Cui bono? – Jialing Xie
A reflection on Born On The Fourth Of July by Ron Kovic
Cui bono? I asked myself this question upon finishing reading Ron’s narratives Born On The Fourth Of July. Sometimes people tend to not notice what is bizarre or whether it is worthy of the investment until the prices are charged at a significant amount that they could no longer ignore the calculation. “All I could feel was the worthlessness of dying right here in this place at this moment for nothing.” Ron began casting doubts on the goal that he had been championing for all his life after realizing what he was paying for with his youth and body at the Vietnam War. “I was frightened to death. I didn’t think about praying, all I could feel was cheated.”
What made Ron feel cheated? Didn’t Ron desperately want to become a hero and serve his country? Didn’t he feel really proud of what he was doing and ready to put his life on the line for democracy? Now he was finally shot, supposedly, he should feel that he has made a hero and enjoy people’s admiration and love in return. Perhaps he did feel good, for a short period of time. Soon the feeling was replaced by confusions. The wounded soldiers returned home and received treatment contrary to what he had expected. At the hospital, they were merely broken and twisted bodies in a long assembly line at the enema room waiting for deliverance; They were pushed and shoved into showers like a big car wash; They were now bunch of crippled and clumsy puppets with all their strings cut out that can hardly defeat little rats from chewing up their numb toes at night. Before all of this had happened, they were once the strong and fine marines.
It never made sense to Ron that the government kept asking money for weapons but left those broken veterans lying in their own filth. Despite the newly invented machines that had promised to make the men well again, they were the same shattered broken bodies as going up on the machines moments before. Ron was also bewildered by his reaction to topics related to the war. He kept telling people that America was winning, the soldiers’ morale was high, and he proved it by going back a second time. But more and more, what he told people and what he was feeling were becoming two different things. He didn’t want to talk about wars anymore.
All these confusions led Ron to reflect on how things all began. It turned out that it was the divergence between things taught by his upbringing and how the reality works hat attributed to those contradictions. For all his life, Ron wanted to become a great silent athlete, a brave man, and a good marine. The spirit of racing and winning was instilled into his generation in every aspect of life, from classrooms to playing fields, from the food company to the Marine Corps, winning and wanting to be the first were the most important thing. At the wrestling team, Ron was taught to achieve his goal by working harder and harder until he couldn’t take it anymore. He was trained to endure physical pain and discomfort in order to breed the strongest body. Ron followed what he was told and committed himself to the relentless wrestling training without a single question. The coach’s winning theory worked and Ron won most of his matches during the year he joined the team, nonetheless, failures, regarded as anything other than the first prize, are left with no room of acceptance. Whenever Ron lost, he would cry and not talk to anyone for hours.
Fears of being imperfect did not stop at young sports players, anxieties among teenagers about their “flaws” on their appearance were so prevailing that it is still commonly seen to this day. Ron would get panic after staring at his pimples for almost an hour in the mirror. He would try everything from the medicine cabinet and press them against the blackheads real hard as if he was going to take his head off.
Nevertheless, if looking closely at those “sins” that caused Ron and his generation to feel bad about themselves, it is rather more problematic of the way society defines “sins” than how they were dealt with. Things natural for being humans were condemned and suppressed. Ron would call the hairs under his lip and up his armpits ugly and he would feel guilty for waking up in the morning with nocturnal emission every day. He would be asking God to forgive him for feeling good from masturbation, even though he couldn’t understand why he needed God’s forgiveness for doing something that felt so good and natural.
Along with the teaching on winning spirit, Ron’s generation learned who were their enemies — the communists, the German, and the Soviet Union. Ron and his childhood best friend Castiglia would create an imaginary enemy and practice how to slay them. It would have seemed like a playful war game fantasized by children if Ron’s father and Ron didn’t react bitterly of Russians’ launch of their first satellite. The depiction was a demonstration of how patriotic education had penetrated through the entire system of that generation. Ron would cry at the night watching Vanguard and interpreted its failure at lifting off as America’s loss of the space race. It’s unacceptable that America was no longer the number one.
It became a powerful combination when the winning spirit was glued together with patriotism. When the Marine Corps came into Ron’s school, they gave a speech about the marines having been the first in everything. Similar to how he had felt watching the war movies in his childhood, Ron felt patriotic and experienced chills running up and down his spine. He wanted to be somebody. Joining the marines seemed to be the means of fulfilling both his heroism and patriotism dream.
