Oliver Stone’s film adaptation of Ron Kovic’s Vietnam memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, leaves little doubt about the events that emotionally traumatized Kovic during his tours in Vietnam. Stone, himself a veteran of the war in Vietnam, knows first-hand the horrific nature of combat, especially when experienced by 19-year-old adults. The chaos, noise, fraction-of-a-second decisions that could mean life-or-death, violent wounding of friends from land mines and booby traps, artillery and mortar shells, and from AK-47 bullets all sandwiched in between periods of absolute boredom while on patrols in the blazing hot sun with mosquitoes biting nonstop all adds up to a psychological experience that, over the course of a year-long tour, could certainly lead to emotional disorders. Prior to the past couple of decades, those disorders were referred to as “combat fatigue,” “shell shock,” and “combat neurosis.” The most recent designation is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. This condition can manifest itself in a number of ways, including depression, a heightened state of anxiety, guilt over having survived when so many friends didn’t, anger, and nightmares. Underneath it all is the knowledge that one has witnessed, and participated in, horrific events.
In Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic experiences the twin emotionally-devastating events of engaging in a friendly-fire attack on a comrade and inadvertently massacring civilians, particularly children. These events, and callousness demonstrated by his superiors to whom he reported the incidences, lay the foundation for his development of PTSD. Certainly, the traumatic experience of having such serious combat wounds treated in an abhorrent environment such as Kovic described in his memoir and that is depicted in the film could be expected to contribute to the PTSD, just as a rape victim’s feeling of “being raped again” by the criminal justice system can contribute to her feelings of being victimized by the system as well as by the rapist. VA hospitals were known to be extremely substandard during the 1970s and 1980s, and the conditions and treatment depicted is entirely consistent with what is known.
In addition to the above mentioned events, Kovic’s PTSD was triggered in no small part by the surrealistic environment to which he returned following his medical treatment. The civilian world had gone on without him, as it did all of the other veterans, and the unfettered patriotism he witnesses at a Fourth of July celebration brings it all home.