In 1989, Oliver Stone released his second Vietnam War film, Born on the Fourth of July. Based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, it begins with his boyhood, with his being raised with very conventional notions of patriotism and duty. Following high school graduation, he enlists in the Marine Corps, and during two tours of duty in Viet Nam, he tries to remain true to a code of honor that he again and again discovers that he cannot sustain in the midst of the ugly and often chaotic conditions of the war. He not only participates in the massacre of the residents of a Vietnamese village, but he also mistakenly kills a new member of his platoon during a fire fight with the Viet Cong. His war service ends when he suffers a terrible wound that leaves him a paraplegic.
He spends an extended recuperatory period in an VA hospital that is a hellhole. He finds that he is no more able to maintain his determination to deal with his disability in the “right way” than the hospital staff is able to maintain medical standards in the rat-infested, dilapidated, and under-equipped, under-supplied, and increasingly over-crowded hospital. So we witness the gradual erosion of Kovic’s faith in the truisms on which he was raised, a loss of faith that accelerates when he actually returns to his family and finds that his mother, in particular, expects him to assume the persona of the returning war hero who stoically endures without regret the terrible personal sacrifice that he has made for his country. Although he has a falling out with his younger brother who has become staunchly anti-war, he himself is too emotionally conflicted about his disability and haunted by his war experience to accept the truism that supporting the war is an expression of American values. He finds that for all of their seemingly heartfelt expressions of sympathy, the family and friends to whom he has returned don’t want him to complicate their lives and begin rather quickly to resent how uncomfortable he makes them feel when he begins to challenge their faith in the truisms by which they have been living.
But because of the anti-war sentiment that is spreading across the country, the war is no longer isolated from everyday American life, no longer just something that is happening half a world away in Viet Nam. After an ugly break with his family, Kovic enters into a downward spiral of drunkenness and drug use that eventually takes him out of the country to a Mexican seaside village that seems to have become the last stop for some Viet Nam vets before a final descent into their personal hells. Ultimately Kovic finds the strength to recognize that he cannot run from his demons without destroying himself. He makes his way back to the United States and locates the family of the Marine whom he accidentally shot. Although their response to his confession is very mixed, he finds a sense of peace in having coming clean about what he did to the people who have been most affected. He gradually becomes more involved in the anti-war movement and, in particular, in the protests led by Viet Nam veterans against the war.
Paradoxically, it is both appropriate and ironic that Kovic was born on the Fourth of July, and that tension resonates throughout the film. It becomes a structural device in the film as well. The film starts with Kovic as a boy enjoying an Independence Day parade. It pivots on a scene in which he attends another Independence Day parade in his wheelchair and suffers an episode of post-traumtaic stress when someone sets off a pack of firecrackers that explode near him. And it ends with his leading a protest that disrupts Nixon’s renomination at the 1972 Republican convention and then, four years later, his being invited to be a featured speaker at the Democratic national convention. In each instance, his being surrounding by American flags heightens the dramatic effect of his experience and the thematic significance of what it represents.
I am not a huge fan of either Oliver Stone or Tom Cruise, but I think that this film is very powerful and generally very well done. However much the Vietnam War changed American foreign policy and American society, it also had a very profound affect on our military and on our attitudes toward the military. Recognizing that support for the war began to erode dramatically when hundreds of thousands of draftees were required to sustain the war effort, the Pentagon moved toward the creation of an all-volunteer military that would be more professionalized, more specialized, and more streamlined to fight the “conflicts of the future.” And even many of those who protested most vehemently against the war came to realize that their demonization of the veterans of that war was grossly unfair to them.
So, today, we appropriately honor our veterans and respect their sacrifices on our behalf, at least superficially. But because the all-volunteer force is so small relative to the whole population, there is a very real issue related to how truly we recognize and are engaged by what our soldiers and Marines have sacrificed in fighting several long wars that have been every bit as ugly and chaotic as the Vietnam War. Specifically, we may be reverting to the frame of mind embodied by Kovic’s mother—that is, we want our veterans to come home and return to civilian life without disrupting things. Doing so is in keeping with the lingering, much sentimentalized illusion that this is what the veterans of the Second World War did, but it ignores the manifold evidence of the post-traumatic stress that many of those veterans suffered at a time when it was simply much less acceptable to admit such psychological damage. At least for a time, the war in Iraq was fought on a scale comparable to that of the Viet Nam War (making one wonder when the “conflicts of the future” may actually begin to occur; perhaps we are moving that point in stages, with the use of drones signaling a new stage). Because of the impracticality and the political unfeasibility of supplementing our all-volunteer forces with a draft, the personnel requirements for sustaining an escalation of the war in Iraq, as well as a continuing effort in Afghanistan, have meant that very many of our soldiers and Marines have been forced to do unprecedented, multiple tours in one or both of these war zones (and that we have still had to supplement those forces with very large numbers of “civilian contractors,” or mercenaries).
We have already confronted the substandard, and in some instances abominable, conditions in some of our VA hospitals and in some of the subsidized housing for our wounded veterans. But those problems have clearly not been entirely addressed. Likewise, we have made some provisions to insure that all of our returning veterans receive financial and other support to enhance their educations and to improve their chances of gaining meaningful employment. But the unemployment rate among veterans remains much higher than that for the general population, and so more effort clearly needs to be directed at insuring that financial insecurity does not compound our veterans’ already challenging re-acclimation to civilian life. And the treatment of the physical injuries suffered by large numbers of these veterans and the long-term psychological effects of their service among an even larger percentage of these veterans will require significant investments over the next half-century—investments that supporters of our veterans, as well as our veterans themselves, will have to demand as the memories of the wars recede. (One consequence of the small size of the all-volunteer force will be that those veterans will constitute a much smaller lobbying group than the veterans of any previous major war.)
Wars have end dates that get recorded in our histories. But history tells us that wars often to not end as conclusively as those who sign the “peace treaties” would like to believe. The end of the First World War is often viewed as creating the circumstances that made the Second World War inevitable. Similarly, the checking of the advance of communism across the whole of the Korean peninsula clearly set a pattern for how we attempted to defend the non-communist half of the similarly divided country of Vietnam.
In a broadly similar way, the service of each of our veterans has a formal end date. But it is a disservice to them to assume that the impact of their service experience on the remainder of their lives can be ascertained in such a simplistically definitive way.