Live at Truthdig: Does America Care About the Costs and Consequences of War?
Truthdig staff discussed the costs and consequences of war with veteran and peace activist Ron Kovic on Facebook at 3 p.m. PDT on Thursday.
Does the United States treat war like a video game? And do Americans truly realize the cost and consequences of our military engagement? Editor in Chief Robert Scheer, who participated in Thursday’s discussion, has this to say:
In his farewell letter to the American people, President George Washington warned about “the impostures of pretended patriotism.” That is the precise warning that another great and true patriot, Ron Kovic, has been echoing ever since he penned his first classic war memoir some four decades ago.
In “Hurricane Street,” an equally brilliant chronicle of resistance, Kovic offers a deeply moving account of the struggle of Vietnam veterans to hold politicians accountable to the maimed warriors they sent into harm’s way and then abandoned.
Give us your thoughts in the comments section below, or chime in on Facebook.
Check out past live discussions on our YouTube channel.
Ron Kovic, author of “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Hurricane Street,” will be speaking and signing books at the Manhattan Beach Public Library in Manhattan Beach, Calif., on Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. PST. On Aug. 7, from 4 to 7 p.m. PST, Kovic will have a conversation with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer at the Robert Berman Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Calif., to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Born on the Fourth of July” and the publication of his latest book, “Hurricane Street.” The program will be followed by a Q&A and book signing. You can RSVP here.
Sarah Wesley: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Truthdig Live. I’m Sarah, communications coordinator at Truthdig. And today we have a very special guest. In honor of Fourth of July, and all the chaos that’s going on in the world, what better person than Ron Kovic to join us to talk about war, peace, consequences of war, and all things related to the American experience. We are joined by Editor in Chief Robert Scheer and staff assistant Emma Niles. And let’s get right into it.
Ron Kovic is an anti-war and peace activist. This year marks the 40th anniversary of his book “Born on the Fourth of July,” which was turned into an amazing film, and I encourage everyone to see it, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Oliver Stone. And now he has a new book, “Hurricane Street,” which goes into detail about the 17-day sit-in on Wilshire Boulevard, fighting for the rights of veterans. We’re going to go into that a little bit later. So thank you all for tuning in. If you have any questions for Ron, for Robert Scheer, for me, for Emma Niles, please leave your question or comment in the comment section on Facebook, and we will be skimming throughout and making sure we get to them if it’s something that we feel like having a discussion about.
So Robert Scheer and Ron have a pretty interesting story as to how they met, so I’m going to let them go into that right now.
Robert Scheer: Let me just make the point that I had gone to Vietnam as a journalist; I had written about it. And I have always regretted that I didn’t do a better job, and that others in the media didn’t do a better job, or people like Ron wouldn’t have enlisted or been drafted, In his case, he enlisted, served two tours with the Marines, and came back paralyzed from here on —
Ron Kovic: Mid-chest down, yeah.
RS: Mid-chest down. And we’ve known each other for 45 years or so. He was wounded at the time of the Tet Offensive in ’68; I met him a few years later when he was speaking at an anti-war rally here in L.A. And then the thing ended up at the Westwood National Veterans Cemetery. And you can tell that story.
RK: We ended up marching with other veterans against the war. That was Memorial Day1971. And we marched to the cemetery symbolically. And eventually, as the evening came on, most of the veterans left, and the only ones remaining in the graveyard were you and me. And it was a quiet, reflective moment; I remember that. We talked about many things that evening, and that was the beginning of our friendship, with the sea of American flags all around us, and all those gravestones.
RS: And at that time I, to be honest, did not think you’d be around today. I don’t know if I —
RK: And I wondered the same thing about you. [Laughter]
RS: Yeah, well, that was warranted, but I wasn’t paralyzed from here on down. And even then, when your body was stronger in some ways, it was really difficult. And I’ve watched you, I’ve kept in touch, we’ve been friends. And I know that at times you go back into the veterans hospital. And one reason we want to do this on a great occasion, the Fourth of July, the independence of the country, is to remind people that even the good wars have terrible consequences for individuals. And when you have an unnecessary war, which Vietnam was certainly, and other wars we’ve gotten into, it’s particularly tragic, the sacrifice. War is not a video game. It’s not only bad guys who get killed. And I think it’s really an honor to Truthdig that we could have you on this particularly significant day.
RK: It’s an honor to be with you.
RS: The point I was getting at is, also, your life is a tale of survival. And some people look at it and say, there’s Ron Kovic; what’s he got to complain about? Tom Cruise played him in a really big movie nominated for eight Academy Awards; Oliver Stone directed it. And you did find fulfillment in many ways. But when I knew you back when we met at that gravesite —
RK: In the early days.
RS: — I really worried about your — you had post-traumatic stress, injured, with a vengeance; there was a lot of bitterness, a lot of unhappiness. So why don’t you talk about the writing of “Born on the Fourth of July” and what it had to do with your own survival?
RK: First of all, I wasn’t the only one going through nightmares and anxiety attacks. As you say, there were consequences — there are consequences, it’s a price to pay when you send young men and women off to these conflicts. And as citizens of this country, we really don’t seem to take the time to think about what the end product’s going to be, what’s going to happen. In the fall of 1974, I went to Sears and Roebuck in Santa Monica and bought a $42 manual typewriter; and in about one month, three weeks and two days, I wrote the first draft of “Born on the Fourth of July.” It just poured out of me.
