Déja Vu All Over Again


“Life is so precious.” This obvious yet true statement is how Ron Kovics ends the introduction to Akashic Books republication of his epic memoir, Born on the Fourth of July. Akashic and Kovics timed this release for a reason. Two years into the occupation of Iraq, Akashic’s editor Johnny Temple agreed with Kovics that the emotion-laden story of Kovics transformation from an all-American Marine wanting to kill and die for his country to a nonviolent war resister needed to reach a new audience. That audience is of course the intended audience of the Pentagon and its current recruitment efforts, as well.

In his introduction to this edition, Kovics states that antiwar activists like him-especially veterans–sensed right away that the US war in Iraq would be all too similar to the war of his generation, Vietnam. The lies, the media distortions, the caskets hidden from public view, the amputees and the emotional disorders suffered by soldiers who killed and watched others die. Kovics, who had his own share of emotional and physical wounds from the war in Vietnam, writes “we sawthe same destructive patterns reasserting themselves all over again as our leaders spoke of ‘bad guys’ and ‘evil-doers.'” This perception (and a desire to let young men and women know what war is really about) is what sent Kovics and many other antiwar vets back into the streets in opposition to the war on Iraq. The Bush administration, it seems, learned the opposite lessons from Vietnam. Instead of seeing the war as obscene and immoral, they saw a need for even greater force and terror. Instead of looking for new and more peaceful means to resolve differences between nations, they chose the route that ensures more obscenity of death and immorality of war.

It’s May 4th, 2005. The Kent State massacre was thirty-five years ago today.

I turned on the Red Sox game and heard that the Sox were ahead 3 – 1. Given that their pitching has been shaky lately I decided to only listen to half an inning. That way I wouldn’t have to hear if they lost. Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out why I should read Kovics’ book over again. Sure, It’s been over thirty years since I first read it, but I do recall the general message. I opened the paperback and began reading. Within three pages I knew why. The immediacy of Kovics’ prose. The graphic descriptions of a soldier’s painful wounds and his fight to transcend their pain. It’s the story of an all-American boy growing up on Long Island. Hell, he was even born on the 4th of July, for chrissake. A real Yankee Doodle Dandy. The story continues with the protagonist slowly realizing that all the tales of honor and glory that he saw on the Saturday afternoon matinee screen and in the Marine Corps recruiting pamphlets are a bunch of lies. Lies told to give boys a reason to believe. Just a government’s cynical manipulation of an innocent desire. Welcome to the service, son.

Kovics’ first demonstration against the war was after Nixon sent troops into Cambodia and US troops killed four students in Kent, Ohio. Thirty-five years ago. Is that what it’s going to take this time around, as well? Will anyone in the government care this time around? I read the book in one sitting.

While academics and politicians argue whether or not Iraq is like Vietnam, Kovics’ tale-eerily echoed in stories told by GIs and Marines returning from Iraq-reminds us that, at its most fundamental level, there is little difference between the two campaigns. In other words, members of the US military are killing and dying for the profits of the few. They are destroying the lives of the Iraqis just as Kovics and his men destroyed the lives of the Vietnamese. In the devil’s playground that is war, these GIs are destroying themselves as well, even if their wounds aren’t visible.

That’s why it is important to get this book out there. Every young person who is thinking of joining the military or the Guard should read this book. So should their parents. Do you want your child to be only part of what he was before he joined the service? Do you really think you can escape the odds? Do you really believe that this war is honorable? Do you really think it’s about your freedom? Whether the answer is yes, no, or maybe, read this book before you decide to join the service or let someone you know make that move.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com