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Films >> Born on the Fourth of July (1989) >>

See the extensive bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay.

“Good Morning, Vietnam”

[1] Unlike many historical films, the production of Born on the Fourth of July followed an unusual path towards creation. It contains gripping and extremely accurate accounts of the Vietnam War, as well the brutal aftermath that affected veterans in the United States. The movie recreates the war with precision, which is partially because the director Oliver Stone was a Vietnam veteran. This film, as well as other Stone films such as Platoon, expresses emotions that could only result from first-hand experience and not a textbook. However, one book provided Stone with another Vietnam experience aside from his own and was consequently the main vision behind the film. Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic wrote the autobiography Born on the Fourth of July about his life before and after his participation in the Vietnam War. This essay traces the defining moments of Kovic’s life as he outlined them in his book -- his voyage from a handicapped veteran to a highly respected political activist.

“I can’t move my legs”

[2] Although the film portrays Kovic as a testosterone-gushing alpha male, he is, in fact, quite the artist. His autobiography varies in narrative and flashes back and forth between events in his life. He begins with a detailed account of the day he is injured in Vietnam, describing the overwhelming panic while trying to move his legs and seek shelter from the bullets when he simply cannot feel anything. Bloody soldiers scream around him, and someone drags him to a bunker where he waits until the siege has ended. Throughout the chaos, Kovic seems quiet and perceptive, but the reader experiences the horrors of Vietnam that unfold throughout the day. Next Kovic describes the insanity of the medic tents. He watches men writhe in pain from amputated limbs and countless bullet wounds. Despite the omnipotent suffering, medics ask Kovic and other patients a series of questions, such as date of birth, religion, rank, as though they’re having a conversation over lunch. Searching for comfort after his emergency surgery, Kovic asks permission to call a nurse by her first name, but she replies, “No. It’s against regulations” (21). We begin to see the numbing effect that has taken over soldiers’ minds; there is no time for sympathy, only action. Unfortunately, the apathy from Vietnam is sent home with every soldier and infects America unlike any previous war.

“Becoming a vegetable”

[3] Kovic stays at two veterans’ hospitals for recovery and rehabilitation. He notices the deterioration of his once strong 21-year-old body and senses that the real ‘fight’ is just beginning. The hospital exposes Kovic to a world of anger and depression. He and other wounded vets are treated like small children; the nurses feed, clean, and tend to them around the clock. The rooms are overcrowded, and the stench is unbearable -- no one can escape the constant painful reminders of Vietnam. He thinks of his family, particularly his mother, and how they will never understand his struggle with the war or the hospital. The emotional trauma from tours of duty hit the men the hardest as they sit in the wards and wait for the nurses to make their rounds. As Kovic spends more time here, his emotions break down like his legs. The reality of his disability sinks in, and at times he is angry, scared, and lonely.

“Fond memories”

[4] Despite this negative introduction, Kovic dedicates a large portion of his book to the first eighteen years of his life. Kovic spent a seemingly normal childhood in a neighborhood in Massapequa, Long Island. He recalls the endless afternoons spent with his friends as they played baseball and other games from a young age. Kovic’s description of his youth is almost mesmerizing; he takes you away to a perfect, safe place, and you lose yourself in the detailed accounts. You want to feel his bliss and the innocence of life without pain.

[5] Kovic’s experiences as a child and a teenager help to explain his later decisions and why he has great difficulty in adapting to the cruelty of the world outside Massapequa. For example, Kovic explains that he and his friends grew up in the 1950’s watching television. During this time in history, John Wayne prevailed as the essential masculine form. He fought in saloons and on foreign battlefields. The film The Sands of Iwo Jima moved young Kovic to tears, and he explains that John Wayne was one of his heroes. In addition to movies, the US army actually had a television show that depicted war scenes. Naturally, the repeated exposure to war through various types of media affected Kovic. He and his friends orchestrated rather in-depth battles in Sally’s Woods, complete with ambushes and Hollywood dialogue. In an eerie foreshadowing, Kovic recalls an attack on his enemies. He says, “We…then led gallant attacks, storming over the top, bayoneting and shooting anyone who got in our way. Then we’d walk out of the woods like the heroes we knew we would become when we were men” (55). Unfortunately, the fake wars that Kovic creates will not have the same outcome as the real one in which he participates.