In many ways, I was writing it as my last will and testament. I didn’t think I was going to live to be 30. I was having heart palpitations, nightmares, anxiety attacks, as were so many other young men who returned home from that war. I just felt I had to leave something behind; I didn’t think I was going to live that long. I’m amazed: This Monday on July Fourth I’m going to be turning 70 years old, and I’m grateful to still be alive after all these years. I really didn’t think I’d make it to be 30. I was tormented by feelings of survivor’s guilt; I really wondered whether I deserved to be alive. So many of my friends had been killed, and I had been part of the killing of other human beings; I was just very tormented by that war. And it was in that state and during that period in fall 1974 that I decided to try to write the truth about what really happened to me and my generation. And hopefully I can leave something behind worthwhile, something other than a paralyzed body and a wounded spirit.
I was able to write that manuscript very quickly, and eventually it was published; it ended up being reviewed on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. And I was very grateful that my story initially went out to many people, and people were reading the book. And I never imagined at the time that that book, that $42 typewriter and those two months in Santa Monica would eventually lead to millions of people knowing this story.
RS: The story was not just about getting wounded and about trying to survive the American bureaucracy and the indifference —
RK: I protested the war; I was arrested 12 times. I spent many nights in jail. My life was threatened. The police in Los Angeles threatened to throw me off the roof of the jail when they asked me what my occupation was and I said, “Vietnam veteran against the war.” And I remember the police sergeant saying, “Take this guy and throw him off the roof.” Many years have passed since then, and I’ve long since forgiven anyone who has spoken those words or done anything to me in the past. It was a very difficult time, a painful time; it was a convulsive period in American history. It was probably the most polarizing time in America since the Civil War, and I can certainly understand.
RS: But it should be pointed out that these wounds last. Your life is threatened by these wounds all the time. As a result you’ve been going in and out of the Long Beach veterans hospital, the spinal care —
RK: Let me say, as will so many young men and women who’ve come back from our country’s foreign policy deployments and decisions — I’m an example of so many others, thousands of others in this country who are going to have to keep going back to VA hospitals for care, in outpatient clinics for the rest of their lives.
RS: And you meet those people now.
RK: Not just physical. Not just paraplegics, not just amputees, but young men and women who suffer psychological damage because of the horrors of combat, the trauma of being put in these violent situations. Between 18 and 22 of our Iraq and Afghan veterans a day are committing suicide. That’s unconscionable. It’s unacceptable. It’s outrageous that these young men and women are committing suicide at such an alarming rate. I think it’s important that people realize that this is a consequence — physical, emotional, psychological. And you better be cautious before you so flippantly send these precious young sons and daughters off to these conflicts. You better know what you’re talking about. You better be sure that this is a fight you want to get involved in. Because if not, you’re wasting lives, and we must not waste; it’s outrageous.
RS: I do want to mention your new book, “Hurricane Street,” that’s just been published along with the new edition [of “Born on the Fourth of July”], that has a foreword by Bruce Springsteen —
RK: Fortieth anniversary.
RS: — 40th anniversary, but I do want to say “Hurricane Street” really chronicles an important event, one of many you participated in —
RK: A hunger strike by paralyzed veterans in the spring of 1974. Just as the war in Vietnam was ending, veterans at the Long Beach VA,in California and myself took over a senator’s office, Sen. Alan Cranston —
RS: A liberal Democratic senator.
RK: — on a very important veterans hospital committee in Washington. And why did we take over that? Because of the poor conditions of the VA hospital, not only in Long Beach, not only the spinal cord injury center but in VA hospitals throughout the country. We knew that something had to be done. We had already organized, inside the hospital the year before, we had organized a group called the Patient Worker’s Rights Committee, that did not last. And we felt the conditions were getting worse in that hospital and in others. We were receiving many reports. And so we decided to convoy with our cars, our hand-controlled cars, paralyzed veterans, to Sen. Cranston’s office on Wilshire Boulevard, 11000 Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, California. On the 13th floor office of his building, we decided to sit in for that night.
We spent one night, and that sit-in eventually escalated into a hunger strike which became a national story and reached millions of people. We went 17 days — paralyzed veterans, quadriplegics, some of the most catastrophic wounds of that war — had to lie on mattresses in a senator’s office in their hunger-strike encampment, in their veteran’ rights encampment, demanding to be treated with dignity, demanding to be treated like human beings. While this government was spending millions if not billions of dollars on the most technologically advanced weaponry of war and of killing, they couldn’t seem to care for their most severely wounded who had come home. This was absurd and outrageous, that paralyzed veterans had to risk their lives once again. It was very emotional, it affected not only Los Angeles. We received a tremendous amount of media coverage; and eventually, 17 days having gone without food, trying to hold this group together — because it threatened to fall apart several different times; it wasn’t easy — we finally forced Donald Johnson, head of the VA at the time, to fly out from Washington, D.C. — actually, President Nixon told him to go and meet with us. And he finally met with us, and that was the end of the strike; it was a great victory for us in that last spring before the [end of the] war.