Within his family, his father was like a big hurricane and always moving. It seemed important to be moving and acting busy whenever his father was around even if you didn’t have anything to do. The piece of detail implies that Ron grew up in an environment where staying busy was prioritized above understanding why to get busy in the first place. Barely had Ron been encouraged to contemplate on reasons behind things he was doing, let alone had he questioned the entire upbringing itself to which he was born. Why did he desperately try to win? “I wanted to be a hero,” answered the young Ron, “I wanted to be stared at and talked about in the hallways.” It was the affirmation and admiration from others that he was seeking. But how ironic that he didn’t feel quite the same after returning home as a Vietnam Veteran who received the metal and addressed as the hero. What went wrong?
“It never did in the movies…The good guys weren’t supposed to kill the good guys,” Ron thought. He had never figured that his first killing was not the real enemy but the corporal from his home country. He would never imagine before killing the Communists he would kill so many innocent children. Even when it came to real enemies that he was watching, he thought some of the older men reminded him of his father. It then became the purpose of all this killing that Ron started questioning. What were all these lives dying for? He must have been shocked by the cold cruel reality over and over when he realized that the people for whom he sacrificed his body didn’t even care about the war in Vietnam nor how wounded he was. The aides in the Bronx hospital could continue playing cards and laughing as if the war had never existed. He could display like a statue onstage next to the commander during the ceremony on one Memorial Day without receiving attention from anyone on what he had to say. Ron felt used and cheated because he sacrificed part of his being for something he had a false perception of.
Little Ron did not learn that victory and failure were “twins” and we couldn’t expect one without respecting the other, and that even the strongest would have their weakest times and that’s fine what makes them human. He did not know that he didn’t need to be a war hero or the best of something to receive admiration and love and that validation should be generated from within when one truly understood and believed in what he was doing. When he was in his broken body and soul, many still loved him unconditionally and there were women who were willing to devote their lives for him. He did not understand that he should cherish what he already possessed and embrace not only the ideal but the least desired because they were all part of him. He did not know proving justice didn’t have to be in the form of killing and that unifying people over a common purpose didn’t require an authoritative command. With the lesson learned in blood, Ron whacked at the image deliberately painted by his upbringing of how the world worked and he created a new future with values established on his own.
But why would someone attempt to conceive such an image for people to live in? No matter it’s intentional or an unknowing act, whoever benefits from the ecosystem would contribute to its making. It could be the filmmakers who gain profits from making a high-demand war movie despite the consequence of planting seeds of violence in children. It could be marine sergeants who recruit young people by disseminating biased opinions. It could be politicians who decide to engage in a proxy war in exchange for strategic supports from their allies. Cui bono (who benefits?) is the question Ron and many Americans were trying to ask their government, given that more than 58,000 American troops died in the Vietnam War and the US was forced to resign without achieving anything that could be counted as a victory. It might be comprehensible that Vietnam was another pawn like many developing countries in the cold war between the US and USSR, but as the died bodies piled up, people started to question how was it possible for America to win a war thousands of miles away against a foreign culture and terrain that they were barely familiar with.
It seems like America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a repetition of the logic it exercised in Vietnam 50 years ago. It is argued by antiwar activists that the war on terrorism is packaged with moralizing rhetorics of bringing freedom and democracy to an embattled country and the invasion achieved nothing but escalating opponents’ anti-American message. Within the five years of invading, insurgencies against the US spread across Iraq as the American troops committed crimes against civilians at Abu Ghraib and the battle at Fallujah in 2004. What’s worse is that the US remains militarily engaged in at least seven countries including Afghanistan despite the mass continent-wide protest and fruitless efforts in Iraq.
Cui bono? The same question we would confront today’s America as once uttered Ron and his generation. It’s demonstrated in Ron’s personal experience that the education we receive growing up doesn’t provide a clear answer to all these seemingly contradictory events. When it comes to understanding the truth and reality, who could we trust? I don’t have a final answer yet, but exercising careful rational examination on daily events is a good point to start, as Petersen urged us on the first day of class that “(We) See with our brains, not our eyes.” Notwithstanding, one must always be aware that even the finest rationale possesses its own limitations, we’ve seen many in misjudged death penalties. When it comes to events involving our species, I believe the best judgment hangs onto our nature — — very beautiful yet malevolent — — that is alone a contradiction.