Born on the Fourth of July

Well on his porch they stretched a banner that said “Johnny Welcome Home”
Bobby pulled his Ford out of the garage and they polished up the chrome
His mama said “Johnny oh Johnny, I’m so glad to have you back with me”
His pa said he was sure they’d give him his job back down at the factory
                   – Springsteen, Shut Out the Light, 1983

Tom Cruise as Kovic, above. This is the real Kovic.

I’m home working, the TV is on. I’m watching Born on the Fourth of July for about the ninth time.

Ron Kovic. I have many heroes, and most of them are agitators who knew the new facts early, who were speaking out to do the right thing, even when powerful people wanted truth hidden. Ron Kovic is that kind of man. John F. Kennedy lit him up when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you …” in his inaugural address; he was devastated by Kennedy’s assassination two years later. He joined the Marines the next year, and and was shot and paralyzed in 1968 in Vietnam. Oliver Stone’s movie, co-scripted with Kovic, is the story of how Kovic transformed from one kind of patriot to another; from My-country-love-it-or-leave-it, to a whistle-blower on the War, one with unimpeachable authority due to his service and his injury.

I know other patriots like that. My cousin Robin Mills is one. A loose-limbed, anti-authoritarian his whole life, he enlisted in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program. It straightened him out, sharpened him into a productive cog in the wheel. But everything changed when he realized the power of his superiors to start nuclear war almost by themselves either by accident or hubris – which he saw in the chain of command. Within days, he transformed from a man who who never questioned authority to one desperate to get out. An atheist, the usual route to Conscientious Objector status was not open to him. It took Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, me, his family and Robin’s own statement of conscience to get him out on a very rare non-religious CO status (which I wrote about at Blue Jersey and so did the New York Times). Was Robin a patriot? Yes. He’s spent his life educating others about nuclear weapons and clean energy. He lives frugally, his life’s work for peace. And my friend Michael McPhearson, who runs Veterans for Peace, who is about justice, his peace work, showing up in Ferguson, and in Newark to help People’s Organization for Progress. And it includes my late father Prof. Alex Efthim, another vet whose life work was teaching, community and labor organizing. And other veteran friends, mostly from the Vietnam era, like Gordon Sell who helped run a vets-to-vets phone bank when we ran Linda Stender for Congress in 2006. Linda was early to speak out against the Iraq War, when people like Hillary Clinton were using their vote and voice to back Bush. We were proud of her; that was leadership. Gordon called hundreds of fellow vets along with vets Barry SussmanCassie Sucher Greeley (a Navy nurse) to talk about the War, and whatever else was on veterans’ minds. A completely unscripted phone bank, and the best I’ve overseen in my life.

Back to Ron Kovic. His story inspired more than just Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Bruce Springsteen was inspired, too. Rick Shea, at Your Friday Bruce Fix told the story in his blog seven years ago yesterday:

Bruce Springsteen tells a story about driving across the country in the late 70s and how he went looking for a book to read while in Phoenix, AZ.  In a drug store he found a book by Ron Kovic called ‘Born On The 4th of July”.  Later on that trip, while at a motel in Los Angeles, Bruce went for a swim in the motel pool, and while drying himself off with a towel, a guy in a wheel chair noticed the book Bruce had with him.  The guy looked at Bruce and said “I wrote that book”.  That’s how Bruce and Ron Kovic met.

Stone (who won the Best Director Oscar) and Kovic wrote the screenplay that became the movie Born On The Fourth of July starring Tom Cruise as Kovic. Springsteen shaped the ideas about the Vietnam War, about his country and about patriotism after meeting Kovic. Out of this came two important songs, Shut Out the Light (lyrics here) and Born in the USA. ** Years later, Springsteen sang and recorded with Pete Seeger, which was an honor frankly to both of them, and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I was wrong about Springsteen for a long, long time (long story). Most people think Springsteen brought a whole generation to know Seeger. That’s true. But in my case, Seeger brought me Springsteen. Both patriots.

I know a lot of  New Jersey patriots. They’re not all military veterans. But they know the new facts early, they speak up even if their voice shakes, and they’re about the common good before anything else. My heroes.

Oh mama mama mama come quick
I’ve got the shakes and I’m gonna be sick
Throw your arms around me in the cold dark night
Hey now mama don’t shut out the light
Don’t you shut out the light
Don’t you shut out the light
Don’t you shut out the light
Don’t you shut out the light
– Springsteen


** Kovic’s life also inspired the 1978 film Coming Home, after Jane Fonda met Kovic at an anti-war rally; the film directed by Hal Ashby and starring Fonda and Jon Voight, and Tom Paxton’s song Born on the Fourth of July. 



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