RS: Let me ask our younger editors here at Truthdig. You know, now war is often presented as a video game; it seems almost enjoyable as well as exciting. Drone attacks only hit the bad people, according to our president — only bad people get hurt. How does this all register on you?
EN: Well, I’m interested that you brought up drone strikes, because I think the idea that drone strikes only hit the bad people is inherently untrue. Because first of all, how do you define what a bad person is; that’s just whoever the government decides is our enemy. Also, I think we are pretty positive that drone strikes have a lot of civilian casualties as well. Obama’s supposed to come out and say that it’s around 100 [civilians since 2009], but most other places report that the number is much, much higher than that. So I think, speaking for a more peace-focused younger generation, that there’s still a lot of distrust with what the government does in terms of, I think, establishing who our enemy is and how much they tell us about the action that we’re taking against them.
SW: I agree with that. I also think that there’s a very serious problem when it comes to the ways that war propaganda is perpetuated throughout the country and the world. As you mentioned, that it seems like a video game; a lot of video games, like “Call of Duty,” encourage killing and violence, and it’s like you can just reset your life and have another one without having to really think about the consequences. And I think a lot of the youth and a lot of kids look at war that way, because all we see are the images on television, the same way that you’d see a video game on television. And there’s that disconnect between reality and what’s really going on. I don’t know if that’s necessarily intentional for the country, in order to recruit — that could be a conversation. But I think there’s a huge disconnect between the way we view war and the reality of the consequences of war.
RK: I was just thinking about this: We’re talking about our wounded veterans — as Americans, we never think about the fact that millions of Vietnamese were wounded, were killed in that war. Two to 3 million Vietnamese died in that war.
RS: [The late Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara talked about maybe he could have been judged a war criminal because he had a change of heart at the end of his life, and his own son stopped talking to him. And McNamara said that he accepted the figure that 3 1/2 million Indochinese had died.
RK: And how many, how many, how many Ron Kovics? How many paralyzed Vietnamese came home to their villages that we’ll never know about? We’ll never know the names of these villages; we’ll never know their mothers and their fathers. But they had mothers and fathers too, like my mother and father in Massapequa, Long Island. In that place far away, thousands of miles away, there were human beings too. And they fought in that war, and they wore uniforms; they died, they were paralyzed, they were wounded; believe me, they came home to their small villages, their poor villages, whether it was in North Vietnam or South Vietnam, and they suffered, they had nightmares, they had anxiety attacks. And if they could build a wall — as we built that beautiful memorial in Washington, the Vietnam memorial — if the Vietnamese could build a wall in Vietnam for all who died in that war, that wall would go on for miles. That wall would reach all the way to the White House. All the way to the Capitol. It’s something to reflect on, the fact that we as Americans seem to focus on our young men — we don’t realize that in war, it’s not just one side that gets wounded; there are so many more people involved. And so many more people than the combatants who are killed and wounded: their mothers, their fathers, their sisters, their girlfriends, their lovers, their children. I mean, there’s a ripple effect; war is such a terrible thing.
There’s got to be an alternative to this; we’ve got to find alternative ways, whether it be diplomatically, creatively, there’s got to be an alternative to this type of brute-force bombing, killing, pulling triggers, taking lives out of this world. I have seen it in the intensive care ward; I have lived with it every day for 48 years. I know what war is, I know what it does to human beings. I understand the psychological damage, the emotional terror of war, the suffering that individual human beings go through, the thin line between life and death and between wanting to live and wanting to give up on life. What war does. And I know we have to find, on this Fourth of July I want all of you to reflect and to begin to believe there is a way we can move away from this violence, away from the terror, and move toward a more cooperative way of living with each other. You know, we’re all in this world together; we’ve got to find a more peaceful, nonviolent approach. I know we can do it; it’s not impossible. I stake my life on it.
SW: I agree. I’m actually reading a collection of works by Dr. [Martin Luther] King, who we know was a big proponent of nonviolence. He has a quote that I think would go great with what you just said. He said, “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.” That statement alone is something that, as we go into the election, our leaders need to think about and to hold true to their philosophies on foreign affairs. Because the more you perpetuate hate and the more you perpetuate violence, the more there’s going to be. It’s a snowball effect. But as soon as you incorporate some sort of love or understanding with the opponent, the enemy, that’s when you break that chain, and that’s when you stop things like war from happening. And I have a follow-up question, for people who might not have read [Born on the Fourth of July] and who haven’t seen the movie, what was your mind-state like, what were you thinking, and what was your experience when you decided to enlist? Because there’s been a complete transformation from that perspective to now.
RK: I grew up in a lower-income, working family on Long Island. My dad was an A&P food store manager; my mom was a housewife, raised three of my other brothers and my two sisters. I grew up in a very patriotic family; my mother and father served during World War II. Both were in the Navy; they joined right after Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. And I was a Boy Scout and a Cub Scout, and I played in the Massapequa Little League. I wasn’t a great student in high school, I had a difficult time; I actually liked athletics. I wanted to play for the New York Yankees, I wanted to be a major league baseball player. Actually, the only reading I did in those periods, I’d go to the library and I’d read about all my sports heroes.
