**originally written for a client April 2014; Copyright (c) Gloria C. Steele
Paralyzed veteran Ron Kovic’s Vietnam is a man’s nightmare of disillusionment, mocked and betrayed by his own beloved government. Born on the Fourth of July is about a man who was denied that heroism that he was promised by the Nation he loved. The government chose when and how he is a hero, but he feels inside unheroic, even criminal, because of the atrocities of war and struggles to redeem himself as a true hero after the war. It’s the story of a boy trying to be a man, a man wanting to be a hero, and discovering he’s just a selfish, oppressive murderer like the rest of his Great Country that even deceives/ed him and the rest of its own citizens again and again.
Manifesting several failed/unconsummated interactions and relationships with women, stemming from Catholic upbringing, Ron Kovic early on in life found himself stuck permanently in a pubescent’s fumbling anxiety. The incompetence, the loneliness and anticlimax found in youthful masturbatory obsessions, is cyclically and perpetually reflected in his literal fumbling with his limp/nonexistent manhood, even in his catheter alterations, the “peak” literally and figuratively unreached, the success of manhood unachieved just as the successful coupling with a woman is never realized. The motif of men crying like the babies they killed and pissing themselves like children visually brings the point home: the sons debilitated and disenfranchised in Vietnam were boys who never grew up; Loyal, brave, unwaveringly and foolishly Idealistic, “America’s sons” and “the good ol’ boys” like Kovic aspired to the heights of military machismo programming, yet never truly reached manhood.
It meant the world to Kovic to be a good Catholic, a good son, a good American citizen doing everything he can for his country and his God—the ultimate martyrdom complex. Bordering on fanaticism and megalomania, Kovic fancies himself the ultimate Patriot, staunchly defending his government, and aspires to his mother’s fearful Holiness to the extreme of deliberately avoiding “heavy petting” and, to compensate, thrilling, instead, at an obsessive daily masturbation ritual.
Kissing was all right, the priest said in a serious voice, but petting or heavy petting almost always led to sex, and sex, he said, was a mortal sin. I remember listening to him that day and promising myself and God I’d try never to get too close to a girl. I wanted to do all the things the guys in the study hall whispered about, but I didn’t want to offend God. I never even went to the senior or junior prom. I just wanted to be a great athlete and a good Catholic and maybe even a priest someday or a major leaguer. (Kovic, p 77)
Despite his youthful eschewing of female companionship, focusing instead on his Good American Son image, when he returns robbed of his organ of sexual expression—in the Marines, their sexually loaded marching chant is revelatory of our increasing rape culture: “this is my rifle this is my gun/ this is for fighting this is for fun (p 96)”—his unattainable desire warps into an ugly and mournful obsession to find
a woman who would love him and make his broken body come alive again, who would lie down next to the disfigurement and love it like there was not anything the matter with him at all. He cried inside for a woman, any woman, to lie close to him. In the hospital there were so many times when he had looked at the nurses and all the visitors and it would seem so crazy that the same government that provided a big check for the wounded men couldn’t provide someone warm, someone who cared for him.(127)
His experiences with the prostitutes in Mexico reveal much about his spiritual and emotional castration, as much as about his desire to feel through his paralysis, his literal numbness and incontinence as physical a castration as a sword to a eunuch. He witnesses a fellow wounded veteran abuse one of the sex workers and, although awed, can’t help but sympathise:
He punched her in the face because she laughed at him when he pulled down his pants and told her he couldn’t feel his penis or move it anymore. He was crazy drunk and he kept yelling and screaming, swinging his arms and his fists at the crowd who had gathered around him. “That goddamn fucking slut! I’m gonna kill that whore for ever laughing at me. That bitch thinks it’s funny I can’t move my dick. Fuck you! Fuck all of you goddamn motherfuckers! They made me kill babies! They made me kill babies!” Charlie screamed again and again. (128-129)
Kovic isn’t the only one who describes the inhumanity and lustful insanity bred in boys trained in war. As violence begets violence, soldiers look for something to control as a consequence of feeling confused, helpless, and a part of something large, violent, and out of one’s own control, a puppet at the command of Superior Officers and a vigilante government. Seeking something to make them feel powerful like men again, often, the answer is senseless killing, and routine rape as a release of their resentment towards fact that they are denied for months on end comfort from women and mothers at home while suffering unspeakable atrocities and witnessing total transformations from good clean boys to wild, uncivilized animals. In “One Morning in the War” Richard Hammer articulates such abasement and unwittingly confirms Kovic’s downward spiral:
