Massapequa, New York may well be the most unabashedly patriotic town in America. Like Ron Kovic (who I knew in passing) I grew up there, played in "Sally's Woods" got my hair cut at Sparky the Barber's, and participated in the endless red, white and blue parades that seemed to define our town. A safe, stable bedroom community on Long Island's South Shore, it spawned boys like Kovic who absorbed the tales of "the greatest generation" and took up their fathers' banners when they went to Vietnam.
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY is Kovic's unpolished, sincere, aggressive and searingly sad remembrance of his Vietnam experience. Kovic was gravely wounded on the first day of the Tet Offensive. Returning home as a paraplegic, Kovic tells us of the hideous treatment he received at the hands of the Veterans Administration, a bureaucracy so rotten that it neglected and abused the very men and women it was supposed to aid.
The sheer contempt with which Kovic was treated turned this All-American young man into a cynic, turning him against the war, and forcing him to confront an uncomfortable paradox: millions were being spent on war machines while America's wounded soldiers had to live with filth and rats in their hospital rooms.
The experience drove Kovic to become a public speaker for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Interestingly, Kovic never mentions John Kerry, a founder of that organization, but he does recount how VVAW was infiltrated by Nixon operatives and almost derailed.
Kovic also tells us---in various flashbacks---about his psychological journey as a paraplegic, about his loneliness, his depression, his pain and misery, and his frustration at being unable to walk. He writes frankly and cathartically of coping with the loss of his sex life. He recounts how the well-meaning but unknowing people of Massapequa made him feel, like their Yankee Doodle poster child come home, a not altogether pleasant role.
And he writes of his challenge to America. Having shouted down Richard Nixon's 1972 nomination acceptance speech, he demands of America self-examination and a reordering of priorities. That very self-examination is the essence of greatness. Should we expect less?
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY is an important book, and one which needs to be remembered in these days of disillusionment.