he describes as “so pretty, so warm” does not exist, at least not in his bed at that moment. He’s conjuring her to escape his recent reality; that of his brand new status as an injured soldier in a VA hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. No matter how hard he tries, though, he can’t sustain his reverie. Not, that is, with a big, loud orderly screaming at him: “Kovic! I have an enema for you!”
Kovic’s attempts to dream himself out of his own story with images beauty and love become all to familiar when reading his 1976 memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, freshly reissued by Akashic Books complete with a new introduction by the author. The reading experience here is so raw and so utterly horrific at times, that the desire to put it down and pick up just about anything else to forget it can be overwhelming. But that’s the point. The story is desperate, it’s harrowing, and in light of current events, it’s as timely now as it was when it first arrived.
The book reads almost exactly how it was written — in a stream of consciousness style (in just over a month) by a writer whose life almost depends on the words therapeutically reaching the paper. The reader can’t help but move along the sentences quickly, no matter how jarring the content. Take this excerpt:
That’s not fair! I want it back! They have taken it, they have robbed it, my penis will never get hard anymore. I didn’t even have time to learn how to enjoy it and now it is gone, it is dead, it is as numb as the rest of me… It is over with. Gone. Gone for America. I have given it for democracy. I have given my dead swinging dick for America. I have given my numb young dick for democracy. Nobody ever told me I was going to come back from this war without a penis. But I am back and my head is screaming now and I don’t know what to do.
It’s as if Kovic is furiously attempting, as he writes, to find reason for life after Vietnam, unsure of whether or not he will succeed, or if success is even possible. And the reader moves with him, eager to find out, too. Even with this haste, the book is remarkably well structured. Early on, Kovic’s narrative shifts back and forth between Vietnam and his childhood and teenage years in Massapequa, New York, discussing burned and broken soldiers alongside him in hospital before moving on to baseball dreams and pretty girls. Later, upon his return to the US, he juxtaposes his war experience with his attempts to fit into American life, to find a peer group, and reconnect with his family.
In effect, it becomes clear that the war and Kovic’s experiences affect every part of his life, including his pre-war years as a boy raised on war films, trained almost, to respect his country and its government without question. “I’ll never forget Audie Murphy,” he says, “ on top of a flaming tank that’s just about to explode… He was so brave I have chills running up and down my back, wishing it were me up there.”
These juxtapositions are the book’s strength — when Kovic writes about this movie star heroism and images of JFK on his TV screen asking “what you can do for your country”, he has already presented the reader with emotional and unrelenting descriptions of abuse by Marine sergeants, his treatment as a lifeless, voiceless thing in a dilapidated VA hospital with no money, no supplies, and employees unequipped to deal with the emotional stresses of war wounded. Similarly, when he talks about attempting to connect with friends and family, he discusses his involvement in murdering Vietnamese civilians and the fact that he may well have killed one of his own fellow officers by mistake.
Kovic’s non-linear technique helps the reader better understand his own personal shift from an idealistic patriot to a bitter “puppet with all his strings cut”, to man with a mission to make changes in the country he loves. As Kovic’s opinions evolve and dramatically change, so do the reader’s. His style allows the reader to understand his reaction to war from all angles — his hero-loving childhood driving his motivation to go to war, through his realization that his government is fallible, to his decision to do something about it.
Kovic’s book rationalizes the war problem. He raises concerns about veterans left voiceless following service, about the government’s failure to adequately provide for them. He talks about human frailty, about the inability of non-soldiers to understand the military life, and, in turn, the healthy to understand the wounded. He examines the fear behind this incomprehension, presenting himself not as a guy in need of sympathy, but as a man who knows first hand the futility of military combat. In the end, though, he’s not exactly forgiving, but he is accepting (of him situation, not the war), and his summation of war’s affect on him 30-odd years later is simple and stirring: “I saw firsthand what our government’s terrible policy had wrought. I endured; I survived and understood. The one gift I was given in that war was an awakening. No one will ever again be my enemy ”