Both the intensity and the personal view of life presented in Born on the Fourth of July are the book’s essential characteristics. Kovic holds definite views about the war in Vietnam, but the book is not one more in the list of anti-war arguments. Nor is it simply a narration of experiences—the experiences are felt, not just recorded. Other people are there, but they are seen through Kovic’s eyes, related to him.
Vietnam itself is the scene of only a few sections of the story. More of it concerns Kovic’s treatment in veterans’ hospitals, and his return to civilian, if not normal, life. A portion of the book essential to its understanding is composed of flashbacks to his growing up in Massapequa, Long Island, N.Y. These flashbacks are nostalgic and frequently poetic, in contrast to the sections dealing with the war and the recovery, which are grim and harsh. The language, as the movie ads say, is explicit, and may offend some readers.
Kovic really was born on July 4, 1946. He grew up in a suburban housing development, with happy memories of friends. Little League, games in the street and woods; school seems unimportant. His heroes were Mickey Mantle and John Wayne, especially Wayne in the role of a Marine. High school sports were important to young Kovic, and the death and funeral of President Kennedy traumatic. At eighteen, after high school, he joined the Marines.
If the picture seems ordinary, even banal, that is at least part of its significance. Kovic was not an intellectual or a radical, but a boy of the lower middle classes, “ethnic” though he never says of what variety, and Catholic. If life was not as idyllic as memory makes it, Kovic still makes us see it as full of friends and fun and family affection. Significant, too, is the repeated stress on his absorption in, more than acceptance of, those two American shiboleths—sports and patriotism. The twin heroes are Mantle at the plate, and John Wayne on Iwo Jima; by the 1960’s he adds John F. Kennedy.
There is irony in hindsight in the picture Kovic paints of the Marine recruiters in impeccable dress uniform who came to one high school assembly. They did not persuade Kovic, who was already in his own mind committed, but they may have been the final confirmation. The irony is deepened by the later brutal account of his first day at boot camp, where he suffered all the drill instructors’ abuse in an operation which deprived the recruits of individuality.
This is no step-by-step, year-by-year history. We know Kovic was a sergeant in Vietnam—but how he made it, he never says. The war itself reduces to three episodes, but references to them are laced through the narrative, so that only the full final telling gives clarity and detail. The first occurred early in his tour, when Kovic by mistake shot and killed a corporal in his own outfit. Though officers tried to reassure him—it was an accident, it may even have been someone else’s shot—the guilt was a heavy weight. Later, but still soon after arrival, an over-eager officer led Kovic and his outfit in an attack on a town. Too late, they found their “enemy” had been children, now dead and wounded.
However familiar episodes like this have become, the reader’s capacity for shock has not been exhausted, particularly when the account is as personal and direct as this one. Kovic’s grief and sense of guilt are personal, for he has been responsible. There is not the slightest suggestion that he blamed the war itself, or those who brought on the war. He was still trying to live up to his ideals, to be a good Marine. When he heard about protests, he says revealingly, he did not understand how Americans could do such things.
The opening passages of the book end his Vietnam stay and begin the real horror story. In the third crucial incident in the book, Kovic is shot leading his group against a Vietnamese hill, not once but several times. The bullet that counted paralyzed him from the chest down. He was rescued and flown home, to care in first one, then another veterans’ hospital. Pain and helplessness, but even more indignity and the feeling of isolation from the ordinary world, filled his life. What could be a searing indictment of the system is not, because Kovic keeps his personal reactions central. The items of indictment are there, however: filth, graphically described in barracks language; not so much brutality, as callous indifference on the part of attendants; inadequate care—the machine that is needed to keep blood flowing has a pump that does not always work. The record is there, even in the case...
(The entire section is 1891 words.)