“Listen up, gentlemen”

[6] As he moves towards high school, Kovic expresses an early fascination with the Marines. He explains that he and a friend, Bobby Castiglia, promised to sign up at a recruiting station as soon as they were old enough. Around the same time, the Arms Race between the United States and the Soviet Union dominates the airwaves and history class discussions. Kovic seems more and more persuaded by the media and illusion of heroism through patriotism. He, like many Americans, is skeptical of the Communist presence within the country. “The Communists were all over the place back then. And if they weren’t trying to beat us into outer space, Castiglia and I were certain they were infiltrating our schools, trying to take over our classes and control our minds” (60). Spurred by his political views, Kovic begins to lift weights in an effort to develop his body. He transitions from a playful neighborhood boy to an intense, goal- oriented teenager. It’s as if he’s beginning to train for a cause that hasn’t been revealed yet, but the viewers already know this to be the Vietnam War. Kovic channels his aggression and masculinity into the high school wrestling team. He loves the attention from his classmates and explains that he wants to be “stared at and talked about in the hallways” (63). Little does Kovic know that eventually he will not be able to escape the staring from others.

“1,2,3,4, this is how we start a war”

[7] At the end of his senior year, Marine recruiters visit Kovic’s high school to explain their jobs to the graduating class. Kovic is fascinated by the men and realizes that this is the path he wants -- his chance to play John Wayne. For thirteen weeks he suffers through basic training. Young men like himself face ongoing verbal abuse and are pushed to their physical limits by staff sergeants. The masculinity is beaten into them in hopes that at the end of this tutorial they will emerge as soldiers, heroic and larger than life.

“Born on the Fourth of July”

[8] The next time we see Kovic, he is preparing for the Massapequa Fourth of July parade where he is the guest of honor. Much to our surprise, Kovic is not walking in the street and waving to locals. Instead, he sits in the back seat of convertible because he cannot use his legs. This welcome home ceremony is not the gloried vision that Kovic had in mind when he enlisted; it is a more or less a remembrance for those who were wounded or died in Vietnam. Kovic’s painful return to the Massapequa community sparks symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and he falls into a vicious cycle of substance abuse. As he battles with ghosts from the past, Kovic encounters different groups of people who help him find his way back to reality. Eventually Kovic realizes the way to achieve his lifelong goal of becoming a hero is by serving as an advocate for Vietnam veterans.

[9] From his late twenties until today, Kovic raises awareness of veterans’ needs, particularly to members of the United States government. He began with passionate work for the veterans of Vietnam like himself but made a second appearance in the political spotlight with protesting against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resemblances of veterans’ affairs between both wars is shocking, but Kovic’s reputation serves him well, if not more than it did during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Despite his physical limitations, Kovic has authored a best-selling autobiography, made appearances in various films, and continues to speak to people all over the world. He is living proof that the will to succeed can overcome any barrier. As long as Kovic continues to fight, the memory of veterans from every war will never be forgotten.

