My mother received a phone call the other day from an online friend of hers. Her husband, who had served in the Navy in Vietnam and been stationed on a boat patrolling through clouds of Agent Orange. Every year, he went back to the Veteran’s Administration for his yearly physical. Every year he was told that he was “fine”. This year something was different.
The cynic in me thinks that the doctor was new and probably didn’t know the “party line”. He immediately brought him back for more tests and then delivered the bad news. His lungs were in such bad shape from the exposure to Agent Orange and who knows what else that he probably only has a year to live.
I’d like to say I was surprised. I’d like to say that I believe the V.A. missing something like over the years is an isolated case, but I can’t. I had only finished reading Ron Kovic’s book Born on the Fourth of July a week before, and immediately I made the connection.
Ron Kovic was the all-American boy. He was born and brought up to be patriotic; to think it noble to serve one’s country; to think that dying while fighting for his country was truly an honor. He believed this so much that as soon as he turned seventeen, he had his father go with him to the recruiting center in Levittown, NY where he signed up for the Marines.
It’s important to know all of this, because he’s not some kid who’s reluctant to go off to war and ends up drafted to a place he doesn’t want to be. Instead, he is someone who believes in his country and has blind faith in his government.
His disillusionment began in boot camp. I could hear the unease in his narrative as he describes what the recruits went through. He never comes out and says it, but I think he wonders what the purpose is to the verbal abuse hurled at them. At times, I think I understand; that discipline has to be ingrained in these men. At times, I also think what he’s subjected to is a bit over the top.
Kovic is sent off to Vietnam. He comes home in a wheelchair. His body is shattered by a bullet and he can no longer feel anything below his waist.
Where the film couldn’t possibly delve into some of the ways Kovic felt demeaned physically, here he spares no detail He talks at length about the catheter he must use for the rest of his life and what it’s like to have to go around with that bag attached to you. He rails against the unfairness of never being able to have sex in quite graphic terms. He describes in great detail the bathing process at the V.A. hospital, a place that is filthy with poor equipment.
It’s not an uplifting book to read by any remote stretch. Kovic made me angry that the people it sends off to war get such a raw deal when they return, with their bodies broken. Yes, let’s celebrate their heroics in the street and hand them medals and commemorations, and have them march in parades, while cutting the funding for the V.A. and the benefits to the soldiers.
His evolution into anti-war protester is quite logical when you follow the sequence of events that takes place. He is an American first and foremost, but as the reality of what has happened to him – and is happening to countless other veterans across the country – collides with what he was raised to believe the truth, his views of the world change dramatically.
The book is written partially in the first person and partially as a narrative. It does jump around a bit, although I didn’t find it that hard to follow. He gives credit to Joyce Johnson as an editor, and I have the impression that she knitted together some of his notes into the narrative sequences. She did a terrific job, as through his writings I could see where he would end up rambling. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for this story, however.
He also does not seem to be asking for any special consideration for what happened to him. Kovic is simply laying out the facts. In his own way, he is stating “This is who I am. This is what I believed. This is what happened to me.” That the book is so draining emotionally is due more to the subject matter than Kovic’s actual writing.
How does the book compare to the movie by Oliver Stone? Well, I have to admit that Stone did a decent job with his adaptation. Many people want to believe that Stone’s own anti-war tendencies colored the portrayal of Kovic on the big screen. To me, it seemed as if Stone went to greater lengths to create a more sympathetic person by adding certain events. Did Kovic ever confess his sin to the family of the Georgia soldier he killed by mistake? No, but he does lament his mistake over and over again, obviously guilt ridden. Stone also portrays events sequentially, rather than how Kovic does in the book by jumping around, giving the feeling of having thoughts that haunt him. I’d give the movie a 4.5 out of 5 for sticking close to the actual story.
As if I needed any more convincing, Kovic has taught me that the benefits for American soldiers should be one thing untouchable in our government’s budget. It is the duty of every citizen to speak up and protect the benefits of those who put their lives on the line for this country, whether you agree with the reason they were put in that position or not.
To read my review of the Oliver Stone film by the same name, please see: Born on the Fourth of July
Categories: Book Reviews