Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July is Oliver Stone’s movie version of Ron Kovic’s autobiographical journey from obnoxious teenage right-wing, super-patriot, pro-military, pro-Vietnam War, hater-of-all-hippies-pinkos-and-other-assorted-weirdos, through his eye-opening experiences in the military and in Veterans Administration hospitals, to becoming one of the most prominent and vehement liberal critics of the Vietnam War.

This is another example of my revisiting and rewatching movies from my past that I was particularly impressed with. This isn’t, though, one of those that I’ve watched countless times and become familiar with in great detail. This was about the third time I’ve seen this movie in my life, and I’m pretty sure the first in over twenty years, so there were plenty of things in it I did not remember.

Rather than give any kind of thorough summary of the film, or construct a meticulously logically organized critique of it, I’m inclined just to comment in more or less random order on various aspects of it that have come to mind as I’ve reflected on it.

The first time I saw Born on the Fourth of July was in the early ’90s, so not long after it came out. I saw it with a girlfriend, who was young enough not to have any significant memories from the Vietnam War era. I remember her remarking that what most stood out to her is how intense and antagonistic everyone seemed about politics and the war, in contrast to what she was used to from her past and present. She was quite surprised by that, in fact, like, “Is that really how things were? Were people really that angry?”

And I suppose I was a bit surprised by her being surprised.

So was that era of American history really more divisive than most? Were people at each other’s throats more than usual over politics and public affairs? Is that just a false impression created by the movie’s sensationalism? Is it a false impression created not by any blameworthy sensationalism on the movie’s part, but on its understandably and justifiably focusing on the most important elements in Kovic’s—and America’s—life during this period and ignoring the mundane, day-to-day eminently forgettable elements that make up all lives?

I find myself going back and forth on that. For the most part, though, I come down on the side of thinking that if the Vietnam War era strikes you as highly unusual in its partisanship, bitter political arguments, etc., that probably means you haven’t been paying much attention during your own time. I mean, she was certainly old enough to have had an opportunity to experience the Reagan years, when a right wing extremist held the most powerful office in the world and generated a furious backlash as well as plenty of fanatical support. At the time there was more fear than ever concerning the risks of global nuclear war. There were intense public debates over things like AIDS, massive tax cuts for the rich, wars of choice in places like Grenada and Panama (the latter in the Bush continuation of Republican rule), and—as always, because this is America—race. People were in the streets protesting, there were angry rants in the media, people became estranged from family and friends over politics, etc.

People who are largely politically apathetic—and there are always plenty of those—I’m sure would have been at most vaguely aware of such things, but the same would have been true of the Vietnam War era. It’s not like everybody in 1971 or whatever was either rioting in the streets for a left wing cause or striding into the crowd and bashing rioters’ heads in for doing so. People were not forever losing their temper at each other at the dinner table over politics. For many people, maybe most people, public affairs were a sideshow that they largely ignored.

Then again, I wouldn’t say that all periods of history are exactly equal in terms of political intensity and antagonism. There are peaks, and the period of Born on the Fourth of July was one of them. But it was far from the only one. We’ve experienced a literal civil war in this country, after all, and then there’s the political turmoil of the Depression, the aforementioned Reagan era, and many others, including, I’d say, the present, when pro-Trump and anti-Trump folks are so far apart as to seemingly occupy separate realities. (Though, granted, the present is such a nadir of intellect and sanity when it comes to politics—a transparent grifter as President and as a leader of a major political movement, whatever the hell Q-Anon is, etc.—as to seem more like some kind of cruel satire of political controversy.)

So, yeah, a lot of people were very upset with each other back then, and not afraid to express it publicly. I don’t think the movie is misleading in any major way in that sense.

Certainly one of the most striking and memorable aspects of the movie is the depiction of the hellhole VA hospital where Kovic finds himself after sustaining an injury that leaves him a paraplegic. I’m sure it’s horrifying to most viewers. It’s about on the level—perhaps below—of the conditions you’d expect American POWs in need of medical care to have to suffer through in a Third World country like Vietnam, absolutely not what one would expect, or at least hope, they’d experience back home.

Seeing the conditions in that hospital is a reminder that being pro-war isn’t the same as being pro-soldier or pro-veteran. The political right that was gung ho about the Vietnam War was not consistently more pro-soldier than their opponents, and that’s routinely the case in all eras. The pro-war faction is always adamantly in favor of spending unlimited amounts of money on new and improved weapons of mass destruction and providing the maximum possible amount of money and votes to the mega-corporations and politicians that make up the military-industrial complex—and certainly rhetorically they’re all about the deification of the American GI in the abstract—but when it comes to actual concrete pro-soldier policies, from supplying proper equipment like body armor to those on the front lines doing the actual fighting to making sure the VA fulfills its obligations to provide quality medical care to veterans, I think you’ll find at least as many Democrats and liberals devoting themselves to these issues as Republicans and conservatives.

On an emotional level, it’s hard not to be taken in by Kovic’s story. Besides the aforementioned horrific conditions that he must endure at the VA hospital, there’s the heart-rending story of his having to come to grips with being a paraplegic for the rest of his life.