But I always loved telling stories as well. I really didn’t, at that age, question authority. I did not doubt my country. My country, as far as I was concerned, was the greatest country in the world; it could never do any wrong. All of that was to be eventually shattered in Vietnam, and shattered in my combat experiences and what I saw there. My experience watching the movies that I grew up on — “The Big Picture” on Channel 2, about World War II and the glorification of war, the romance of war — John Wayne and Audie Murphy, and the plastic Matty Mattel machine guns, the battery-operated machine guns I got for Christmas, playing guns in the woods with my friends in the streets back in the 1950s. Dreaming of the day — inspired by John F. Kennedy, inspired by Douglas MacArthur’s speech at West Point, reading it and having tears come to my eyes. Just being proud of being born on the Fourth of July, can’t wait to serve my country. But it was not just that; a lot of my friends were going off to college, and quite frankly, my grades weren’t good enough and I couldn’t afford to go to college.
And like so many millions of young men who ended up going to that war from lower-income, working-class families, I ended up signing up because — it was not so simple. My father kept saying you got to get a job, you got to get a job. I worked in a food store for a while. But a part of me wanted to make my mother and father proud of me. I wanted to do something. And I felt a bit insecure that all my friends were going off to college, and I wasn’t going to go to college, and I was working in some supermarket. And I decided maybe I could join the Marine Corps; my parents would be proud of me, and I could come home in a Marine Corps uniform, they’ll be proud of me. So there were a lot of reasons why I joined. But when I did, I was truly inspired by Kennedy, that was a big factor, Kennedy’s asking us what we could do for our country. And I really loved my country, I really wanted to serve my country, I was proud to be an American, and I couldn’t wait to be of service to my country, as the young president at the time had asked me to do.
EN: How do you think patriotism in the United States stands now? I wasn’t alive at that time, obviously, but I get the feeling that now, there are a lot more people disillusioned. But also, with drone strikes and things like that, I feel like, like you were saying, so many people that we don’t think about are being affected; but it seems like less and less of the Americans are getting injured. So how do you think that plays into our current state of patriotism?
RK: We have to be more aware of what’s happening, what this foreign policy really means. That human beings like ourselves are being killed, they’re being hurt, they’re being damaged, they’re being displaced — millions of Iraqis displaced. How many Iraqis killed during the war in Iraq? Talk about “shock and awe” — what an awful expression. “Shock” and “awe”? That sounds like terrorism to me. What are we trying to do? I was watching the news last night about the recent, awful bombing in Turkey at the airport, terrible bombing. And then all of a sudden, I hear the pundits talking about we’ve got the fear that we’re about to be attacked here in this country. I think more than fear right now, we need to come together as a people, we need to recognize the strength in our community. Rather than Republican, Democrat, liberal, right wing, left wing, red, blue state, we’re all citizens of this country, and this is a very difficult time that we’re in right now.
I think there is a way forward, but there is an intelligent way forward, not a brutal, violent approach. Martin Luther King used to also say that we have to break this cycle of violence, that violence begets more violence, and that violence is not the answer. That there’s a different approach we have to take as a people, as a country, as Americans, as human beings, and as a world in general. We have to really stop for a moment and recognize our humanity; we need to come together, rather than run from each other and be afraid, we need to join together at this time, and we need to find the very best approach forward. And hopefully, hopefully, we can challenge ourselves to find it as a peaceful, nonviolent approach where we can do our very best to avoid the continuation of the violence now happening in this country and in the world.
SW: Just speaking from an opposing point of view, because I have a very split family; half of my family are proponents for war and half are proponents for peace and no war. With your experience and phenomenal story, do you see a place for war, ever? Because the world is filled with hate right now; we have terrorist groups, not just in America but across the [world]. A lot of countries are facing this kind of terror. And without the threat of having that military base or that war, some may argue that it’s absolutely necessary to have some sort of national security protection with the threat of war.
RK: There’s nothing wrong with protecting yourself; there’s nothing wrong with avoiding being harmed and protecting our people to the very utmost that we can; nothing wrong with that. But if you’re talking about going to war against people like this — describe it for me. What would that look like? What would it look like if America –we hear so many politicians, quite a few right now, one in particular running for president, and for that matter both running for president — talking about the need to go to war. Define that for me. What is that going to look like? What is that going to mean? What are you going to do? Are you going to send more troops? Where? To Syria? What is that going to look like? What are the consequences of that? What are you getting us into? What is going to be the result of that? And is there another approach to this, other than the approach that we’ve been using again and again and again that only causes more and more problems? I think we see that from Vietnam; we see that from Iraq and Afghanistan, and post-9/11 behavior, which has been quite outrageous. There’s got to be a different approach. Do you agree?
SW: I agree completely. I’m not a supporter of war; I think there are smarter ways. I think the human race is intelligent enough to devise ways to combat terror.
