"There is nothing in the lives of human beings more brutal and terrifying than war, and nothing more important than for those of us who have experienced it to share its awful truth."
Ron Kovic’s 1976 memoir, Born on the Fourth of July inspired the 1989 Academy-Award winning film of the same name, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise as Kovic. I have written about Kovic, about the book, and about the film.
Still, every Memorial Day I think about him and his experiences before, during, and after the Vietnam War. As a youth of the 1960s, the complexity of the lessons Kovic teaches about Vietnam and war are part of my being. My strong connection with him is something I am still exploring.
I thought it was time to update my blog and tell you a little more about this man.
Ron Kovic is an incredible patriot and a distinguished veteran. Kovic, now 66 years old, lives in Redondo Beach, California, where he writes, paints, plays the piano, and gardens. He says he would like to get married someday, but he has never married. And, he has never stopped his efforts to eradicate war.
On January 20, 2008, Kovic observed his 40th anniversary of having been shot and paralyzed in the Vietnam War. In March 2005, he said...
"The scar will always be there, a living reminder of that war, but it has also become something beautiful now, something of faith and hope and love. I have been given the opportunity to move through that dark night of the soul to a new shore, to gain an understanding, a knowledge, and entirely different vision. I now believe I have suffered for a reason and in many ways I have found that reason in my commitment to peace and nonviolence. My life has been a blessing in disguise, even with the pain and great difficulty that my physical disability continues to bring. It is a blessing to speak on behalf of peace, to be able to reach such a great number of people.
“I saw firsthand what our government’s terrible policy had wrought,” he continues. “I endured; I survived and understood. The one gift I was given in that war was an awakening. I became a messenger, a living symbol, an example, a man who learned that love and forgiveness are more powerful than hatred, who has learned to embrace all men and women as my brothers and sisters. No one will ever again be my enemy, no matter how hard they try to frighten and intimidate me. No government will ever teach me to hate another human being. I have been given the task of lighting a lantern, ringing a bell, shouting from the highest rooftops, warning the American people and citizens everywhere of the deep immorality and utter wrongness of this approach to solving our problems, pleading for an alternative to this chaos and madness, this insanity and brutality. We must change course.”
(Jeff Severns Guntze, "It's Veterans Day: Meet Ron Kovic All Over Again, http://theforestofthings.tumblr.com/post/1543748672/its-veterans-day-meet-ron-kovic-all-over-again#footer)
Kovic On the U.S. Fighting in Iraq
Kovic was in the thick of Iraq anti-war demonstrations before that start of the actual fighting. Then, just days before the war began, he vowed: "We will do everything we can in the streets of this country to bring the troops back immediately. We have much respect for them, and we don't want them to be used the way my generation was."
With the war in full swing, Kovic told a Los Angeles crowd of protesters: "Many of the people who are architects of the war haven't experienced war as I did. They're ... risking the lives of the beautiful men and women that are our troops. It's shameful."
The war raged on, and the day Baghdad fell, Ron Kovic, then 56, was back in the Veterans Affairs hospital for a checkup at the spinal cord injury outpatient clinic, only to find his doctor expressing worry over potential cutbacks, a situation reminiscent of spending priorities at the close of the Vietnam War. Kovic said...
"We're putting all of these millions of dollars into warfare when the disabled of our country, disabled veterans and disabled citizens, are in need. Many of them live below the poverty level. This policy of aggression, this policy of arrogance, of blindness, of recklessness, I don't think this is going to help America. I think that this behavior, which I abhor, this policy, which I strongly disagree with, is leading this country in the wrong direction."
Through all the operation in Iraq, Kovic remained a man of ideals. He confessed, "I believe in democracy an authentic democracy where all the people are represented and I want to be a part of that, I want to be a part of the continuation of that great democratic experiment. I want to expand our democracy, I want to make it more and more authentic, I want people to be encouraged to speak their minds and not to be afraid or be intimidated."
So, feeling that way, why didn't he support the military's mission to free Iraq from decades of fear and oppression by Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party? Didn't he see the inconsistency in opposing a war to "free the Iraqi people" while campaigning for a "true" democracy here in America? Here is Kovic's reply:
"No, I don't at all. I think what the military has done is sow the seeds of discontent all throughout the Middle East. I think that we really were denied a lot of what was happening during that war by our media. We weren't able to see all of the civilian wounded, the many casualties that occurred, and most of the Arab world was seeing that. This war has caused a tremendous amount of anger, a tremendous amount of rage against this country. And I'm offended by that. I'm offended by what this administration and this president have done to our name. Now they may be telling us that we're freeing the Iraqis, but I truly believe in my heart that President Bush has established with the use of brutality and force and violence a colony, an American colony in the Middle East. I think it's shameful."
(Tim Gilmer, "Ron Kovic Reborn, New Mobility,
http://archive.truthout.org/article/ron-kovic-reborn, June 23 2003)
Kovic's assessment of the Bush administration's motives did not stop with allegations of colonialism. The real prize, he said, lay beneath the desert sands. "I don't think that they will ever allow a democratic government, because a democratic government would be a direct threat to the very reason they went over there to begin with, and that is to dominate the oil, to control that region, and to literally steal the resources of that region for this administration, for the corporations and the businesses of our country. That is a crime."
