Ron Kovic Reborn
The day Baghdad fell, Ron Kovic was back in the Veterans Affairs hospital. Not the shameful Bronx VA that Kovic's 1976 book, "Born on the Fourth of July," and later, Oliver Stone's academy award-winning movie of the same name, exposed -- which was subsequently condemned and torn down -- but the Long Beach, Calif., VA hospital. Kovic, 56, had gone in for a checkup at the spinal cord injury outpatient clinic, only to find his doctor expressing worry over potential cutbacks, a situation reminiscent of spending priorities at the close of the Vietnam War.
"We're putting all of these millions of dollars into warfare when the disabled of our country, disabled veterans and disabled citizens, are in need. Many of them live below the poverty level," says the man whose life was portrayed onscreen in 1989 by Tom Cruise. "This policy of aggression, this policy of arrogance, of blindness, of recklessness, I don't think this is going to help America. I think that this behavior, which I abhor, this policy, which I strongly disagree with, is leading this country in the wrong direction."
Kovic was not always this eloquent. His voice has been shaped by war, its destructive aftermath and decades of fearless commitment to protesting governmental policies that support war. To Kovic, war is not an abstraction, not a neatly packaged television graphic -- The War with Saddam -- not a map bristling with colored pins. It's blood-and-guts reality, and he owns it. He's a streetwise activist who speaks like a polished politician -- the cadence, the repetition, the dramatic diction, streams of words pouring forth, demanding attention: "I think this policy is so wrong, and so misguided, and I may be one of the few Americans saying that right now, but I believe strongly in what I'm saying, and I'll say it today, even on this day -- [the day Baghdad fell]. This is a terribly misguided policy that will backfire, this will not stand, this will not work, this will work only against us. This will not lead us to peace and this will not lead us to justice, and this will not lead us to a safer world but a more dangerous world, a more dangerous and unstable Middle East. I think this is going to hurt America."
The Road to Rage
He first spoke out in public against war at Levittown High School on Long Island, N.Y., in 1969. He was 23 years old, still adjusting to the T4-6 spinal cord injury he had sustained in combat in January 1968, still feeling conspicuous in his wheelchair. It was baptism by fire. For a Vietnam veteran to speak out against the war at this time was tantamount to sacrilege, and dangerous: "All week I had not wanted to go because I had never spoken in public before, I was very hesitant, and Bob Muller, who later became the founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America, had finally convinced me to come down and join him that day, and I went out on the stage and there was this bomb threat. We had to evacuate the auditorium and go out to the grandstands on the football field. That was quite a beginning for me."
And an even more dramatic turnaround. Kovic had been a gung-ho Marine who had volunteered to serve a second tour of duty in Vietnam, a young man whose parents had both served in World War II, whose uncles had been Marines, who had been deeply disturbed by growing protests against the war and who had not hesitated to volunteer for a dangerous mission the day he was shot. But his experience in the Bronx VA Hospital opened his eyes. "They used to call it the Bronx Zoo. It was there that I began to wonder why I and the others had gone to Vietnam in the first place. And whether we had lost our bodies for nothing. It was in that place going through the sometimes-abusive conditions that I was slowly becoming aware and recognizing what had happened. And I remember seeing all the wounded around me, getting a full picture, which you never saw, for instance, during the recent war coverage on CNN or Fox News. You'll never see what I saw."
What he saw was an understaffed, outdated veterans hospital teeming with paralyzed bodies, amputees and head injuries. And why were they being treated like disposable parts of a machine instead of heroes? The questions yielded no satisfactory answers, and anger and bitterness grew in the vacuum. "I'm not ashamed to admit that I felt enraged," he says. "God, I gave so much."
Not long after leaving the Bronx VA for the second time, he moved to California, where he was influenced by author/screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. "I remember reading his book -- 'Johnny Got His Gun' -- a powerful antiwar novel [set in World War I and published in 1939]. I had just become involved with the vets against the war, just hesitantly beginning to oppose the war in 1970-71." Kovic attended the opening of the movie based on the book, where he met Trumbo and actor Donald Sutherland. "It was an extraordinary evening, and I thanked them that night and it was thrilling to meet Trumbo. He was one of the Hollywood 10, definitely a man of his conviction, someone I respected." Trumbo, suspected of having communist ties, was imprisoned for nearly a year in 1950 for refusing to testify before a congressional committee, then blacklisted by Hollywood until the late 1960s. "I really think his book influenced the very heart and soul of my writing of 'Born on the Fourth of July.'"
