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Ron Kovic’s War on War
The Born on the Fourth of July author returns to OC to make the case for peace
On Oct. 18, Vietnam veteran and paraplegic peace activist Ron Kovic made a special appearance at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art’s unveiling of a political art show titled “How Does a Patriot Act?” Kovic read from portions of his best-selling memoir Born on the Fourth of July, which tells of his transformation from a gung-ho patriot who volunteered for two tours of duty in Vietnam into a different kind of patriot—an ardent opponent of war. Last week, Kovic took a break from his busy schedule of speaking engagements to talk about his history of protesting in Orange County, the upcoming U.S. presidential election and what’s at stake.
Ron Kovic: That’s right. My first arrest for civil disobedience happened in 1971 at the Orange County Draft Board. I’m sure it doesn’t exist anymore. It was part of a demonstration I actually led. There were between 1500 and 2000 demonstrators protesting against the war in Vietnam. I was one of several people sent into the draft board to represent the demonstrators. They told me to leave, and I refused. I told them I’d served two tours in Vietnam and had been wounded on Jan. 20, 1968, during my second tour of duty, when I was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. I told them there were two Marines who tried to save my life that day. One was killed trying to get me and the second Marine who carried me back died later that day in an artillery attack.
I spoke of all those things, and mentioned living among the wounded, some of the most severely damaged of the war and what a profound impact that had had on me. I told them that what they were doing was leading these young men to their deaths in a war that made no sense anymore. They said I was under arrest, and I went to jail. That was my first time behind bars for protesting the war in Vietnam, and I’d be arrested 12 more times.
As a Vietnam veteran and anti-war protester, what’s your view of the Nov. 4 presidential election? Is there an anti-war candidate?
Not since the Vietnam War has there been an election as crucial as this one or as profoundly important. We’re at a crossroads in our history. A great deal is at stake: not just the lives of our young men and women, but the innocents of Afghanistan and Iraq. I think we are headed in the wrong direction. I feel uncomfortable with both candidates in regard to our foreign policy. I learned some important lessons in Vietnam, and the lessons I learned are different than those learned by John McCain, who served very honorably, but also different than Barack Obama. I wonder when the American people are going to listen to those who came home from that war, and recognize the way our government is behaving around the world is creating a great deal of problems.
Have you ever met Obama or McCain?
I’ve never met Obama, but I have a great deal of respect for him. I debated John McCain on the CBS national news 25 or 30 years ago. He was a senator and I debated him on the issue of the draft. It was a civil debate, we both respected each other as Vietnam veterans but clearly disagreed with each other. We faced each other off on a satellite feed. He pretty much had the same position as he has today: He supported the draft and I strongly opposed it. I respect both men, but I don’t know if either candidate is going to make the changes I feel this country really needs right now. We need sweeping changes right now, and for them to occur peacefully and not through hatred. If these candidates do not change this country and foreign policy then I believe the American people will have to change this country and millions of Americans will have to go to the streets the way they did in South Africa and Eastern Europe and the Philippines to move us in a direction that will bring about security and a more peaceful and cooperative foreign policy.
I take it you oppose the war in Iraq?
I oppose the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In that sense, I don’t agree with either candidate. I can’t believe Sarah Palin when she says we have to win in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a war that will last for decades and will not only drain our economy and force us deeper into debt but will wound even deeper the soul of this country, with vets coming back with wounds beyond imagination. Our response to 9/11 has only led to more resentment—more terrorists, not less—and it has enraged our allies. We need a different approach. I do feel Barack Obama represents diplomacy and a dialog more than John McCain. I’m hoping that our country can wake up and recognize that we are being led in the wrong direction, not just internationally but domestically as well. I have lived with a body paralyzed from the waist down for 40 years. One of the most important events of my life was opposing that war and making a commitment the rest of my life to finding peaceful resolution to our problems. I have seen the cost of war and know what it is; I’ve seen it with my own eyes and war is the worst way to solve problems.
What lessons did you learn in Vietnam?
The lesson I learned was of the deep immorality of that war. We were misled into that war, not to mention the way my brothers and I were treated upon our return home from the war, especially the hospitals, which were overcrowded, infested with rats and understaffed. Our government was spending millions on the most technically advanced methods of killing people, but weren’t able to take care of the wounded. Now, when our young men and wounded come back from Iraq they are facing similarly slum conditions.
What should America be doing to “win” the war on terror?
Without shock and awe, without bombing, we have to find an alternative or we are going to have more and more problems. We need to change this policy. We need to seriously look at the way our government is behaving in our name. I take it very personally. I made a promise never to let what happened to me happen to anyone else again. I hope Barack Obama recognizes that sending more troops to Afghanistan is counter-productive. How many more Americans have to die for this failed foreign policy or come home in wheelchairs like myself? It will only get worse if we continue along the same path. One of the most patriotic things an American can do right now is to raise your voice and not be afraid. Many of us were paralyzed by 9/11 and we need to speak, go out on the street peacefully in the spirit of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Let us make a change that really goes directly to the issues we are dealing with—war and peace—and put this country first. If you really do that, you will not waste any more lives in a war that makes no sense.