Print Resources

Baritz, Loren. Backfire: A History of how American culture led us into Vietnam and made us fight the way we did. New York: Morrow, 1985.
Disappointed by every text that he read relating to the Vietnam War, Baritz wrote his own book on the subject. He explains the reasoning behind America's participation in the war and, more importantly, on the effects within our culture. The book addresses social myths, political views, and bureaucratic behavior. Above all, Baritz provides extremely detailed history lessons ranging from Vietnam to the American military. Also, maps and charts are filtered into the chapters and serve as excellent reference points, particularly on the subject of casualties and warfare.
Berg, R. & Rowe, J.C. The Vietnam War and American Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.
This collection of essays by different authors portrays the propaganda that was presented to American citizens during the Vietnam War and thereafter. Like other books on this subject, there are of course several sections that relate to media devices, such as television and film representations of the war. Oliver Stone is mentioned periodically in reference to his films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. However, the book is perhaps most useful in its exploration of the less obvious outlooks on Vietnam. For example, there is a chapter that covers tattoos and scars in relation to masculinity. Also, one author addresses the presence of women in the armed services, in Vietnam. Photography and poetry is an interesting addition to the essays.
Hellmann, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
An excellent resource that discusses several perspectives on the Vietnam War, particularly veterans' literary accounts. Hellmann begins with an in-depth description of the The Ugly American and its impact on American Culture. His most important contribution is uncovering psychological messages in the myths and American tales about Southeast Asia. This book is also very helpful with information about Ron Kovic. Hellmann explains that he, like many men who enlist in the armed services, do so to escape the threat of domestic life. He analyzes quotes from Kovic's novel and relates them to other veterans' manuscripts.
Kovic, Ron. Born on the Fourth of July. New York: Pocket Books, 1976.
In his autobiography, wounded Vietnam veteran Kovic tells the story of his life from a simple childhood in Massapequa, Long Island, to anti-war protests across the country. He describes such memories as playing baseball as a little boy and how he looked up to Hollywood stars like John Wayne because of their heroic roles and physique. He also mentions his dedication to fitness and desire to join the marines as soon as he was able. The book phases in and out of flashbacks from Kovic's experience in the war, suffering in a VA hospital, and then as a veteran leading protests from a wheelchair. Born on the Fourth of July reveals many untold truths from veteran accounts and the treatment of these soldiers upon their return to the U.S. Kovic collaborated with Oliver Stone to create the film version of his book, and it remains a classic docudrama on the Vietnam War.
Seidenberg, Robert. "To Hell and Back." American Film Jan. 1990: 28-31, 56.
Seidenberg offers an intimate look at Ron Kovic late in his life. According to Seidenberg, Kovic wants his story to help protect future children from harm and war. Kovic seems to relive his horrors as he ages -- the first in battle, then authoring his book, and later with the film production of Born. Although most people would find these tasks too emotionally harmful, Kovic seemed to find a therapeutic quality about it. While the film was in progress, Kovic would visit the set and watch actors play out the events of his life. He formed a strong relationship with Tom Cruise, who looked so much like the younger version of himself that it was unsettling. Though he struggled with the film, Kovic eventually realized that he was not alone and many people wanted to bring the Vietnam veterans justice. Seidenberg includes an interview with Kovic at the end of the article in which Kovic opens up about his entire life for readers.
Turner, Fred. Echoes of Combat. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1996.
True accounts of veterans from the war and their lives afterwards. Some of the stories are painful to read and deeply personal. Veterans recall the horrific violence and their ways of coping within a warzone. One particular story compares a transvestite soldier's thrill of killing to the excitement of sex. Turner also discusses the battles that veterans faced with emotional distress after their tours of duty and the lack of support services in hospitals. In the chapter entitled "Lost Fathers: Repairing the Betrayal of Young Men," Turner explains the father figures of soldiers (including Ron Kovic), both real and "reel." The suffering found in this book supports the scenes in Born on the Fourth of July and extends beyond Kovic's own experiences.
Wells, Tom. The War Within: America's Battle over Vietnam. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.
Wells dedicated his thesis to protests during the Vietnam War. He studied the contrast between citizens who had nothing but their bodies and minds to fight and the high-ranking members of the government and military. Despite their limited resources, ordinary people argued against the war and made an undeniable impact on the leaders of our country. Wells also examines the protestors' reasons for undertaking types of antiwar activity. He found their actions to have tremendous power and helped to create unanimous opposition against war in the U.S. The book includes their interviews and peace movement documents from the year 1965 until 1975.

See Also

Hendrix, Charles, and Lisa Anelli. "Impact of Vietnam War Service on Veterans' Perceptions of Family Life." Family Relations 42.1 (1993): 87-92.

Kerrey, Robert. When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2002.

MacPherson, Myra. Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. New York: Doubleday, 1984.

Santoli, Al. Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. New York: Random House, 1981.

Scheer, Robert. "Born on the third of July." Premiere Feb. 1990: 50-54.

Starr, Paul. The Discarded Army. New York: Charterhouse, 1974.