The year prior to the release of the film version of "Johnny Got His Gun," National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine. To this day Kovic maintains a close connection with Kent State students. In the late 1970s he was arrested for protesting the desecration of the site of the massacre and has spoken on campus a number of times, primarily on the anniversary of the shootings. "I was deeply affected by what happened on that date," he says, referring to May 4, 1970 -- one of the darkest days of the Vietnam era, on a par with the infamous My Lai massacre.
As if witnessing this kind of government-sanctioned madness weren't enough, Kovic had to deal with his own personal My Lai -- his platoon had killed innocent villagers. Babies. And then there was the young corporal from Georgia, who Kovic accidentally shot and killed in a chaotic firefight.
Add to this the allure of fate: The most important dates in Kovic's life coincided with two of his country's most important historic dates. Most people know the significance of his birthdate from his book or Stone's movie, but many do not know that he was shot and paralyzed, in effect reborn as a paralyzed vet, the same day Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated his last birthday. He would later choose King as his model for nonviolent protest in the streets.
That Kovic's birthday falls on the same day his country celebrates the birth of democracy goes beyond mere coincidence. As a child, year after year he celebrated Independence Day as the high point of his life: "We'd eat lots of ice cream and watermelon and I'd open up all the presents and blow out the candles on the big red, white and blue birthday cake," he writes in his book, "and then we'd all sing 'Happy Birthday' and 'I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy.'" The same kids who attended his birthday party played make-believe war with him in the woods on the outskirts of Massapequa, a small town on Long Island. "I grew up with Sergeant Rock comic books and John Wayne in 'Sands of Iwo Jima' and Audie Murphy [decorated war hero-turned-actor] in 'To Hell and Back.' I had grown up with a strong conditioning concerning the military."
In 1972, protesting with other Vietnam vets at President Richard M. Nixon's campaign headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, he was thrown from his chair and kicked, then jailed -- by undercover police pretending to be protesting war veterans. That same year at the Republican National Convention in Miami, while attempting to shout down Nixon, he and other veterans against the war were forcibly removed from the convention hall. Moments later, a man who would later become the first president of the United States to resign rather than be removed from office because of criminal activity smiled and waved to supporters amid chants of "Four more years! Four more years!"
Little wonder -- when all these influences are combined -- that Kovic's autobiography -- published on the 200th anniversary of the nation -- opens with his darkly ironic poem:
I am the living deathAs a political figure, Kovic's star ascended to the heights of national recognition at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, where he spoke to the delegates. His journey to the national platform had not taken him through the usual political pathways. He had earned his credentials from years of protesting in the streets and speaking out against the war. And his book had distinguished him from the crowd by conferring authenticity to his voice.
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
He returned to the Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Jesse Jackson in 1988. Over the next three years he co-wrote the film version of "Born on the Fourth of July," receiving a Golden Globe (on the anniversary of his having been wounded) for best screenplay along with Oliver Stone -- who also won an Academy Award for best director -- and spoke out against the Gulf War, giving numerous speeches, press conferences and interviews, including an appearance on "The Larry King Show." And of course, he brought his protest to the streets.
Why did he always return to the path of civil disobedience? "There was a certain amount of distrust after I came home from the war, a certain distrust of the system," he says. "And I think there was a part of me that would always -- as it is with many combat veterans -- have a difficult time trusting this government. But I had a lot of faith in people like my mother and father, decent working people, and I had a lot of faith in grassroots politics, and I really believed that I could contribute the most by working outside the system."
There was a moment when he considered becoming a candidate. "I was asked to run for office by many people after the movie came out. I was asked to run against Robert Dornan in Orange County. I was on his television show twice -- it was quite controversial, it was a shouting match, it was quite uncomfortable, and that was the closest I came to ever running. But I made a decision, and I'm glad I chose not to run. I've always wanted to work outside of the political process. I've had a very political life, I've met people across the political spectrum and I've tried to speak from my heart -- and speak as freely as possible."
In the fall of 2002, when talk of war with Iraq took a serious turn, Kovic again found his voice. "The true purveyor of terror [is] the government in Washington, D.C.," he told a crowd of antiwar marchers he had led to the Army Reserve Center in Santa Monica, Calif., on Oct. 6 -- the first anniversary of the beginning of the bombing of Afghanistan. Armed with a bullhorn, Kovic exhorted National Guardsmen and trainees to lay down their weapons and join the new peace movement. Earlier, addressing the protesters, many of whom were UCLA students, Kovic called the rally "the greatest class in democracy you can take."