It’s even more intense for him than for most people—though obviously it would be enormous for anyone—because of how it relates to his conception of manhood. For Kovic, to be a man is to excel at sports, to excel in the military, basically to be the most impressive physical specimen who can “whip any man in the house.” Now he can’t even walk. Plus, since we’re talking about being paralyzed below the waist, it’s not just his legs that are dead but his penis. Dating, sex, marriage, children—these are all essential elements of life, of being a man, and he perceives the door as suddenly having slammed shut on all of them before he is even able to experience them.

In his eyes, he’s not a man anymore, he isn’t “him” anymore. So what’s the point of even continuing?

One of the small steps he takes toward reestablishing some semblance of manhood in his self-image occurs in Mexico, where a whore teaches him that he can still be a sexual being to some extent and can still interest a woman.

The aftermath of that scene is interesting. He gets a little carried away in his interpretation of the nature and extent of their connection, showing up the next day to the bar where he met her with a romantic gift. In his present emotional state—and remember also that in spite of all he has been through he’s still very young and has close to zero experience with women—it seems to him the next logical step in their new “relationship.” He is quickly disillusioned when he sees her enticing a new customer to go upstairs with her just as she had him (and has hundreds or thousands of guys in her career). He bitterly realizes that he has been played.

But has he? I mean, at some level, sure. She was pretending. But was it more, a: She said and did whatever she needed to in order to extract money from him and then she moved on to the next sucker, or, b: She provided the service she was paid to provide, and in fact went above and beyond what most whores would do in that regard in that she didn’t merely perform physical sex acts but also included accompanying emotional support and ego boosting, in a way that, yes, was feigned in a sense, but in a context where all concerned are supposed to know that the benefits are being provided precisely through such play acting?

I assess it as maybe 20% the former and 80% the latter. I can understand his disappointment, and there is indeed something phony about the whole interaction—any interaction where genuine human connection is feigned from a commercial motive—but really he got if anything more than he paid for. A sex worker—or a psychologist, a bartender, whatever—will, if they are doing their job well, interact with you for money and provide psychological benefits to you that mimic in some ways what a real-life friend or partner would do, but it’s more the exception than the rule that it leads to some kind of genuine connection outside of the professional relationship, and it’s reasonable to hold you responsible for knowing that.

I don’t mean that she screwed him over and it’s his own fault for being too naïve to know that that’s what whores do. I mean that she provided a certain service and certain benefits that were limited in their nature in a way that he should have realized they were limited. He didn’t, and I empathize, but not in a way that inclines me to blame her for phoniness (at least no more than the aforementioned 20%).

The other human issue that hits hardest in his personal life is the fact that shortly prior to sustaining his own life-changing injury, in the chaos of battle he frantically fired his weapon in such a way that he’s almost certain killed a fellow American soldier. A “friendly fire” incident in other words.

The military provides precisely zero support for him in coping with the anguish he experiences in the wake of this incident. His commanding officer just wants to deny it and cover it up, and is angry at any hint from Kovic that he doesn’t share those goals. Kovic remains so bothered by it that back in the States, in one of the most moving scenes in the movie, he travels all the way to the home of the soldier he probably killed, visits with and gets to know his family, and confesses to them what happened.

Another reaction I have to the film is to ask how relevant Kovic’s story really is to whether the pro or anti-Vietnam War position is more justified.

I mean, the movie is very effective in explaining both why he believed what he believed when he was young (he was raised in a very right wing, pro-military family in a very right wing, pro-military town, in a fairly right wing, pro-military country) and in explaining why he dramatically changed those beliefs as a result of certain life experiences. But explanation is not justification.

Did it take being traumatized the way he was to open his eyes to the fact that he had been supporting and participating in a criminal war that was dishonestly sold to the nation? Or did being traumatized warp him psychologically and emotionally to the extent that he fell prey to left wing propaganda and wrongly switched sides and betrayed the very nation he had once fought for? I mean, I’m certainly more inclined to say the former, but that’s because that fits what I believe about the war for independent reasons.

We see how his life experience changed him, but that in and of itself doesn’t tell us if it influenced him toward or away from truth.

What it did do, though, is make him a far more effective spokesman or symbol. When Ron Kovic leads a march at the 1972 Republican convention, when Ron Kovic hurls his medals over the fence at the White House in protest against the war, when Ron Kovic writes an autobiography, when Ron Kovic serves as the subject of an Oliver Stone film, it means a heck of a lot more than when some random unknown hippie who didn’t fight in Vietnam, isn’t in a wheelchair, and has always opposed the war does.

But it “means more” in the rhetorical effectiveness sense, in the sense that more people will listen and more people will be persuaded, not in the substantive sense that more people should listen and more people should be persuaded. The anti-war folks scored a major public relations coup when they snared Kovic for their side, but there are countless liberal academics who have spent decades studying matters relevant to these issues and who are known by less than 1% of the population who have far greater claim to being experts worth listening to on the merits.

Kovic as anti-war figure is more like when fundamentalist Christian political activists are able to flip Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade or some relative of Madalyn Murray O’Hair to their side. Whatever those folks may be they are decidedly not distinguished moral philosophers or Constitutional law scholars.

Born on the Fourth of July is a compelling human drama, and it provokes questions about the Vietnam War and about broader historical and political issues, but it provides no more than the slightest assistance in answering such questions.