Fragging Oliver Stone's Heroism Political Unconscious in Stone
In a recent article in Third Concept, Eddie Girdner compares the goals of the U.S. in both the Gulf War and Vietnam in as much as they prevent in each case the rise of of autonomous Third World nations which would become independent and capitalist and be an economic threat to the U.S. economy. Girdner reads through Oliver Stone's film, Born on the 4th of July to show how the true motives of Vietnam and Iraq are hidden by ideologies, such as the Wilsonian concept, to make the world safe for democracy. The protagonist of the film, Ron Kovic, is transformed from a gullible, gung-ho macho American youth to a disillusioned paralyzed war veteran, and finally, to the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Girdner explores how the film exposes the rituals of American middle class life. This paper, a supplement to Girdner's, will probe into deeper reasons why true political questions are repressed in the United States and in Oliver Stone's film itself.
Since fragging is a practice of eliminating gung-ho officers from the battlefield, perhaps we ought to frag Oliver Stone before his hero making techniques destroy our autonomy. Born on the 4th of July reveals the various disillusionments of the Vietnam experience, but maybe we ought to question Stone's methods in these revelations, especially that of the need of heroes. Michel de Certeau is more concerned with "heroes" of everyday life. In The Practice of Everyday Life, he uses the terms "strategy" and "tactics" to define how the weak and the powerful operate in the world. The powerful, such as multinational corporations, armies, cities, and scientific institutions, use strategies, which are what policies are called when you can see the enemy totally, and have power over place from this frontal vision. Tactics are policies of the weak to move around in the places within the enemy's vision. Strategies are determined by power of place over time, and tactics by an absence of power. (35-38). We, as readers, must develop reading tactics also, because the face of the enemy is hard to recognize. We do not want to follow our country into an immoral war, nor want to vote for people who will weaken our positions, but we do want to look with hesitation at what Stone's style is driving at, since his quick cutting editing style forces us to accept as truth what is in front of the screen. Reading tactics such as those by Chomsky and Girdner will help us see more of the realities behind Manifest Destiny, Wilsonianism, and the Gulf War's connection with Vietnam. One of Certeau's tactics is to turn "places" into usable "spaces" by striving to be an operative subject rather than an exploited object (118). History moves constantly, struggling between subjects and objects, and Stone's Ron Kovic, originally objectified by the Kennedy, Manifest Destiny and Wilsonian ideologies seems to become his own person or "subject" when he takes the podium at the 76 democratic convention to denounce the war.
Ron Kovic, Stone's Kovic that is, is a victim of ideological abstractions or metaphors, and they go deeper than his misinformation about war and Vietnam. Frank Lentricchia introduces his study of Foucault, William James, and Wallace Stevens with a political reading of Steven's "Anecdote of the Jar," by comparing the jar placing in Tennessee to Yankee imperialism or colony placing (3-27).[i] "Jars are representations, not of the spirit of love, but of the spirit of abstraction. In the romantic lexicon from Wordsworth to Stevens, `artifice' and `abstraction' are synonyms and key coded words in a political anecdote of struggle" (19). Abstractions and metaphors keep us from understanding the real history. Lentricchia cites Dom De Lillo's "Supreme Abstract Commander" as the leader of the propaganda machine with writing as a "counter discourse, working to undermine discourses of abstraction and domination - Supreme Abstract Commanders, whether they are called jars, the ruling class, Khe Sanh, or MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam], or imperialism" (25). Lentricchia penetrates further into the horrors of system and discipline with his study of Foucault, James and Stevens. Any attempt or imposition of theory such as literary schools and textual theory, theories of history etc. are in essence destructions of the historical subject (26). Anytime I try to structure a theory about myself, I am endangering my humanity. Anytime I try to attach a system to a subject, I am immediately turning it into an object and destroying its humanity. Foucault's antidote is writing where he can escape into a labyrinth (26). Stone turns Ron Kovic into a hero-object in the end with no chance of collectivity. Kovic is normalized into a hero so that he and we can be avenged for the Vietnam Lie (our presence there to stop Communism). What we will see in this film is not the Lie, but the danger of an abstracted way of life with no possibility of real love for people, places, and jobs. The hero myth keeps us from being autonomous with ourself and neighbors.
