In an interview with Truthdig research editor Joshua Scheer, Ron Kovic, author of “Born on the Fourth of July,” argues that Americans this week have a patriotic and generation-defining duty to speak out against Bush’s proposal to escalate the war in Iraq with more U.S. troops.
Truthdig: I understand you’re very incensed by Bush’s intention to escalate the Iraq war with a troop surge.
Kovic: Absolutely. This week is a very crucial turning point in the war. We’re being led in a very reckless and dangerous direction. I don’t want to see more men and women come home like me—in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. How many more have to die in a war that makes no sense? I feel like I’m seeing the mirror image of another Vietnam unfolding all over again, and I think we have never needed to break that silence and begin to speak more than we do now.
Truthdig: Has this war surpassed the Vietnam War in any way?
Kovic: I think President Bush plans to provoke an even wider war in the Middle East in the coming months. That’s my prediction. He is going to escalate the war by sending more troops to Iraq in a war that we cannot win—a war that is only going to cause more violence, make us even bigger targets of terrorist attacks.
Like many veterans of the Vietnam War, I’ve been in this wheelchair for almost 40 years. I’ve lived with the wounds of American foreign policy for almost four decades now. I saw American foreign policy firsthand, as did many others of my generation. And we learned the lessons of that war. I have serious doubts whether President Bush or the architects of this particular policy in the Middle East right now learned those lessons. And how many of those who are making the decision this week—how many of those talking heads, those so-called experts, who made the decision to have a troop surge, to escalate this war, to put more young men and women’s lives in harm’s way, to put more Iraqi civilians at risk—how many of them really served in a war, how many really understand the human cost of a war? How many really understand what it means to be wounded—whether you’re American or Iraqi? How many understand what it means to come home wounded? What it means to lose a son or daughter in a war? How many of them have been directly affected by this war?
Truthdig: We hear so much about “support the troops” while they’re in war. But what does it mean to support the troops when so many of them are coming back home wounded?
Kovic: I don’t see how this administration is supporting the troops when they’re clearly cutting back the budgets of the veterans hospitals around the country. That is outrageous. That is unacceptable. How can you spend billions of dollars fighting a war in Iraq and not care for those who are wounded when they come back home?
I have opposed this war from the very beginning. I was speaking out against it before it began. I sensed we were being deceived just as we were deceived during the Vietnam War. I wasn’t going to let it happen again. I made one promise to myself in 1968 after I was shot and paralyzed in Vietnam. (During those years that I was involved with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, so I was speaking not only for myself, but for many, many other Vietnam veterans like myself who opposed that war, who went to jail with me.) We said back then, “We’re never going to allow what happened to our generation to ever happen again.” And to watch this nightmare unfold all over again….
And in particular this week, the outrage that not only I feel, but also all my brothers and sisters in the antiwar movement, and all my fellow citizens all over this country ... that outrage that all of us feel, that the majority of the people of this country oppose this war, including many of our generals and the architects of this policy…. And yet the president of the United States is acting like a dictator. He’s not listening to the people. What do we have to do? How many demonstrations do we have to have? How many hearings and investigations do we have to have before this president begins to listen to the people? Because isn’t that what America is supposed to be about?
We can make a difference, and I think this is an important week of reflection. For every single American; not just me, Ron Kovic, sitting in this wheelchair, or people who have been directly affected by the wars of this government, and who have been so grievously injured by policies that should never have been to begin with—we are more important than we realize. I think this is a week of important reflection for all of us. We have to really think about the direction this country is heading in right now. We have to ask ourselves, “Have we done enough? Have we the courage to really say what needs to be said? Have we the courage to really do what needs to be done?” Because lives are at stake, and people are dying on both sides. This is unacceptable. This is outrageous. Rather than listening to the voice of the people of the United States, and rather than listening to the Iraq Study Group’s conclusions, rather than listening to reason, the president of the United States has decided to do the exact opposite. He’s putting us all in greater danger. He’s creating the potential for a wider war, for a potential cataclysm, and he’s putting Americans’ lives in jeopardy. If the United States is attacked again, if, God forbid, there’s another 9/11, it should be directly attributed to the fact that, this crucial week, Bush decided to push forward in this very reckless agenda.
Truthdig: You really think another 9/11 will happen because of the actions Bush takes this week?