RK: Let me ask you, then: even against this present threat, even against terror, even against people that don’t seem to care about human life, or at least appear not to care? I wonder sometimes, as I say that, I can’t help but think about our own war in Vietnam, our own bombing in Vietnam. I can’t help but think about us going thousands of miles to some country that never attacked us, and millions of people dying. And wondering wondering whether we really care —
RS: Listen, I want to ask you about that. Because you were wounded in 1968 — right? Around the time of the Tet Offensive. And you had first gone into Vietnam what year?
RK: I went there in December of 1965 for the first time, in Cua Viet, Vietnam.
RS: And I had gone to Vietnam as a journalist the first time in ’64, and then in 65 I was there. And the whole assumption — first of all, one reason we expanded the war into North Vietnam was based on an absolute lie, the Gulf of Tonkin attack. And we now have the declassified documents that have shown there was no such attack, and that the president knew it at the time he ordered the escalation. And since I was there, and interviewed people in Washington, Saigon and so forth, we’d ask people, “Why are we in Vietnam? Why are we going to Vietnam?” And they’d say, “Because if we don’t stop em in Vietnam, we’ll have to stop em in San Diego” — I’m sure you heard those arguments. “The Vietnamese are an extension of the Chinese, they’re an extension of the Russians” —
RK: The domino theory.
RS: The domino theory and all that. So that’s the basis on which very smart, well-educated people, McNamara being one of them, said you should go there, that it’s the future of our country and its security. Then they said, “If we lose in Vietnam, it’s going to be terrible because they’ll invade us here.” Not that Vietnam had a navy or anything that could do that. But there was something, when you look back on it from your position, the cost to you personally, when you look back and say, wait a minute — what happened to those arguments? We did lose in Vietnam, the most ignominious defeat the U.S. has had; people had to be lifted off the Embassy. We lost. And what is the result? The result was not that the Vietnamese or the Chinese communists invaded San Diego. Actually, what happened was the Vietnamese and Chinese communists are now competing to sell us clothing. Everything I put on this morning was either made in Vietnam or China. Every tape recorder I looked at was either made in China or some other country. We have Donald Trump railing against the Chinese, not for invading us, but for selling us stuff. Making products. So I was thinking about you this morning when I was getting dressed; you sacrificed — and not just you; so many people sacrificed — for an idea that at the time had to be known by smart and educated people to be a fraud. Communism was not unified; the Russians and the Chinese were already fighting; the Vietnamese never liked any of them, had been occupied by China and so forth. So as you’ve gone through life learning more about this, how does it register on you?
RK: I feel very blessed and grateful that even though I went through a great deal of pain and suffering, as so many did on both sides, I became committed — I was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King. I was at the St. Albans Naval Hospital on Long Island with other severely wounded Marines. I remember that spring after being wounded in January of ’68; I came home alive, was so grateful to be alive, so grateful. I was in an intensive care ward where people were dying right next to me, where I was given the last rites of the Catholic Church, they didn’t think I was going to live. I’m here. I’m here. And I’m committed to peace and nonviolence. Martin Luther King died on April 4, 1968, while I was still at the St. Albans Naval Hospital, and then, at the Bronx VA hospital several months later. I had been reading a book all week, and the book — I had first allowed myself to read this book by Robert Kennedy called “To Seek a Newer World.” And I was reading this book — I was just beginning to take a look at Kennedy. I had been so supportive of the war; Kennedy was now opposing the war, and running for president in ’68. And then one morning, I heard on the news that at the Ambassador Hotel, in — when was that, June of ’68, Robert Kennedy had been shot and killed. A peace advocate, supporting a peaceful end to that war, an end to the — he saw it for what it was, he knew by that time that it was madness. He knew that it was senseless, as so many wars are. And he understood it had to end. He understood that it was tearing this country apart, and it was going to ruin this country if it continued on, and that it was a disastrous mistake as a foreign policy decision. And he was doing everything he could to stop it, and then he was killed. I was inspired by Robert Kennedy saying, ” ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world, a better world.” And I thought of King, and King’s commitment, to the very end of his life on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, committed to peace and nonviolence, and he really meant it. He meant it from his heart, and he meant it from his soul. He was ready to risk his life; he gave everything he could for that commitment that he made. It was a spiritual commitment, and it did not come easy to him. It did not come easily to me to raise my voice and speak out against that war. I was afraid at first, what might happen to me, who might criticize me; I might be on some FBI list. And what would my fellow veterans think of me for opposing what I now felt to be a war that had to end? I had seen some of the worst wounded in the hospitals; I had been in the intensive care ward; I had been on the battlefield and had been shot. The first Marine to come up from behind to get me had been shot in the heart and killed. I had somehow been carried back under heavy fire by another Marine who I was never to see or hear from again; until years later, when the movie came out, I found out that he had been killed that same day that he saved my life in January of 1968, he had been killed in an artillery attack as I was being carried back across the Cua Viet River to an aid station, and then eventually sent to the intensive care ward in Da Nang.