Video/Audio Resources

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. New York: HBO Video, 1987.
With the voices of over thirty actors, Vietnam comes alive with actual letters from soldiers. The stories of men and women who fought for our country and the challenges they faced are told along with footage from soldiers and news channels.
Different Sons. Trenton: Broken Rifle Press, 1991.
"In the late summer of 1970, the VVAW organized Operation RAW (Rapid American Withdrawal), a four-day march by 100 Vietnam veterans from New Jersey to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. This documentary records that event and the personal reminiscences of the participants. During the march, the veterans described their experiences in Vietnam to spectators and re- enacted scenes of civilian mistreatment which they had witnessed during the war. On the last day of the march the veterans were welcomed to Valley Forge by friends and relatives. In the closing ceremonies honoring those killed and wounded in Vietnam, the participants crush their plastic M-16 rifles and chant for peace."
One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern. New York: First Run Features, 2005.
McGovern fought a hard presidential campaign in 1972. Even though he lost, he gained support from Americans who wanted peace and justice. The film is also meant to investigate the truth behind American elections and the voting process. There are interviews of McGovern and other political and social icons from that era, including Warren Beatty and Ron Kovic.
Operation Last Patrol. Dir. Frank Cavestani, Catherine Leroy. Perf. Ron Kovic. [1972] Cinema Libre, 2005.
This film directed by a Vietnam veteran documents Ron Kovic's protest at the 1972 Republican convention. It contains commentary by Kovic, as well as footage from the protest.
Ordinary Americans: The Vietnam War. Alexandria: Close Up Foundation, 1997.
"Provides an historical overview of the Vietnam war personalized by accounts of participants. Contrasts the actions of politicians with the experiences of ordinary citizens. Shows how the war was waged on two fronts: in the fields and jungles of Vietnam and on the college campuses and streets of the U.S. and describes the war's financial and human costs."
"Ron Kovic & Frank Cavestani." The People Speak Radio. 29 April 2008. http://www.thepeoplespeakradio.net/archives/mp3/The_People_Speak_2008-04-29.mp3
Both Kovic and Cavestani discuss the differences between veterans from Vietnam and today's soldiers returning from war. They are both very angry at the way the government is treating veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Kovic, however, is optimistic about the progress that is underway toward better resources for vets as compared to his generation. As always, he encourages Americans to stand up against the war and help the men and women who are fighting abroad by protesting the government.
"Ron Kovic: Author of Born on the Fourth of July." The People Speak Radio. 5 July 2006. http://www.thepeoplespeakradio.net/archives/mp3/tps-2006-07-05-cavestani.mp3
Frank Cavestani explains his film Operation Last Patrol in more depth and talks about how he and Ron Kovic met one another and the early memories from their friendship. Cavestani admired Kovic's work as a protestor and was so inspired that he decided to document the protest at the 1972 Republican convention. Ironically, Cavestani, Kovic and Oliver Stone all fought in Vietnam at the same time, though none of the men knew one another. There is discussion of a new film by Cavestani relating to the Vietnamese because he argues that very little is known about their culture and Americans still lack a basic understanding of Vietnam before the war.
The U.S. vs John Lennon. David Leaf, et. al. Lionsgate, 2007.
A documentary on the life of John Lennon and his transition from musician to antiwar and peace activist that includes input from Ron Kovic.
Veterans Speak Out. 14 Nov. 2005. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6849029001567018956&q=veterans+iraq
This film, produced by Chris Hume of truthout.org, was made on Veteran's Day Weekend 2005 in Santa Monica. Hume interviews Ron Kovic about the peace movement during the Vietnam era compared to today's peace movement with the Iraq War. Kovic has an incredible message of protest and asks us as Americans to challenge this administration's decisions. He also talks to veterans and the parents of dead soldiers from the current war. The insight from the soldiers who have fought in the Middle East is painful but effective. Also, it's helpful to hear the thoughts and concerns from the parents who have lost their children and protest the government.