More and more as these daily patrols went on without end, the men in Task Force Barker grew to hate the dirty war they were part of, a war where everything and nothing was the enemy and fair game, where trouble could come from anyone or anything. And they began to take casualties now and again, here and there….Another hamlet. Some of the men see a young Vietnamese girl. They grab her and pull her inside the nearest hootch. There are screams and cries from inside then silence. Soon the men come walking out, satisfied. (Hammer, p 323)
Ron Kovic was crippled as an old man before his time, crazed as a lustful adult in a child’s body, and grieves incessantly his inability to reconcile his instincts and urges with his body—and his likewise inability to reconcile the unintelligible and unconscionable loss he experienced in the war with his patriotic Ideals and the dogmatic propaganda he was duped by. Going into training for the Marines, he was accustomed to hearing the degrading sergeants yelling: “I want all you swinging dicks standing straight at attention (Kovic, 132)” yet with the severity of his wound he is left to merely lament:
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, for Castiglia and Sparky the barber. Nobody ever told me I was going to come back from this war without a penis. (p 84)
Just as his manhood is lost, so is his ability to speak and be heard, such as the respect a man of integrity receives. He constantly seeks in the hospital to be treated humanely and he wants to be respected, not pitied; he wants to be loved, not made a poster boy for why the war should continue so America could win at all costs—literally over his dead, dickless body. When officers and other military representatives push Kovic against his will to speak at a veteren’s parade and rally, Kovic is frustrated that he didn’t want to speak of the war the same distanced way the others did who never experienced the losses he did and he wasn’t asked nor did he agree to being a hero on their terms and in their language:
They sat together watching the big crowd and listening to one speaker after the other, including the mayor and all the town’s dignitaries; each one spoke very beautiful words about sacrifice and patriotism and God, crying out to the crowd to support the boys in the war so that their brave sacrifices would not have to be in vain. And then it was the tall commander’s turn to speak… Almost crying now, he shouted to the crowd that they couldn’t give up in Vietnam. “We have to win …” he said, his voice still shaking; then pausing, he pointed his finger at him and Eddie Dugan, “… because of them!”…He was beginning to feel very lonely. He kept looking over at Eddie. Why hadn’t they waved, he thought. Eddie had lost both of his legs and he had come home with almost no body left, and no one seemed to care…He was confused, then proud, then all of a sudden confused again. He wanted to listen and believe everything they were saying, but he kept thinking of all the things that had happened that day and now he wondered why he and Eddie hadn’t even been given the chance to speak. They had just sat there all day long, like he had been sitting in his chair for weeks and months in the hospital and at home in his room alone, and he wondered now why he had allowed them to make him a hero and the grand marshal of the parade with Eddie , why he had let them take him all over town in that Cadillac when they hadn’t even asked him to speak. (109-111)
Even at the rally for Nixon, he is silenced, blacked out, arrested, literally blocked by secret service agents from sight of the cameras, and discredited—which is the same as silencing—by shouts and accusations of communist affiliation. Unheard, he violently wants others to truly understand and not just mock, pity, or even falsely glorify his sacrifice:
Other people always seemed able to laugh and joke about the whole thing, but they weren’t the one who was living in this angry numb corpse, they didn’t have to wake up each morning and feel the dead weight of these legs and strain the yellow urine into the ugly rubber bag, they didn’t have to put on the rubber gloves each morning over the bathroom bowl and dig into his rear end to clean the brown chunks of shit out. They lived very easy lives, why their lives were disgustingly easy compared to his and they acted sometimes like everything was equal and he was the same as them, but he knew they were lying and especially the women, when they lay with him and told him how much they loved his body, how it wasn’t any different than any other man’s, that they didn’t care if his dick was numb and dead and he couldn’t feel warm and good inside a woman ever again . He was a half-dead corpse and no one could tell him any different. (p 164)
A sacrificial lamb, a “little Christ” himself, Kovic bears his cross, spat upon and crippled, maimed and emasculated by those he died for. Kovic died three times: physically, his body died to him and spiritually, his faith died; Idealistically, Kovic experienced too the death of all the paradigms he clung to and comforting programs he secured himself and his world with about the goodness of his country and the righteousness of the war against terrorism.