No, I feel like my life has been a blessing. I have been able to become who I’ve become. That’s why when I speak to your students twice a year, I feel happiness and joy. I’m grateful to be alive. Life is worth living. At one time I was a warrior in Vietnam, and in many ways — you know, I never felt particularly comfortable with the word “warrior.” Someone once wrote that I was a warrior for peace, but I never quite liked that word. One of the most wonderful things that you could say, if you want to say anything about me, is that I’m a peacemaker. I’m trying my best to move as many people as possible away from the violence and the insanity and the senselessness of war, toward a more peaceful path, a nonviolent path, inspired by Dr. King, inspired by so many others who have come and gone along the way, who have made commitments to a more peaceful, nonviolent and better world. I really try my best to be kind, to be positive, and to do the very best and to continue to contribute every single day. If I can do that, and if I can still be grateful for every day, and if I can still survive, as Bob says, after all these years, then I believe — that’s my faith, that’s my simple faith. That we as a people in this world can become a better place. And just before Franklin Roosevelt died at the end of World War II, which was a catastrophic war, Roosevelt said he believed, he had a faith, a simple faith that the world was still, despite this cataclysm, this horror of World War II, and all the wars prior to that, that the world was still moving in an upward curve. And that always moved me when I read that, that Franklin Roosevelt said that despite all that we’ve just experienced here, he still believed we could be better, that we were moving toward a better place, and we’ve got to believe that.
RS: You made a very moving statement about the consequences of war. However, every time I’ve turned on the television the last few days, there’s this movie, “Independence Day”: “They picked on the wrong planet. Pow! We’re going to fight back, kill!” And one of the things we’ve been able to do with these drone strikes — the big response to Vietnam was, end the draft; let’s get the killing done mechanically, let’s not have this living evidence of the cost. And if there’s going to be dead people, let them be others. You know, Syrians, Iraqis. So let me ask you. We’ve got a 22-year-old and a 25-year-old here.
SW: Twenty-six. [Laughter] Don’t forget a year! Every year’s a blessing.
RS: What is your [generation] — we don’t have a draft, and we always seem to be the good guys again; the other guys are all terrorists, bad people, blah blah blah. How does it register? Are we getting any questions from people about that?
EN: Yeah, actually. Speaking of younger people, I’m curious: You were talking about, Ron, your experience when you were young and impressionable, and people are questioning — and this was true at my school, even, and I’m from Culver City, a little area — a military presence at high schools and junior colleges to recruit people. I think as much as you want to blame movies and video game culture, really, someone has to be harnessing that sentiment. So I don’t think people who are playing violent video games are just going out and enlisting, or suddenly OK with drone-strike policies; but I think that maybe if you are accustomed to that culture, you would be more likely to buy into military recruitment if you’re just a high schooler. And I was wondering, Ron, what you thought about military recruitment at schools and how that makes you feel, in terms of that being something that is still happening across the country.
RK: I just remember when I was in high school in 1964 when the Marine recruiters — it was in the movie “Born on the Fourth of July.” It was a very powerful scene in the film, where recruiters came to our high school and we were just young and innocent, the way all young men and women are. I think many young men and women who join, who end up in these conflicts, theaters of conflict — they want to do their best; like myself, they probably want to prove, be the best they can for their mothers and their fathers and their hometowns. And it’s very innocent. They don’t know a whole lot, you know, but they have a fierce young passion for being a part of something, serving, wanting to do the best that they can possibly do. And perhaps they’re angry because of 9/11, as my mother and father were upset because of Pearl Harbor. But there’s always a reason. And I wish there was, you know, perhaps maybe with the writing of “Born on the Fourth of July” and the movie, and my book “Hurricane Street” there’ll be an alternative to that point of view that they receive when recruiters go to campuses, with all respect to the recruiters who go, with all respect to what their intentions might be. Perhaps what I’m trying to do, and what I’ve tried to do for the last 46, -seven years as a committed activist on behalf of peace and nonviolence, perhaps I, hopefully, I can influence on person. I was in the supermarket about a year ago, and I met a young man who was working at a checkout counter. And he was helping me shop, and he was telling me he was about to join the Marines. And I did my best to tell him what my experiences were like, and I encouraged him — I actually went and got my book, and when I went shopping again in that supermarket, I brought “Born on the Fourth of July” and I gave it to him. But he still joined, still went in. So it’s challenging; it’s difficult.
RS: Let me ask you a question about “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Hurricane Street.” And one of the reasons we’re doing this is I do want to encourage people to get these books. Because it’s the other side of war. And “Born on the Fourth of July” was a considerable success as a book; it was a New York Times best-seller. But what really gave it life was another Vietnam veteran, Oliver Stone, who was moved by this; he had made his own story, “Platoon” —
RK: “Platoon,” yeah.
RS: Basically about his own experience; he had also gone for two tours of duty–
RK: And he was wounded in Vietnam; he received a Bronze Star with a combat “V” for valor, and he also received a Purple Heart.
RS: Right. So for once, we had a war movie made by people who had been in a war. And it wasn’t just some fantasy. You mentioned John Wayne; well, Wayne had not seen any combat, he’d been a Hollywood actor during the war. And so maybe if you could — since this is the Fourth of July, and it’s the anniversary of that movie and the book as well — how did that movie come to be made? Because after all, Hollywood was not in the business of telling the truth about war. It glorified war.