Placing the jar in Tennessee takes the wilderness and liberty out of the land and turns it into a proper name and place. Placing the Yankee cap or gun in Ron's possession turns the young person into a baseball or war hero. Born on the 4th of July follows Kovic's transformations in 10 sequences and blames U.S. ideology, such as Wilsonianism's "Making the World Safe for Democracy," or the religious implication of "Manifest Destiny" for wrongly influencing Kovic to want to be a hero and fight for his country. Ron's problems go deeper than the government's attempt to lie to him, all the way back to his desire to become a hero to impress his parents, especially his mother and Donna his girlfriend. He sees himself always as a hero and not an ordinary person, which leads him to repress truths about himself, the real roots of his desires. How does he feel about his mother? Donna? His country? The abstractions he has built up about family, crucifix, flag, hero, etc. have no connection with real life. He never reads or examines his motives. He is acted upon. In the 10 sequences that I have divided the film, Stone has objectified Kovic into the hero form who might not be better off at the end of the film. Except for the scenes of Kovic's internalization of the accidental shooting of Wilson, emanating from his mind, we usually see Kovic's reactions to what he is watching. He is not the subjective voice driving the film, but the passive object affected by the events, icons, images, and people. Does he stay that way at the end?
1. Credits - Opening sequence - Childhood
The film starts with Kovic's words speaking of childhood memories and how Sally's Woods became a battlefield. This is the last we hear of this voice as the camera quickly takes command with an overhead view of little Ron being "killed." We then look at Ron looking at the parade, cheerleaders, Donna, and his parents and see the seeds of his desire to be a soldier or sports hero to impress. We see him looking up for parent approval. The prize of war is being honored in a parade, the prize of a homerun is a kiss from your girl. Does Ron actually like playing baseball or being a soldier? These questions are not explored by Kovic, and certainly never by Stone.
2. High School Glory Days
In this sequence, the wrestling goal to win the girl and impress the mother fails. Ron has a slight Oedipal complex which is clouded over by the politics of the film. He never succeeds to get out of her grasp. She scolds him for having Playboy in his room and threatens him almost with damnation (he has to go to confession immediately). Repressed sexually, he bungles his chance to ask Donna to the prom. Had he gone to the prom and succeeded in doing without the mother's approval, he might not have had to turn to soldiering to be a hero. To the diegetic music of Frankie Avalon's "Venus" in the A&P, Ron learns that Donna has a date to the prom. He should have been praying to the goddess of love to send him a "girl that he could thrill." Perhaps Ron did not have a love motive for Donna and Venus takes her revenge when ironically Venus, Ga. sends Ron a"GI he can kill."
The mother also condones Ron's venture to Vietnam in the name of God to stop Communism. The traditional sign of the cross Ron makes upon entering the house is done in haste with no reflection on its meaning. Having failed as a sports hero, Ron's next step is to follow the marine sergeant's advice to try heroing on the battlefield.
3. Moon River - Cua Viet River -The Crime
This sequence has the most subjective shot of Ron when he sees confusion all around and is led to be to quick on the trigger as he accidentally guns Wilson down. He tries to express his guilt, but is forced to repress it by his commanding officer. He and his pals say "motherfucker" a lot, toned down to "son of a bitch" for TV, but they are not literally what they say. The language can be a replacement of the sexual repression they are undergoing. He is objectified by his childhood desires and programmed from the beginning to kill Wilson. The graphics of the Wilson scene and the opening childhood battle scene are almost identical. Even at his most subjective moment of admitting guilt, his commanding officer objectifies him and sends him back to be turned into a machine.