He remembered how difficult it had been when he had first come to the war to tell the villagers from the enemy and sometimes it had seemed easier to hate all of them, but he had always tried very hard not to. He wished he could be sure they understood that he and the men were there because they were trying to help all of them save their country from the Communists. (p 190)
Kovic wonders if someone had only shown him the truth of what the war does to boys and men, and the unfathomable depths of what is robbed from them on those front lines, perhaps he himself would never have fallen for the Dream and perhaps through him other young Americans can decide for themselves if that crippling is worth it:
It is like the day the marine recruiters came. I remember it like it was yesterday— their shiny shoes and their uniforms, their firm handshakes, all the dreams, the medals, the hills taken with Castiglia by my side his army-navy store canteen rattling, the movies the books the plastic guns, everything in 3-D and the explosive spiraling colors of a rainbow. Except this time, this time it is Bobby and me. What if I had seen someone like me that day, a guy in a wheelchair, just sitting there in front of the senior class not saying a word? Maybe things would have been different. Maybe that’s all it would have taken. Bobby is telling his story and I will tell mine. I am glad he has brought me here and that all of them are looking at us, seeing the war firsthand— the dead while still living, the living reminders, the two young men who had the shit shot out of them…We were men who had gone to war. Each of us had his story to tell, his own nightmare. Each of us had been made cold by this thing. We wore ribbons and uniforms. We talked of death and atrocity to each other with unaccustomed gentleness. (p 142-144,148)
In conclusion, Born on the Fourth of July is a memoir, autobiography, war speech, battle cry, prayer, and Shakespearean-like tragedy recounting (and, no pun intended, literally re-member-ing) his loss of all he thought would make him the man he so wanted to be: his penis, his heroism, his self-discipline. Finding out it was all in vain, to be left a mangled pawn in a game, Kovic must forge a new Self out of the ashes, the debris, the raw essence of himself in all his rage in all the words he was never given license to say, the self accountability he so late attained.
I think I honestly believed that if only I could speak out to enough people I could stop the war myself. I honestly believed people would listen to me because of who I was, a wounded American veteran. They would have to listen. Every chance I had to get my broken body on the tube or in front of an audience I went hog wild. Yes, let them get a look at me. Let them be reminded of what they’d done when they’d sent my generation off to war. One look would be enough— worth more than a thousand speeches. But if they wanted speeches I could give them speeches too. There was no end to what I had to tell them. “I’m the example of the war ,” I would say. “Look at me. Do you want your sons to look like this? Do you want to put on the uniform and come home like me?” (p 150)
His tragedy is his loss of Ideals, his realization that all he fought to defend was unreal, meaningless, an utter and callous deception by all he held the dearest: his God he felt betrayed him, leaving him in the purgatory of his paralyzed condition; his country he was betrayed by for giving him the Dream of fighting a noble war for a beautiful Christian country that turned out to be a nightmare of senseless murder for a country of hateful consumers who found him invisible even moreso because he fought for him. Betrayed to find out that the war did not make him a “good guy” but a cold, desensitized, and dogmatic, brainwashed killing machine, Kovic must finally atone by showing through his body and describing through his speech the true consequences of America’s lust for war and meddling in foreign affairs:
And now it is we who are marching, the boys of the fifties. We are going to the Republican National Convention to reclaim America and a bit of ourselves. It is war and we are soldiers again, as tight as we have ever been, a whole lost generation of dope-smoking kids in worn jungle boots coming from all over the country to tell Nixon a thing or two. We know we are fighting the real enemies this time— the ones who have made profit off our very lives. We have lain all night in the rain in ambush together. We have burned anthills with kerosene and stalked through Sally’s Woods with plastic machine guns, shooting people out of trees. We have been a generation of violence and madness, of dead Indians and drunken cowboys, of iron pipes full of matchheads…He’d never figured it would ever happen this way. It never did in the movies. There were always the good guys and the bad guys, the cowboys and the Indians. There was always the enemy and the good guys and each of them killed the other… The good guys weren’t supposed to kill the good guys. (p 169-70)
Hammer, Richard. “One Morning in the War” Copyright 1970. Putnam Publishing Group. Reprinted with permission for A History of Our Time. Oxford University Press. 1995. 321-335
Kovic, Ron. Born on the Fourth of July. Amazon Kindle Edition.
 Kovic remembers: “A song was playing called “Bye-Bye Miss American Pie” and I remember listening to it and feeling real sad inside, real low like I wanted to cry or kill someone (p 160).”
 In a passage describing a flashback from the grueling, torturous boot camp training, Kovic admires his comrades “..on their knees with their sea bags still over their shoulders like Christs, an they were crawling, he saw them crawling! (p 94)