On pages 116-117 of Reinventing Richard Nixon: A Cultural History of an American Obsession, Daniel Frick talks about the book Born on the Fourth of July, a memoir that was written by Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. The book was later made into a movie, starring Tom Cruise as Kovic.
Kovic grew up watching John Wayne movies and believing that the United States was a moral force in the world, and he went to Vietnam with those convictions. But his mythical view of the world began to be challenged when he shot one of his fellow soldiers accidentally. This sort of thing never happened in the movies, he thought, for, in the movies, the good guys killed the bad guys, not other good guys. Kovic tried to prove to himself that he was a brave marine, and he became paralyzed due to a war wound. His homecoming did not go according to his expectations, for Kovic felt degraded in VA hospitals, where rats chewed on paralyzed people’s limbs. And no one waves to him or invites him to speak at the Memorial Day ceremonies put on by his hometown. While Kovic apparently thinks that he has repudiated the hero myth, Frick says, he actually continues to hold on to it, on some level, for Kovic portrays his and other Vietnam veterans’ disruption of the 1972 Republican National Convention as a heroic act.
Life does not always (or even usually) play out as it does in the movies. I think of the movie Pleasantville. At the end of the movie, the Mom is upset because a date did not go as she expected. She thought that things were supposed to turn out a certain way. Her son, wised up from time that he has just spent in a 1950’s sitcom, responds to her that things are not supposed to turn out in any particular way. There’s a lot of wisdom to that, but it’s cold comfort to those who have been fed a bunch of myths over the course of their lives.
But where would we be without our myths, without ideals that inspire us and motivate us to get out of bed in the morning? I think that one reason that many people turn to religion is that it gives them some assurance that God has a benevolent plan for them. I myself do not believe that people should replace their idealism with jaded cynicism. Maybe there is some realistic medium between the two extremes.
All of that said, it’s sad that Vietnam veterans experienced what they did, without getting a whole lot of gratitude when they came home. I’m not saying that the Vietnam war was necessarily right, but it must have been hard for people to have put themselves on the line as they did, and to experience things that radically transformed their lives, often negatively, only to return home without receiving so much as a “thank you.”
I remember an episode of the early 1990’s sitcom Major Dad, in which Gerald McRaney played Major John MacGillis. In this episode, American soldiers are returning from the first Gulf War, and the General wants to give them a warm and celebratory welcome. The Major at first is reluctant, for he recalls that he did not exactly get a warm welcome when he returned home after the Vietnam War. The General then encourages the Major to give the returning soldiers the welcome that he should have received after returning home from Vietnam. Life does not always go according to our ideals or our expectations, for it’s a cold world. But we can act to make this world a little bit better.