Born on The Fourth of July
“Mende combatants often described combat as something that makes the heart ‘heat up’, transforming a fighter to the point where he is thought to have literally become someone else. In that state he is capable of both great courage and great cruelty.” – Sebastian Junger
The above section from “Tribe” describes what the Mende call a ‘hot heart’. The point of battle where one’s own life doesn’t matter is when absolute carnage can be unleashed. In Vietnam, Ron Kovics heart was thermonuclear. Kovic had a death wish but ended up paralyzed from the chest down. Being paralyzed is worse than death for 19-year-old Kovic. His body twisted and deformed. He’ll never have sex. The struggle with his injury haunts him through the pages as he struggles to adjust to life back home.
“Born on The Fourth of July” encapsulates what it means to be a good American. Kovic grew up on Long Island dreaming of batting alongside Mickey Mantle in Yankee Stadium. He talks about playing war with imaginary guns with his childhood friends. Kovic’s embodiment of the American dream is purposefully crafted as a juxtaposition with his reality as wounded veteran.
Disillusion with the system is the recurring theme. Recovery in the Veterans Affairs hospital was a house of horrors. No one cared. No one treated him as a war hero. His treatment was misaligned from the gratefulness he expected. At home in Massapequa, NY he was treated like a zoo animal in the towns Independence Day parade. He felt caged by onlookers who viewed him as a broken trinket. He was a show that no one wanted to see. Far away wars have a real human cost. Most people don’t want to be reminded.
It’s interesting to compare “Born on The Fourth of July” with “American Sniper” by Chris Kyle. If Chris Kyle was shot through the spine and not the gut, would he have had the same outlook on the war in Iraq? I think it’s a valid question because the source of Kovic’s pain is in his inability to have sex. His greatest pleasure is taken away from him in spite of his desires. This could turn around any person’s belief. Imagine if Kovic was only shot in the leg. Would his still be protesting the 1972 republican convention in Miami, or would he be chanting “Four More Years!” as Nixon strolled across the stage.
“Born on The Fourth of July” is a powerful book and should be included your reading list. It’s masterfully written but is best understood when connected with other readings such as “American Sniper” by Kris Kyle and “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger. Both books provide further insights that help us understand the torments of war, and the troubled path of returning home.
Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic
Published by Akashic Books; Anniversary edition (June 13, 2016)