Online Resources

American Experience: Vietnam Online. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/index.html
A project from PBS, Vietnam Online provides additional information to Vietnam: A Television History. The site includes well-organized links to resources about the Vietnam, ranging from the people involved to maps. Another helpful part of the site is the in-depth documentation of massacres, military language, M.I.A. and P.O.W. accounts, and weaponry. For anyone who needs to brush up on their history, Vietnam Online has timeline beginning in 1945 and continues to the late 90's. It offers descriptions of events and political figures, as well as pictures and links to more information. Also, teacher's can utilize this website for instructional hints and activities for the classroom.
John Kerry Testimony. Legislative Proposals Relating to the War in Southeast Asia Thursday, April 22, 1971 United States Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C. http://www.c-span.org/vote2004/jkerrytestimony.asp
Before his many years of work as an elected official, John Kerry served as a main figure in the organization known as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Here's his entire testimony to the United States Senate on April 22, 1971, on behalf of a legislative proposal relating to the War in Southeast Asia. Includes comments by members of the Senate as well as Kerry. Kerry discusses the events of the Winter soldier Investigation, the feelings of veterans when they returned, and the moral and ethical dilemma facing the United States in regards to veterans. He then moves towards his proposals and asks the government for an explanation as to why American men continue to fight and die for the wrong causes. The quotations from this site would help any project or argument for veterans, particularly in their relevance to Ron Kovic's protests.
Kovic, Ron. "Breaking the Silence of the Night." Truthdig 10 October 2006. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/200601009_ron_kovic_breaking_silence_night/
"Like many Americans who served in Vietnam and those now serving in Iraq, and countless other human beings throughout history, I had been willing to give my life for my country with little knowledge or awareness of what that really meant."
Kovic, Ron. "The Forgotten Wounded of Iraq." Truthdig 18 Jan. 2006. http://www.truthdig.com/dig/item/forgotten_wounded_20060117/
"As I now contemplate another January 20th I cannot help but think of the young men and women who have been wounded in the war in Iraq. They have been coming home now for almost three years, flooding Walter Reed, Bethesda, Brooke Army Medical Center and veterans hospitals all across the country. Paraplegics, amputees, burn victims, the blinded and maimed, shocked and stunned, brain-damaged and psychologically stressed, over 16,000 of them, a whole new generation of severely maimed is returning from Iraq, young men and women who were not even born when I came home wounded to the Bronx veterans hospital in 1968."
Peacemaker Heroes: Ron Kovic. The My Hero Project. http://www.myhero.com/myhero/hero.asp?hero=kovic
A brief biography of Ron Kovic is featured along with many excerpts from magazines and stories dedicated to the famous veteran. This website stands apart from many on the subject because it includes a variety of photography on Kovic. Unknown to most people, Kovic is also an artist, and this website includes a link to several examples of his work. At the bottom of each biography, the creators of My Hero added more peacemaker heroes with thumbnail links to their respective biography pages. If you are looking for video clips and interviews, this site has a great film on Kovic.
"Ron Kovic: Peace Movement Will Be Largest Ever." CNN.com. 17 Jan. 2003. http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/01/17/cnna.kovic/
At a protest against the U.S. war on Iraq in Washington, CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer interviews Ron Kovic about his involvement in the peace movement: "This is a movement, a peace movement that is going to become a citizens' protest movement unlike anyone ever -- any movement or protest movement ever seen before in this country. I'm very honored to be a part of it. I believe that the people are part of this movement care about this country deeply. Love this country and feel this country is being moved in a direction that can only hurt us."
"Ron Kovic's Speech at Oct. 26, 2002 Anti-war rally in San Francisco." On Lisa Rein's Radar 27 Oct. 2002. http://www.onlisareinsradar.com/archives/000629.php
Kovic: "And when the leaders in Washington that are perpetrating this terrible, terrible war. The leaders, the President, those in power right now, who have in fact made targets of terror of all of us because of their policy. They are the ones who have brought on 911. It is their violence that brought the violence to our nation, and it's their violence that we must stop and stop forever!"
The Sixties Project http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/
An excellent source for documents pertaining to the Vietnam War. The Sixties Project also has information on books, poetry, personal narratives, and exhibits.
Veterans Against the Iraq War http://www.vaiw.org/vet/index.php
Much like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, this group has resources for both soldiers and civilians. The site includes news in warzones, ways to donate to soldiers, and blogging. At the bottom of the main page there are over twenty links to veteran affairs and other organizations like this.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Statement by John Kerry. Vietnam War.com. http://www.vietnamwar.com/johnkerryvietnamveteransagainstthewar.htm
For another look at John Kerry's presentation to the Senate. In addition to the speech, there are links to photographs of Senator Kerry, his biography, history of the Vietnam Veterans against the war, and other helpful veteran information. The site also has a detailed table of contents that provides access to Government websites, Vietnam history, important figures from that era, and more. If you are trying to find a variety of content on the subject, this site can lead you in the right direction.
The Vietnam Wall Controversy http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/vietnam/
"How do we remember a war that we 'lost'? Can we understand the emotions that caused Maya Lin's serene 'rift in the earth' to be denounced as a 'black gash of shame and sorrow'? Relive the multi-leveled controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial."
The Virtual Wall. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. http://www.vvmf.org/index.cfm?SectionID=2
The Virtual Wall offers a unique opportunity to actually search for individual's names that are written on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. This site is a great alternative if you can't make the trip to Washington, D.C. One link entitled Remembrances allows you to post, search, and view remembrances. There is also a way to get your own copy of a wall rubbing through another link. Unlike many historical websites, The Virtual Wall reveals the emotions behind the war and connects to you the stories of many fallen soldiers and their families. Another helpful link is Teach Vietnam, which includes tutorials and lessons. In fact, for schools that want to plan a field trip to the Capitol, there is an online guide that helps teachers explain the Wall to their students. There is a lot of room for exploration within the site and is worth taking the time to do so.