Kovic On the U.S. Involvement in Afghanistan
What about Kovic's views on the continued efforts in Afghanistan? He wrote a letter to President Obama in 2009 stating the following:
"We are at a crucial turning point Mr. President and the decision you are about to make in the coming days and weeks may very well be the most important decision of your presidency... In your book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream you spoke of that time, the Sixties, admitting that you were, 'to young to fully grasp the nature of those changes, too removed to see the fallout on Americas psyche.' I write this letter to you Mr. President as both a survivor and witness to that time and someone who must live with the consequences of a decision made by our government and it's leaders four long decades ago.
"In your recent address to the VFW on August, 17, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona, you stated that the war in Afghanistan was a "war of necessity." I remember as I watched and listened to you that day wondering if you had any idea what you were getting us into, if you knew anything of Vietnam and the painful lessons I and others of my generation had learned from that war. You were three years old when I joined the Marine Corps out of high school in 1964, seven when I was shot and paralyzed in 1968, ten when I joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and began to protest against that war.
(Ron Kovic, "A Letter to the President," The Huffington Post, October 28 2009)
Kovic continued his active efforts to stop the war in Afghanistan. At 10 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010, he led veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, including troops now serving in the armed forces of the United States, in a dramatic act of nonviolent civil disobedience in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., along with other brave veterans and citizens, protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling for all troops to be brought home immediately and without delay.
(Ron Kovic, "Raise Your Voices, Protest, Stop These Wars," http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/raise_your_voices_protest_stop_these_wars_20101231/, December 31 2010)
Ron Kovic's Continued Efforts For Peace
On April 8, 2009, Kovic joined British MP and activist George Galloway to launch Viva Palestina USA, an American branch of Viva Palestina. He co-lead with Mr. Galloway a humanitarian relief convoy to the Gaza Strip in early July 2009.
In April 2010, Kovic traveled to Rome, Italy, as a member of the Council for Dignity, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation. Between April 19-26, he attended meetings at Rome's City Hall with other international peace activists, diplomats and academics, to discuss the need for conflict resolution and other more peaceful, nonviolent alternatives to war as a way of solving the worlds many conflicts.
On April 21, 2010, Kovic spoke of his journey from war to peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation before Rome's mayor Gianni Alemanno, and other civic leaders at Rome's Ara Pacis (Altar of Augustan Peace), commissioned by the Roman Senate 4 July- 13 BC.
Today Kovic, 59, lives alone in his modest Redondo Beach apartment a short distance from the Pacific Ocean -- and a couple of towns away from another apartment in Santa Monica where a young Kovic pounded furiously through many nights at a $42 dollar typewriter he had picked up at a Sears and Roebuck.
He has plans to return to what launched his career as a public figure: "I have to remind you that I'm also an author and a writer and I have a love of the language. There are many ways to communicate my politics, whether it's a motion picture or the writing of a book or speaking behind a microphone in a rally. I want to move into writing another book, a book that I actually was beginning just before September 11 happened."
I defer my understandings of the logic of war to Ron Kovic. His honest words breathe with wrenching candor. To end this entry, I will let Kovic relate his experience at a Bronx veteran’s hospital after he returned to the States with the devastating wounds in suffered in Vietnam.
"I feel like a big clumsy puppet with all his strings cut. I learn to balance and twist in the chair so no one can tell how much of me does not feel or move anymore. I find it easy to hide from most of them what I am going through. All of us are like this. No one wants too many people to know how much of him has really died in the war.
"At first I felt that the wound was very interesting. I saw it almost as an adventure. But now it is not an adventure any longer. I see it more and more as a terrible thing that I will have to live with for the rest of my life. Nobody wants to know that I can’t fuck anymore. I will never go up to them and tell them I have this big yellow rubber thing sticking into my penis, attached to the rubber bag on the side of my leg. I am afraid of letting them know how lonely and scared I have become thinking about this wound. It is like some kind of numb twilight zone to me. I am angry and want to kill everyone—all the volunteers and the priests and the pretty girls with the tight short skirts. I am twenty-one and the whole thing is shot, done forever. There is no real healing left anymore, everything that is going to heal is healed already and now I am left with the corpse, the living dead man, the man with 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…
"It is okay now. It is all right. Yes it is all right. I have given my dead swinging dick for America. I have given my numb young dick for democracy. It is gone and numb, lost somewhere out there by the river where the artillery is screaming in. Oh God oh God I want it back! I gave it for the whole country. I gave it for every one of them. Yes, I gave my dead dick for John Wayne and Howdy Doody … and Sparky the barber. 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."
(Ron Kovic, Born On the Fourth of July, 1976)
Kovic has mellowed in many respects since those days. Now, his rhetoric is polished and less direct, yet he has never wavered from his opposition to war. His voice is so important to the spirit of America. Ron Kovic reminds us of the true meaning of observing Memorial Day. That is, we must work to prevent war -- all deadly conflict. We must refrain from glorifying its greedy, gory presence and past. And, we must find a way to stop waging war no matter the political powers that prevail.
Ron, keep playing that gentle piano. You are a musician whose "music" makes a huge difference in the way we Americans view patriotism, aggression, and war. And, to me, the notes you play ring so very true.