RK: Even at first the publisher was — people were afraid to publish books about the Vietnam War. I was very fortunate to find a terrific editor and a publishing company that was willing to publish this book. When the book came out, it was reviewed on the front page of the — I think it was Aug. 15th, 1976, New York Times, Sunday New York Times Book Review. C.B. Bryan, wrote the review, and he wrote a terrific review, I was very grateful. And it was just a few weeks after that, maybe only a week or two, we received a call from a producer, Martin Bregman, who had read the review; hadn’t even read “Born on the Fourth of July “yet, he had read the New York Times review. That was enough for him to see that there was a potential film in this story. And he contacted me through the agent that was representing me at the time, Lynn Nesbit at International Creative Management in New York. Her office called me and said “Martin Bregman, who’s also representing the actor Al Pacino, would like to meet with you in New York, and perhaps Pacino also.” So I remember being very anxious, wondering — he said, “Wants to make a movie about your book.” And I remember thinking, I was a bit afraid and anxious and a bit nervous about the fact that, what would this do to me? What would this bring up inside of me? Would I be able to survive emotionally making this film? And I had a lot of hesitancy about that, about even wanting to go to New York. But then I thought to myself, I have given a lot of speeches about that war, and I have been thrown in jail quite a few times. I have been arrested 12 times; I have been threatened for speaking out against the war. And I had addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1976 in Madison Square Garden, and I had seconded the nomination of a war resister for vice president in front of millions of Americans, prime time. Fred Seafore, who had returned from exile — a conscientious objector who chose because of his conscience he did not want to participate in the war in Vietnam — he left the country, like thousands of other young Americans who were forced to leave this country rather than fight in a war they didn’t believe was just, was moral, was right. And so I found myself on the podium of the Democratic Convention, following the speech of a Gold Star Mother who lost her son in Vietnam, Louise Ransome; she spoke first, honoring — this was during President Carter’s convention, and he was pushing an amnesty program, bring back these young men from exile who were forced to flee the country because they didn’t want to fight in Vietnam. And by that time, I supported these men who had left the country rather than fighting a war that had paralyzed me for the rest of my life. And I remember going up there and speaking in front of that convention, and the cameras and Walter Cronkite and the whole country. And that was probably the largest audience I had spoken to up until that point. But here, now, was the opportunity to reach millions of people with a motion picture with Al Pacino, of all people. And the only movie I’d seen Al Pacino in was “Dog Day Afternoon,” which I thought he was great in. And so I ended up thinking to myself, when am I going to have another chance like this? When will another opportunity, regardless of — and I thought to myself, well, if this experience in going through this is too much emotionally and it drives me crazy, at least I’ll have enough money to afford a therapist. [Laughter] I really thought that! That sounds funny, outrageous; but I thought to myself, at least they can give me some money, and I’ll be able to afford somebody who can help me to get my head back together again if this thing destroys me emotionally. So — and by the way, just before we started shooting in Dallas in ’88, where we initially shot “Born on the Fourth of July” before going to the Philippines — I felt, what is this going to do to me? I was afraid to go down —
RS: This is when Tom Cruise was in the —
RK: Yeah, Tom Cruise. … Let me make a long story short by saying, so, I eventually went to New York and met with Bregman. That was our initial meeting; I agreed to allowing them to take out a six-month option. And I’d say about two or three weeks later, the agent called me up and said, “Martin Bregman wants you to come in.” By the way, he was the producer, I believe, of “Serpico,” which Al Pacino starred in. Martin Bregman and Al Pacino, now, wanted to meet with me in Martin Bregman’s office in New York City. So I jumped in a cab again; this time they were paying for it. And so I took a cab —
RS: But how do you jump into a cab?
RK: Well, I transferred [Laughter] out of my wheelchair into a cab. Back then, actually — I was always quite an athlete in high school, I was a gymnast and I was a pretty good athlete at the time.
RS: You used to have the hand-operated wheelchair.
RK: I used to push a manual wheelchair for many years until I began to have problems with my shoulders, but that’s another thing. Let me —
RS: Why don’t I just tell the story about Tom Cruise doing wheelies?
RK: Let me give you just a short bridge here. Al Pacino ended up not doing this, and it fell apart within a couple days of principal photography in New York, so that fell apart. Oliver Stone was still unknown; he had been hired as a second screenwriter; he had written a screenplay at the time which was acceptable to both Pacino and Bregman. And so it fell apart, and we were both very upset. Nobody wanted to do “Platoon” at the time, said it was too much, they don’t want to do it. And by that time, Oliver was assigned to adapt my book for the screen.
