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Ron Kovic: Breaking the Silence of the Night
Posted on Oct 10, 2006
I remember watching the 1968 Chicago Republican National Convention on TV with other paralyzed veterans in their wheelchairs, the crowds in the streets outside the convention hall chanting, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” as antiwar demonstrators were beaten and bloodied by police and dragged into waiting paddy wagons. Most of my fellow veterans were angry at the protesters, cursing them and calling them traitors, but I remember feeling very differently that night. What the police had done was wrong, and for the first time, though I did not share it with anyone yet, I began to sympathize with the demonstrators.
It was not long after that that I left the hospital and began attending classes at Hofstra University on Long Island, determined to rise above what had happened to me and begin a new life after the war. It was a quiet and peaceful campus, so different from Vietnam and the hospital, and it was at the university that I was to first hear the passionate exchange of ideas and different points of view. Many of the discussions had to do with the war and why it had to end. There were the lit candles and the moratoriums, the John Lennon song “Give Peace a Chance,” and I remember listening to the Woodstock album and hearing Jimi Hendrix’s wild rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” for the first time. There was the infamous My Lai massacre poster, “And babies too?” It was shocking and I could not help but think back to that night during my second tour of duty when we shot those women and children by mistake, all those bloody bodies, the old man with his brains hanging out and that Vietnamese child whose foot had nearly been shot off, dangling by a thread.
I continued to attend classes, still keeping my thoughts and feelings about the war deep inside of me and sharing them with no one.
It was during this period that I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” and was immediately struck by the concept of “resistance to civil government and non cooperation with evil” seeming to directly contradict what I had once believed in as a boy—that my country was always right and could do no wrong. The whole idea that we as citizens had a right to follow our conscience and resist laws that were unjust and immoral had a powerful effect on me. I was later to learn that Senator Joseph McCarthy had attempted to ban Thoreau’s essay (< http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/banned-books.html>
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There was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Nigger: An Autobiography” by Dick Gregory and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which exposed the brutality and horror of colonialism. I remember reading Jerry Rubin’s “Do It” and Abbie Hoffman’s “Revolution for the Hell of It,” astounded at the sheer audacity of these two “Yippie” (Youth International Party) radicals and their willingness to stand up to the most powerful government in the world and its policy in Vietnam. They were wild and outrageous, and believed in revolution and were not afraid to say it or write about it and act it out. There was the article in Ramparts magazine by the Army Green Beret Sergeant Donald Duncan, who had turned against the war, and I remember someone from the university mentioning that a Vietnam veteran from Suffolk Community College was now heading the S.D.S. (Students for a Democratic Society) on his campus.
There were the Columbia University sit-ins and Woodstock and the alternative radio station WBAI, which I listened to in my room late at night, deeply moved by talk of protest and revolution, power to the people and provocative antiwar songs that brought tears to my eyes, giving me an entirely different perspective on what was happening in Vietnam and here at home.
America seemed to be tearing itself apart; never before had the nation been so polarized, not since the Civil War had we as a people been so divided. Everything was being questioned, nothing was sacred, even the existence of God was now suspect. The very earth beneath my feet seemed to be shifting, and there no longer seemed to be any guarantees, or anything that could be trusted or believed in anymore. Many of the students had become so angry and frustrated with the war and what was going on that they had begun to give up on America. Many wondered if we were ever really a “democracy” to begin with, while still others spoke openly of leaving the country and abandoning America forever. I continued attending my classes, trying to be a good student, but I could not help but be affected by all the things that were happening around me. Several weeks later while sitting in the back of a crowded auditorium I remember listening to the impassioned words of the late Congressman Allard Lowenstein, who had come to speak at our campus that day, fiercely condemning the war and telling us all to not give up and that it was “better to reclaim the country than abandon it!”
It was about that time I received a call from my friend Bobby Muller, whom I had first met at the Bronx Veterans Hospital only a few months before and who had also been paralyzed in Vietnam, asking me if I would join him at Levittown Memorial High School on Long Island later that week to speak against the war. I remember being hesitant at first, telling him I wasn’t sure. I had never spoken in public before and the thought of giving my first speech against the war frightened me. When I got off the phone I felt an uncomfortable burning in my stomach. A part of me wanted to speak for all I had seen in Vietnam and the hospital and for all the thoughts and feelings I had been having ever since I had begun attending classes at the university, while another part could not help but think of what might happen to me if I did. Would I be called a traitor? Would I end up in some FBI file, no longer the quiet student sitting in his wheelchair alone on the outskirts of the demonstrations but now a direct participant, a radical, a demonstrator? I would be stepping over the line and joining with the very people I had once thought of as traitors. What would my mother and father think if they found out? And the veterans at the university—what would they say? Would they feel that I had betrayed them? Bobby called me several times that week, sounding a bit impatient, but again I hesitated, telling him that I hadn’t made up my mind yet. I asked him if he would call me the following morning, which was the day of the speech, saying I would let him know for sure. I could hardly sleep that night, tossing and turning, tormented by fear and doubt, trapped between the awful twilight of what might happen to me if I did speak and what I knew would continue to happen if I remained silent.
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