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.
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
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.
Canons on the right and canons on the left
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