As I respond to the four questions concerning forgiveness and reconciliation I cannot help but think back to forty two years ago when I was shot and paralyzed from my mid-chest down in the Vietnam War.
I was Medivaced from the battlefield to an intensive care ward in Danang Vietnam where for the next several days struggled with everything in me to live. The dead and dying were everywhere. I am In and out of morphine every four hours awakening to the screams of the wounded all around me. Young men like myself, nineteen, twenty years old. I am told by a doctor that I will never walk again, that I will be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Still I am grateful to be alive, to still be breathing. I dream of my hometown, of my mother, my father and the backyard where I had played as a boy.All I want to do now is survive, somehow get out of this place and return home. I completely lose track of time. I don’t know If it is day or night. They keep bringing in the wounded and carting out the dead. It is the eve of the Tet Offensive. A young Vietnamese man who had been severely wounded is brought into the intensive care ward and placed in a bed directly across from me. I can still remember that day clearly, his face, the fear in his eyes. He had been badly wounded one of the nurses telling me that he was a Viet Cong solider who had been shot in the chest only a few days before. I remember looking into his eyes as he was carefully placed in his bed directly across from me. He was very frightened.I thought to myself, “He’s the enemy, the Viet Cong, the “Gook” the Communist my country sent me to fight and kill. The one I must fear, the one I must hate, the man who was not even human. That belief and hated had been reinforced in boot camp, at Parris Island South Carolina where we had chanted, “I’m going to go to Vietnam. I’m going to kill the Viet Cong! Perhaps he might have been the one who had pulled the trigger a few days before trying to kill me, the one who had shot and paralyzed me from my mid-chest down for the rest of my life. I would never know for sure.
Yet as I lay in that hospital bed and as our eyes met I clearly remember feeling no hatred or animosity toward him. On the contrary I felt compassion. This man I had been taught to hate. This man who was my enemy. Each day upon awakening from the morphine I would look at him and he would look back at me. Never a word being spoken, just our eyes meeting, our gaze, a recognition of each others presence, our humanity, an understanding that both our worlds had been turned upside down and we now were in a far different place than we had been only a few days before. We had reached an equality of sorts in this place of the wounded and dying, that great leveler, where distinctions vanish, where there is no prejudice or hatred, where all becomes equal. We were both two wounded young men in late January of 1968 simply trying to survive, to stay alive, two human beings who only wanted to live.
A sort of unique bond began to develop between my, “enemy” and myself over the next several days, a strange and at first somewhat uneasy comradery without words which was both unsettling and at the same time seemed completely natural to me. I did not think of him as my enemy anymore. I began to care about him more and more and each time I would awake from the morphine with the screams of the wounded and dying all around me. I would reach out to him with my eyes, with my heart, as he lay across from me in his bed. I wanted him to live just as much as I wanted to live. “Keep fighting I remember thinking as I looked into his eyes trying to communicate with him, with the look in my eyes, a smile, with the expression on my face. I wanted him to know that I cared, that there was no longer any hatred, any animosity between us, that I wanted him to live just as much as I now wanted to live. We were together in this now and none of those other things mattered anymore. Two young men simply trying to survive. Don’t give up! I remember saying with my eyes. I won’t give up If you don’t give up! I’ll keep fighting If you keep fighting! I remember thinking pressing my lips together, reaching out to him, one human being to another, no longer enemies, two young men simply trying to live and survive and go home, leave all of this sorrow behind, back to our families, our homes and our towns, where it was simple again, where it was safe. The days and nights and hours past. The lights were always on and you never knew If it was night or day and after a while it didn’t really matter anymore. You awoke on that one day and you looked across and saw the empty hospital bed. He was gone and the nurse told you he had died. There was no emotion in her voice. She was very tired and there would be many more dead and many more wounded before it was all over.