4. Castration - Hospital - Rehabbed - Reified
Kovic, still gung-ho, starts his education on the Vietnam Lie in the hospital. The camera is constantly over our victim now. Having been completely reified, into a machine now, Kovic can break his leg, not feel it, and still need it to function somewhat. After his gung-ho efforts have him destroying his already destroyed legs, he has a dream of rising from his wheel chair and jogging. We see him awakened from this dream in a mirror image from above. In reality, Ron is on his stomach and the shot is taken from below from the point of view of his vomit that he was staring at. We see a real subjective view of his pain as he is turned 180 degrees over to his normal position. This turn around is symbolic of his turn around point of view on the war.
Upon arriving home the camera pans as if the looking for someone in particular, and she finally arrives. We see her from his view first, camera down on him from her angle, but we see his intimidated reaction. Then, we see from her view, camera up to her from his angle. She appears to want to erase this part of her life, much like the troubled mother does with her reactions in Redford's Ordinary People, when she can not deal with her son as a failure. As the camera pulls away from Ron, we realize that hero oriented people, like his mother, do have a tendancy to become disillusioned or quit on their heroes. Later, at the dinner table, the mother's big concern is that Ron says "fuck," and not the reasons why he says it. "Fuck" here is an abstraction for "evil" according to the mother's code of life.
In this coming home sequence, after the parade, Kovic acknowledges to his friend Timmie that his heroic obsession is the cause of his castration. He does not probe the reasons for this desire, but if he did, he might see that it is sexual repression which drives him to be a hero in the first place. We see it in the opening sequence, when as a boy he shows off doing push-ups to Donna instead of kissing her. Then, as a teenager, instead of asking her outright to the prom, he makes up some excuse about going with someone else. This, I believe, is an attempt to block himself from asking her so that he will not have to face a refusal. Perhaps the hero status seems safe for him, for in having it, he will be assured acceptance without having to actively participate in the relationship. Kovic does not examine these feelings. The camera close-up sees him thinking his castrated position is a punishment for having killed Wilson.
6. Syracuse- Dylan -Donna
Ron visits Donna to try to recapture the past he never had. To the diegetic music of "A Hard Rain is Goin to Fall," we see that Donna wants to use Ron as an anti-war symbol. In this sequence, it is ironic to see the military paradigms of the peace protestors. With phrases like "We lost the reverend" (as if he were shot) tells us that the protestors approached the demonstration as a war. Even the police confrontation had the same graphics and camera jumps, and confusion appearance as the battle sequence when Kovic's squad killed the civilians. So what if the protestors win, we will just be dominated by a different group of fascists.
7. Home again - Rock bottom
The student confrontation fades out and then fades in to a bar in Ron's home town. Ron is bitter now about Vietnam. The big confrontaion scene is when he is taken home, drunk again, and says "fuck you" to his mother, denying God, his country and all his previous values. He blames his mother for all these lies, but it is when he shows his catheter in place of his penis, that his mother protests the loudest, "Don't say penis in this house!" He then laments to his father "who's going to love me now?" The sexual repression and the religious reflex actions hindered his asking important political, ideological and love questions in his youth.
8. Mexico - "Marriage" - "Hero"
With other soldiers in a similar predicament, Ron searches happiness in cards, mesqual, and whores. Getting "married" means intercourse with a prostitute. Disillusioned that Maria Elena, a prostitute, does not really love him (ironic that he never entertained these emotions with Donna), the sound of a fan metonymizes to the helicopters of Vietnam, another repetition flashback of his accidental murder. What follows is the big fight sequence with his new mentor Charlie (played by William Dafoe, the good mentor in Platoon). Charlie defines heroism as killing babies. Heroism is really put on its side! Ron says that things used to make sense, but maybe metaphors always make sense if you never try to explore their origins.
9. Venus, Ga. - Confession - "The Good Mother"
Through the experience of Wilson's icons and Kovic's last subjective plunge into his accidental killing, Kovic confesses to Wilson's parents and receives pardon from his "new" mother. With this pardon, he will be able to take up his crusade against the war.