On Oct. 26, elaborating on his vision of a populist antiwar uprising, Kovic flirted with hyperbole in addressing a huge crowd of protesters in San Francisco: "This is the most important moment in American history. You are a part of an extraordinary moment in the turning of the history of this country. You will take this government back on behalf of the people of the United States." Invoking his idol, King, he went on to advocate nonviolent protest, placing blame for the terrorist threat squarely at the feet of the Bush administration. "The leaders, the president ... they are the ones who have brought on Sept. 11. It is their violence that brought the violence to our nation, and it's their violence that we must stop and stop forever."
With the protest movement growing and hundreds of thousands expected to march Jan. 18 in Washington, D.C., Kovic spoke with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. The interview was posted on cnn.com: "I very much care about this country. ... This is a weekend that has a lot of significance to me personally. In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, in the spirit of nonviolence, not violence, not war, but in the spirit of nonviolence, we'll be marching with dignity in great numbers all over this country. This is a movement, a peace movement that is going to become a citizens' protest movement unlike ... any movement or protest movement ever seen before in this country."
The next day Kovic was quoted on the "BBC News Online" as saying the new peace movement represented a "revolutionary transformation" in this country that was as important as the Revolutionary War of 1776, once again linking his political life to the nation's birth. However, the demonstrations of Jan. 18 may have been the high point of the movement. Hundreds of thousands marched in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris and around the world, but from this day forward, the number of protesters in the United States began to diminish.
Still, demonstrations continued right up to the day U.S. forces invaded Iraq, and Kovic remained in the thick of it. "We will do everything we can in the streets of this country to bring the troops back immediately," he told a rain-drenched crowd in Los Angeles on March 15, just days before the war began. "We have much respect for them, and we don't want them to be used the way my generation was."
Once U.S. troops drove into Iraqi territory, the mood of the country changed, but Kovic's resolve remained constant. "When the war began there was this whole mentality, this whole conformist mentality to get with it now, no reason to protest, and I absolutely dismissed that. We would not have stopped the Vietnam War if we had not been protesting for many years after the war had already begun." On March 30, with the war in full swing, Kovic told another Los Angeles crowd of protesters: "Many of the people who are architects of the war haven't experienced war as I did. They're ... risking the lives of the beautiful men and women that are our troops. It's shameful."
The day Baghdad fell, April 9, just three weeks into the war, it seemed to outsiders that the new peace movement had barely lifted off the ground. Looking back, did Kovic see what others saw, that no one seemed to be listening? Was the outcome disappointing? "I've never been more optimistic," he says. "I think this is the beginning. I firmly believe this is going to be the beginning of the changing of this country." What changes does he foresee? "The awakening of a new democracy, a participatory democracy like none we've seen before. I want this to be a country that understands that its citizenship has not only to do with loving this country, but also building bridges of friendship and respect to other cultures and people throughout the world."
Victim or Victorious?
Despite Kovic's place in the history of protest, some activists in the disability community say they do not care for the way he portrays himself. Writer and disability activist Marta Russell begins her online account of her part in a recent antiwar protest by offering herself as an alternative: "I do want to give Ron Kovic some competition. The young people need a different model of disablement than victimization." This line of criticism alleges that Kovic has used his disability as a way of evoking sympathy. Some even compare Kovic's tactics to Jerry Lewis' shamelessly playing the pity card. They feel it only perpetuates the misperception that disability in itself is a sign of weakness or brokenness.
It is a viewpoint Kovic has difficulty understanding. "The last thing in the world that I've ever wanted was to be a victim," he says. "In fact my fight all of these years has been to overcome [that]. Whether it was writing my book or speaking out against the war or taking different risks that I've taken over the years, traveling to Cambodia in 1975, which I did as a war correspondent, or speaking at the Democratic convention in 1976, I have always tried to find a way to be victorious."
Still, it is likely that a larger audience, the nondisabled population, does view his book and Stone's movie -- at least in part -- as a graphic portrayal of victimization. Perhaps it's the territory, the price that public figures whose lives have been neatly packaged for consumption must pay, but Kovic does not apologize: "One thing I will say -- I was never hesitant to write honestly about how I was feeling. ... I never hesitated to write that poem in the beginning of my book." And why did he portray himself as "the living death"? "Certainly not for any reason other than that is how I felt at that moment. And I struggled and I fought and I continue to struggle even now, at almost 57, to rise above that."
Others in the disability community feel Kovic is a lone wolf, implying that he has distanced himself from the struggle for disability rights. But Kovic's priorities, drawn from his war experience, are clear. He has produced nearly 1,000 paintings over the years, donating the proceeds mostly to homeless veterans. "Yes," he says, "to benefit the homeless -- almost on all occasions -- homeless veterans. I've never sold the art for my own personal gain. If I've auctioned it, I've auctioned it in Chicago, San Francisco and here in L.A., for the homeless."