I stared at his empty bed for a long time feeling a sadness that I could not fully comprehend. In the years that have passed I have often thought about those days on the intensive care ward in 1968 and that young Vietnamese man, “my enemy” who lay in that hospital bed across from me and how we are all perhaps much closer to each other as brothers and sisters on this earth than we realize. There is I believe a powerful connectiveness to our humanity, a deep desire to reach out with kindness, with love, and great caring toward each other, even to our supposed enemies; to bring forth the “better angles of our nature” that is undeniable, and can not be extinguished even in death. This is the hope of the world. This is the faith we now need in these times. In the years that followed I would attempt to write about the war and that long and often difficult journey home trying to give meaning to what I and so many others had gone through. There would be other profound moments of reconciliation and forgiveness in the years that were to follow, but almost always my mind would drift back to that young Vietnamese man who had laid across from me for those few brief days on the Danang intensive care ward in 1968.
Here are a few notes and reflections on reconciliation and forgiveness taken from my notes and writings.
I am no longer the twenty eight year old man, six years returned from the war in Vietnam, who sat behind that typewriter in Santa Monica in the fall of 1974. I am nearly sixty now. My hair and beard are almost completely white. The nightmares and anxiety attacks have all but disappeared, but I still do not sleep well at night. I toss and turn in increasing physical pain. But I remain very positive and optimistic. I am still determined to rise above all of this. I know my pain and the horrors of my past will always be with me, but perhaps not with the same force and furry of those early years after the war. I have learned to forgive my enemies and forgive myself. It has been very difficult to heal from the war while living in America, and I have often dreamed of moving to neutral ground, another country. Yet I have somehow made a certain peace, even in a nation that so often still seems to believe in war and the use of violence as a solution to it’s problems. There has been a reckoning a renewal. The scar will always be there, a living reminder of that war, but it also has become something beautiful now, something of faith and hope and love. I have been given the opportunity to move through that dark night of the soul to a new shore, to gain an understanding, a knowledge, an entirely different vision. I now believe I have suffered for a reason, and in many ways I have found that reason in my commitment to peace and nonviolence. My life has been a blessing in disguise, even with the pain and great difficulty that my disability continues to bring. It is a blessing to be able to speak on behalf of peace, to be able to reach such a great number of people. I saw first hand what our governments terrible policy had wrought. I endured; I survived and understood. The one gift I was given in that war was an awakening. I became a messenger, a living symbol, an example, a man who learned that love and forgiveness are more powerful than hatred, who has learned to embrace all men and women as my brothers and sisters. No one will ever again be my enemy, no matter how hard they try to frighten or intimidate me. No government will ever teach me to hate another human being. I have been given the task of lighting a lantern, ringing a bell, shouting from the highest rooftops, warning the American people and citizens everywhere of the deep immorality and utter wrongness of this approach to solving our problems, pleading for an alternative to this chaos and madness, this insanity and brutality. We must change course. I truly feel that this world has given me back so much more than it has taken from me. So many others that I knew are gone and gone way too young. I am grateful to be alive after all these years and all that I’ve been through. I am thankful for every day. Life is so precious.
SOME ADDITIONAL NOTES, QUOTATIONS, AND COMMENTS.
( All of these quotes are my own written in the years after the war. R.K.)
About the author
Ron Kovic, born in Ladysmith, Wisconsin (USA) in 1946, is an antiwar activist, Vietnam Veteran and writer who was paralyzed in the Vietnam War. He is best known as the author of the memoir Born on the Fourth of July, which was made into an Academy Award winning movie directed by Oliver Stone, with Tom Cruise playing Kovic. On January, 20th, 1990, exactly 22 years to the day that he was shot and paralyzed in the Vietnam War, Kovic received the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay ( Kovic and Stone co-wrote the screenplay for Born on the Fourth of July) Bruce Springsteen wrote the song “Shut Out The Light” after reading Kovic’s memoir and then meeting him. Academy Award winning actress Jane Fonda has stated that Ron Kovic’s story was the inspiration for her film Coming Home. Kovic became one of the best known peace activists among the veterans of the war and has been arrested for political protest 12 times.On December, 6th, 2009 Kovic spoke honoring Bruce Springsteen at the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington D.C.
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