10. Conventions - Still the Hero
At the 72 Republican convention, we see that Ron is still the military hero as he orders his men to take back the convention hall. He is no longer a bitter drunk, but he is still wrapped up in the hero paradigm. Four years later at the "truly good Democratic convention" Kovic signs autographs of his book before he takes the podium to address the delegates. A voiceover of his mother's words from his youth, "I had a dream Ronnie, the other night, and you were speaking to a large crowd, just like him (Kennedy) and you were saying great things" are heard while we see flashbacks of Ronnie as a boy kissing Donna and hitting a homerun. After the flashback, we see a contented Kovic being wheeled up the stairs to victory. Or, is he still under the pressure of being a hero for his mother? Has he learned anything else beside the Lie of Vietnam (a script he has learned, but not assimilated I think)?
Sexual Repression - Self Cover-up - Political Repression
In this film, the political message is not the Vietnam Lie, but political repression caused by sexual repression. Sexual repression causes Kovic to seek a release in becoming a hero, which clouds his seeing the political and personal situation more clearly.
Barbara Johnson distinguishes between metaphor which is a figure of speech substituted for a real reference word based on resemblance or analogy, while metonymy's substitution is based on
other connections such as cause-effect, container-contained, place-event or institution, proper name-qualities, and instrument-user (155). The goal of her distinguishing the two figures in her article on Zora Neale Hurston is to reveal false images.
To privilege either metaphor or metonymy is thus to run the risk of producing an increasingly aphasi critical discourse. If both or all four poles [semantic, syntactic, similarity, contiguity] must be operative in order for speech to function fully, then the very notion of an "authentic voice" must be redefined. Far from being an expression of Janie's new wholeness..., Janie's increasing ability to speak grows out of her ability not to mix inside with outside, not to pretend that there is no difference, but to assume and articulate the incompatible forces involved in her own division. The sign of an authentic voice is thus not self-identity, but self-difference [underline by Johnson]. (164)
Kovic's desire to be a hero like Mickey Mantle, JFK, and the marine sergeant is more metaphorical in nature. He substitutes his existence for that of the hero and he does not see the difference. Christopher Faulkner, in his study of Renoir, borrows Roland Barthes' term "alibi of absence" where, for example, the bourgeois wedding is a stand-in for the idealization of their existence. The bourgeois people, like Kovic, become immobilized and helpless to live up to it. Kovic's immobility is also metonymic since his hero desire really immobilizes him. We see the metaphorical-metonymical differences that the dangers of heroism reveal, but does Kovic? For him, the false images of ideology, Kennedy, the flag, parades, crucifix, and mother are revealed in the metonymies of the battlefield, childhood to real, wrestling exercize to rehabilitation exercize, and sex with no love to prostitution. Are the false images of heroism exposed or does he fall back into mother's control? Her words of seeing him say great things are intermingled with flashbacks of his baseball glory, kissing Donna, and parades while we see a contented smile on his face. Is he no different than his mother with no authentic voice?
Stone pushes the hero metaphor a step further by replacing Kovic with Tom Cruise, one of the biggest stars of Hollywood, and the only big star of the film, his name alone appearing before the title of the film. There are two other big stars in cameo roles, the two major stars of Platoon: Tom Berenger, the marine who is still the evil father tempting Cruise into Vietnam; while William Dafoe, the good father in the character of the wounded Charlie, reveals the real horrors of heroism of Vietnam. Stone keeps his hero metaphor running.
If Chomsky is right that our goals in Vietnam and in Iraq are to prevent the rise of autonomous countries in the third world, we must frag Oliver Stone. Stone is a Democrat, but this hero-building apparatus is Republican in nature, with heroic qualities trickling down to us ordinary people. His hero-building apparatus prevents us from exploring real history in communion with others in the hopes of being autonomous and authentic ourselves.
In the book, Kovic turns ideological places into usable spaces by informing groups of people about the real Vietnam. In the film, he turns over the story to Stone who transforms Kovic's space to Cruise's place.
Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
Girdner, Eddie. "Gulf War vs. Vietnam Syndrome." Third Concept Sept. 1991: 13-25.
Johnson, Barbara. A World of Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
Faulkner, Christopher. The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.
Lentricchia, Frank. Ariel and the Police. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988.
[i]. Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.