Nascent Ideas

Born on the Fourth of July (1989 Movie); Tracing the messages of peace

Posted on: May 15, 2013

Born on the Fourth of July is a real life story of renowned peace activist Ron Kovic. The film has been adapted from Kovic’s memoir published with the same title. The film is the second of the three Vietnam War movies directed by Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone himself served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam. Thus, he had personally experienced the horrors of war. The film won him an Academy Award for best direction. Tom Cruise, who played the lead in the movie, gave one of his best performances. The role was very demanding as there were many transitions involved at physical, psychological and emotional levels.

Ron Kovic as shown in the film grows up as a proud, patriotic American youth. He belonged to a devout Roman Catholic family that believed in American dream and hated communism. The family regularly attended the customary July 4 parade in the town. Ron Kovic’s birthday coincided with that of his country. That explains why the film has been titled ‘‘Born on the Fourth of July.’’ Kovin grew up in an environment of institutionalized militarism where war against communism was seen as holy and heroic. Kovic had learned to romanticize war since his childhood. He used to play war games with the children in his neighborhood. His school experiences and family teachings further acted to reinforce the same image. In his youthful ambitions, he surprised everyone by deciding to enlist himself with the US marines as a volunteer combatant in Vietnam. His decision was accepted by his parents without much deliberation. After going through rigorous trainings, he was sent to Vietnam. The film then moves on to depict two ghastly incidents Kovic had to go through during his second posting in Vietnam. His platoon massacred a village on the basis of inadequate intelligence information. During hasty retreat from the operation site, Kovin became disoriented and accidently killed one of his own men. These two experiences would continue to haunt Kovin for the rest of his life. He came to see the naked reality of war and became disillusioned with his earlier beliefs. During another patrol mission, he got shot down by NVA. He was rescued and taken to the hospital. Kovin had to live the remainder of his life being paralyzed from the mid-chest down. Once back home, he found it immensely difficult to readjust with his family and decided to go to Mexico.
Many peace-oriented and anti-war messages can be derived from the film. The movie portrays militarist American mindset as a fatal indoctrination. It was deliberately set up at institutional level by the US government to pursue its war-mongering expansionist policies. American children were systematically taught to hate communists often with the Christian justification that communists do not believe in a deity. As Kovin’s mother used to tell her children quite unwittingly that communism was an insidious evil. Besides that, Kovin while growing up had learned to believe that Americans were the best people on the face of Earth and Russians wanted to overtake their country. The movie clearly shows how militarism was actually inbuilt in the American culture and psyche. Kovin became a victim of the jingoistic environment in which he was raised.
The movie shows how religious ideologies can be employed to provide moral justifications for war. Religious nationalism is itself a recipe for disaster. When Kovic made an untimely decision to go to war, his mother fully supported his decision as she said, ‘‘Ronnie, you’re doing the right thing! Communism has to be stopped! It’s God’s will that you go and I’m proud of you.’’ Clearly, she invoked religion to bash communism as if communism was nothing but an anti-thesis of Christian faith. When he came back from the warfront, Kovic’s relationship with his friends and family gradually worsened. He was also unable to reconcile with his religious mother. Once, on returning home from the bar room, he started yelling at his mother while being drunk. He started blaming her, rejecting God and hurling profanities, ‘‘tell her God’s as dead as my legs. There’s no God and there’s no country. It’s just me… and this …… wheelchair for the rest… of my life.’’ The very value system of the family was now jeopardized. His mother started crying and telling him that she had not forced him to go to war. She was probably right. But, nevertheless, the way religion was being politicized in America had something to do with Kovin’s decision to go to Vietnam.
Another significant peace message to be drawn from this movie is that patriotism should be about loving one’s fellow countrymen. Governments and militaries do not hold monopoly over patriotism. Their definition of patriotism should not be accepted at face value. If the US government asks its people to participate in overseas wars and kill defenseless women and children, it is not patriotic. This kind of ‘‘patriotism’’ does not serve the interests of ordinary Americans. It is manipulative, hateful and coercive agenda of a few powerful people. It is quite possible that one is patriotic and pacifist at the same time. As Kovin said while protesting at 1972 Republican Convention, ‘‘They’ve deceived the people of this country, tricked them into going 13,000 miles to fight a war against a poor, peasant people who have a proud history of resistance, who have been struggling for their own independence for 1,000 years – the Vietnamese people.’’
The movie demonstrates that war is not glorious. It sets naked the gruesome and ghastly realities of war. War should always be seen as a crime committed against humanity. It is a mass slaughter. There is nothing heroic about taking human lives whatever the context might be. Thousands of soldiers like Ron Kovin incurred casualties in Vietnam. Some of them returned amputated, crippled or mentally retarded. Every other day, Americans received dead bodies of their soldiers in bag packs. War turned out to be a massive brutality. Kovin, in 1972 protest at Republican Convention, speaking to the news camera, exclaimed, ‘‘Do you hear me when I say this war is a crime? When I say I am not as bitter about my wound as the men who have lied to the people of this country? Do you hear me?’’
Another prominent feature of the movie is that it does not portray war veterans including Ron Kovic as heroes. It presents them as victims of ill-conceived mass disaster. These survivors of the war are the ones who fought at the battlefront and were made to experience ghastliness of war as closely as possible. Some of them like Ron Kovin could never get over the fact that they had killed innocent children and women. They would live their lives with guilt and shame. Some of them would even commit suicide. Their lives would never remain all the same. They would not get over psychological and emotional traumas of war. Their relationships with friends, families and loved ones will remain disturbed. Kovin’s previous love interest, Donna, did not even come to see him once he was back home in his wheelchair.
Finally, the movie leaves the audience with a powerful message that instills hope. The movie, in a way, tells the people that power lies in their hands as long as they are willing to exercise it. War is everybody’s problem, so no one can simply sit back and watch his countrymen dying in thousands. People can unite in the name of peace and fight their governments. In the US, a successful anti-war movement erupted in the late sixties and early seventies. Many veterans joined the movement to show what actually war was like. This mass movement was ultimately successful and provided the basis for pull out of American troops from Vietnam. The movie shows Kovic addressing the American nation at the 1976 Democratic National Convention when the war was already over. This, somehow, brings a happy ending to what was an anti-war emotional roller coaster ride.


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