Kovic: I think the potential for another 9/11 or worse is there with this type of behavior. This is absolutely reckless. Talk to the generals. Talk to the average citizens on the street. I think there is great foreboding in this country, and I think there’s a tremendous amount of apprehension about the direction that the so-called commander in chief is leading this country in. We are making a decision that could very well affect the lives of the people of our country—not to mention the good and decent people of the Middle East, who are suffering because of this policy.
To speak out now and raise your voice against this policy, that’s what being an American is all about. That’s what patriotism is really all about. What is unpatriotic is allowing this all to happen—continuing to allow this administration to move our country into this dangerous situation that can only have consequences that I don’t even want to think about in the end. There’s going to be a sharp escalation in the rhetoric this week, and it’s going to be an opportunity for all of us as individual citizens to speak against this policy because we know it’s wrong for America, and because we know it’s hurting our troops, hurting this country. If you really love this country, if you really want to support the troops, you’re going to oppose this policy. You’re going to say: “Mr. President, you’re wrong. Mr. President, I’m just a regular citizen, I’m just a working person, but Mr. President, you’re leading us in the wrong direction. I know as a citizen that it is my right under the Constitution to speak freely and to say how I feel. And I’m not going to be intimidated by the events of Sept. 11. I sense what’s good for this country. I sense what’s wrong for this country, and you are taking a turn this week that is very dangerous. I sense, and we sense, that this direction must be altered.”
What do we have to do? Turn to civil disobedience? Well, every citizen must do what their heart tells them they must do. If you really care and love this country, you’re going to raise your voice. You’re going to speak out. You’re not going to remain silent anymore. And I think it was Martin Luther King Jr. who said in April 1967—a year before he was assassinated, during the height of the Vietnam War—“A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And the time has come in this country for us no longer to be silent. A time has come for every single one of us, whether we’re a part of academia, or whether we drive a taxi cab, or whether we’re a teacher or a professor, a time has come for every single one of us to take a stand. Whether we’re a college student in the confines of the finest universities in the country. If we have that privilege and good fortune to not be on the front lines, to not be in the war zone, we must take that step this week. And the voices must be heard. If you love this country, you’re going to step over that line that you’ve not stepped over before and you’re going to speak in a way you’ve never spoken before. You’re going to find the courage to do that.
Truthdig: During the Vietnam War, there were more protests, more arrests than we’re seeing now, even though the approval rating for the war in Iraq is very, very low. It seems people aren’t taking to the streets en masse, as your generation did 40 years ago. Would you suggest they do that?
Kovic: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ll tell you another result of this week: We’re going to lose more American soldiers. First, let’s make clear what this troop surge really means: It means more wounded. It means more dead. It means more Iraqis killed. It means more enraged citizens from not only Iraq but all over the Middle East. This escalation is going to enrage the Middle East even more. The region is going to become even more enraged and alienated from America with this policy. We’re going to lose friends everywhere. This war has done nothing but isolate America more and more. First of all, let’s look at the fact that before this war began, one of the biggest peace movements in the history of the world took to the streets. I believe it was Feb. 15, 2003. Make no doubt about it: That could happen again. But this time, you’re going to see folks who have never demonstrated before taking to the streets of this country. They’re going to demonstrate peacefully, in the spirit of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. You may see great numbers of people in the streets before this is over with. Because the people of this country, at a certain point—and it may just be starting this week—are not just going to take this anymore. There’s going to be a tipping point, and I think we’re reaching it. I think this week will go down in history as a moment when people began to awaken to the fact that they have been terribly misled in this country.
There’s a potential for great numbers of Americans going to the streets. There’s a fierce outrage that’s growing in this country. And believe me: That outrage is going to be felt and heard by this administration. I don’t know what it’s going to take to stop this war, but I know that at a certain point—and it’s already beginning to happen—the dam is going to break, and this country is going to experience demonstrations and civil disobedience to this war in a way it’s never experienced before in its history.
Truthdig: Thanks very much.
AP / Reed Saxon
Disabled Vietnam War veteran and antiwar activist Ron Kovic, subject of the film “Born on the Fourth Of July,” reaches out to touch fingers with an admirer during a massive protest against U.S. involvement in Iraq. The demonstration occurred in downtown Los Angeles in September 2005.