Anyway, the film fell apart, and I’m in an elevator with Oliver Stone at Bregman’s building in New York. And I remember Oliver Stone saying, “If I ever make it in Hollywood, if I ever break through as a filmmaker, I’ll come back for you and I’ll make ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’ ” And years later, he finally did have that breakthrough with “Platoon,” a phenomenal success, worldwide success. And he did make that call back to me, and he did come back. And one thing led to another. I met with Tom Cruise, and he was perfect for the role. And I started working with Tom. And what Bob is talking about right now, on one particular day Tom came over to my house in Redondo Beach; I was renting a house, and I took him into the backyard. And on that day, I was in a manual wheelchair and I was showing him how to do a wheelie. And I was quite good at it; I had a lot of practice. One of the first things I learned in the physical therapy room at the Bronx VA was how to do a wheelie. So I was balancing on my wheels — actually, doing a wheelie helped you go down a curb; that’s why we learned to do it. But I’m doing a wheelie, said this is easy, this is what you — so Tom got into his wheelchair. He would come over in a wheelchair, you know; he’d get out of his car and get into his wheelchair and he’d meet me at my house, and we’d go in my backyard. And it was a mostly cement yard, and bricks; and Tom popped the wheelchair back and immediately went over backwards, smashed his head on the cement, and it bounced like it was a watermelon, just bounced like a ball. And he started laughing. That’s what I remember about Tom Cruise, his amazing commitment to this role and to this film. And he started laughing, and he got up right away and said, “I want to do it again.” And he tried it again and again, and I think he fell two or three more times before he finally got it, and he was so thrilled, he was so excited when he finally had learned to do a wheelie in a wheelchair.
SW: Wow! Wow, he has a great personality and a great spirit. And speaking of great spirits, I think your story is absolutely phenomenal. And I think it’s just incredible that you’ve been able to remain in such high spirits after everything that you’ve been through, and have transformed your experience into something positive that will help people across the country and the world. Thank you so much for joining us today at Truthdig.
RK: It’s such an honor to be here, a privilege and a pleasure to be with all of you; I’m very grateful for this.
RS: Excuse me, we should also mention, you are a Truthdig writer.
RK: I am.
RS: You’ve been writing for us for the last 10 years.
RK: I really admire Truthdig.
RS: I mean, the books are great, but let’s not forget that you are, just like these two people, a member of our Truthdig team.
RK: And very proud of it, I must say. Very proud of it.
RS: And that’s why we’re really happy to have you here.
EN: — she likes Truthdig on Facebook, and we thank her for her comment. She wants to know, beyond popular resistance, what are other measures to disrupt and shut down the U.S. war machine? What can the average person do?
RK: Raise your voice. I remember an old Norman Rockwell painting on — what magazine would he paint for? Look magazine? —
EN, SW: Saturday Evening Post.
RS: Saturday Evening Post. And it was a small town in America, and it was a guy just starting to stand up at some meeting in a small town, do you remember? I think it was called — with his hand up like this? — “Freedom of Speech.” I would encourage her to find the courage within yourself to speak. Because it’s amazing, when she raises her voice and stands up and speaks, how many other people find courage and speak as well. And that’s how movements, and that’s how change occurs.
SW: Great question. And I do have one last question, because we are in the middle of a crazy election: Do you have any personal philosophies that you would like to see any presidential candidate stick by, amidst all of this chaos that we have?
RK: Respect, respect the human life, and especially in regard to not only our foreign policy, but our domestic policy; the way we relate to our citizens, the way we police our cities, the way we care for each other. And I’m talking about a mutual respect for both sides, for the people involved in controlling situations, and the other people who are the subject of those particular controls, which sometimes are necessary. That there be a mutual respect, and we somehow find a way to work together. I think it’s possible; I don’t think it’s impossible, I think we can do it. We need to move in a direction, we need to respect each other as human beings, regardless of where we come from, who we are. And that’s not just as Americans, but as human beings, we’re all in this world together and we need to recognize that, and we need to practice, we need to love and we need to practice peace. Love and peace, yes.
RS: I just want to have you end on reading from your classic book, “Born on the Fourth of July,” and your poem. It’s not Memorial Day, it’s the Fourth of July, but the point is —
RK: This is a poem at the beginning of “Born on the Fourth of July”:
RS: That you wrote.
RK: Yes, that I wrote in the fall of 1974:
I am the living death the memorial day on wheels I am your yankee doodle dandy your john wayne come home your fourth of july firecracker exploding in the grave
SW: Hit me to the core. I just want to thank you again for honoring us today with this wonderful conversation. Thank you, Robert Scheer, as well for joining us for another one of our Facebook Live videos. And Emma Niles, of course, tuning in with the user perspective as well. I do want to mention that —
RS: You should mention who you are.
SW: I’m Sarah, communications oordinator here at Truthdig and hosting the Facebook Live videos. Before we exit, I’d like to tell everyone that Ron is speaking and signing books on July 6 at 7 p.m. at Manhattan Beach Public Library. And then Robert Scheer and Ron will speak at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica for a conversation celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Born on the Fourth of July.” So if you’re interested in that, you can find more information on our website; if you go and you type in “Hurricane Street” at the search, it should pop right up; that’s probably the easiest way to find it. You’ll also have the link on our YouTube video that we post, and on our Facebook page we’ll have information as well. Again, I encourage everyone to get “Born on the Fourth of July” by Ron Kovic, and “Hurricane Street,” his newest book, basically telling all about the 17-day hunger strike —
RK: In Sen. Cranston’s office.
SW: — in Sen. Cranston’s office —
RK: — in the spring of 1974.
SW: — in the spring of 1974. It’s right here, make sure you go out and get these two books; you can find more information on our website. And if you haven’t already subscribed to our newsletter, go to truthdig.com/support to donate, and you will also find a subscription link there as well.
Thank you, everyone, for tuning in, and we’ll see you next time on Facebook Live.Wait, before you go…
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