He may not be in the forefront of the fight for disability rights, but the beginning of his life as a wheelchair user coincides with the birth of seminal disability legislation -- 1968, the year the Architectural Barriers Act was passed -- and he knows where the movement is headed. In July 2000, on the 10th anniversary of the passage of the ADA, Kovic spoke at a celebration sponsored by the Coalition for a Santa Monica Disabilities Commission. Reporting on the event for the Santa Monica Mirror, Hannah Heineman writes, quoting Kovic: "'There's been talk throughout the country [of] watering down' the ADA because it gives the [more than] 43 million Americans with physical and emotional disabilities 'too much.' He urged the crowd at the celebration to oppose modifications in the act because 'we [the disabled] have been allowed to sit at the table of equality in America and we like it.'"
A Man of Ideals
At heart, Kovic remains idealistic, a remarkable state of mind for a man who was paralyzed in a war he later came to abhor, a man who has been beaten, spat upon, and jailed several times while invoking his right -- as an American citizen -- to demonstrate in protest. Ironically, at times he sounds like a wet-behind-the-ears candidate, someone who has yet to experience the hard realities of politics, or life: "I believe in democracy -- an authentic democracy where all the people are represented -- and I want to be a part of that, I want to be a part of the continuation of that great democratic experiment. I want to expand our democracy, I want to make it more and more authentic, I want people to be encouraged to speak their minds and not to be afraid or be intimidated."
Why, then, didn't he support the military's mission to free Iraq from decades of fear and oppression by Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party? Doesn't he see the inconsistency in opposing a war to "free the Iraqi people" while campaigning for a "true" democracy here in America? "No, I don't at all. I think what the military has done is sow the seeds of discontent all throughout the Middle East. I think that we really were denied a lot of what was happening during that war by our media. We weren't able to see all of the civilian wounded, the many casualties that occurred, and most of the Arab world was seeing that. This war has caused a tremendous amount of anger, a tremendous amount of rage against this country. And I'm offended by that. I'm offended by what this administration and this president have done to our name. Now they may be telling us that we're freeing the Iraqis, but I truly believe in my heart that President Bush has established -- with the use of brutality and force and violence -- a colony, an American colony in the Middle East. I think it's shameful."
Kovic's assessment of the Bush administration's motives does not stop with allegations of colonialism. The real prize, he says, lies beneath the desert sands. "I don't think that they will ever allow a democratic government, because a democratic government would be a direct threat to the very reason they went over there to begin with, and that is to dominate the oil, to control that region, and to literally steal the resources of that region for this administration, for the corporations and the businesses of our country. That is a crime."
Working outside the system while seeking to influence public opinion and governmental policy has never been easy, but this latest campaign for peace has been particularly draining on Kovic. If his life were to be made into a movie today, Tom Cruise could no longer play the part. It would take an older actor, someone whose make-up would neatly transform him into Kovic's image -- bald, with a fringe of white hair and a beard to match. "This is hard what I do, this is tiring, it's exhausting," he says. "I've been right in front and I've been speaking in many places, and I've been speaking with a tremendous amount of passion. It can make a person weary. I've given everything I have."
When civil order has returned to Iraq and a new government is in place, will he continue to speak out in protest? More than likely. But his chosen form of expression may change. He has plans to return to what launched his career as a public figure: "I have to remind you and others that I'm also an author and a writer and I have a love of the language. There are many ways to communicate my politics, whether it's a motion picture or the writing of a book or speaking behind a microphone in a rally. I want to move into writing another book, a book that I actually was beginning just before Sept. 11 happened."
Kovic's lifestyle will most likely not stand in the way of his plans. He lives alone in a Redondo Beach, Calif., apartment and has never married. "Would I like to get married someday?" he asks, anticipating the question. "Yes I would, still. But that's been a struggle, it's been a challenge."
On July 4, 2003, when America marks its 227th birthday, Ron Kovic -- whether he celebrates his own birthday in the company of friends or alone with his thoughts -- will once again ponder the meaning of his personal journey. He will take stock of the man he once was and the man he has become. And he will consider the legacy he leaves, personal as well as political. "I want to be a voice, I want to be able to say I did something with my life, in all aspects: I learned to make love, I learned to accept my body and feel comfortable with myself, I learned to move about in this society and feel a part of it. I did something with my life, and I was able to help others along the way."
Tim Gilmer is editor of New Mobility magazine.