Ron Kovic – “Breaking the Silence of the Night” (2006)

August 2, 2008 at 7:28 pm (Life & Politics, Reviews & Articles)


A time comes when silence is betrayal.

— Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967

It all begins somewhere, the questioning, the doubting, the feeling that something’s not right; like that day the captain set fire to the Vietnamese woman’s hooch, or the night we shot those women and children by mistake. It’s all got to start somewhere. For them it might have been the innocent civilians killed that day at the checkpoint just north of Baghdad or the dead children lying in the road in Kirkuk, or that night in Nasiriyah when they kicked in the front door of that house, screaming and cursing at the children as they threw their father to the floor, tying his hands behind his back and putting a hood over his head, but you remain silent, you say nothing. You’ve been taught to follow orders, to obey and not question, to go along with the program and do exactly what you’re told. You learned that in boot camp. You learned that the very first day at Parris Island when the drill instructors started screaming at you. It is “Yes sir” and “No sir,” and nothing in between. There is the physical and verbal abuse, the vicious threats and constant harassment to keep you off balance. It is a powerful conditioning process, a process that began long ago, long before we signed those papers at the recruit stations in our hometowns, a process deeply ingrained in the American culture and psyche, and it has shaped and influenced us from our earliest childhood.

Born on my country’s birthday in 1946, I had grown up in the shadow of the Cold War after the great victory of World War Two. Both my mother and father had served in the Navy during that war. It was where they met and were married, and we their children were to be called the “Baby Boom.” It was a beautiful time, a time of innocence, a time of patriotism, a time of loyalty, conformity and obedience. The threat of Communism was everywhere. We did not question. We did not doubt. We believed and we trusted our leaders. America was always right. How could we ever be wrong? We were the most powerful nation on earth and we had never lost a war, but all that was to change, all that was to be shattered in Vietnam.

I can still remember marching on Memorial Day, our parents on the sidewalks waving their American flags proudly. There were the war movies and the Sergeant Rock comic books, the toy guns that we got for Christmas, and the little plastic green soldiers that I played with in my backyard, fighting the Japs and the Germans, attacking the imaginary bunkers with our bazookas and flamethrowers, dreaming that someday like our fathers before us we would become men.

I volunteered for my first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965, only to return to a country deeply divided. I remember tears coming to my eyes when I saw a photograph in the newspaper of the American flag being burned at an antiwar rally in New York City. I was outraged and became determined to set my own example of patriotism and volunteered to go to Vietnam a second time, ready to die for my country if need be. Before leaving I purchased a diary that I promised to keep during my second tour of duty. I still have that diary today, and though it is a bit worn and frayed, the words that I wrote nearly four decades ago are still there. On January 18th, 1968, two days before I was shot and paralyzed, I wrote, “Time is going fast in a way, while in other ways it seems I’ve been here 100 years. I love my great nation and am ready to die for freedom.” Just below I had written the quote,

“Fear not that ye have died for naught
The torch ye threw to us we caught.
Ten million hands will hold it high,
And Freedom’s light shall never die!
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
In Flanders fields.”

—R.W. Lillard


Like many Americans who served in Vietnam and those now serving in Iraq, and countless other human beings throughout history, I had been willing to give my life for my country with little knowledge or awareness of what that really meant. I trusted and believed and had no reason to doubt the sincerity or motives of my government. It would not be until many months later at the Bronx Veterans Hospital in New York that I would begin to question whether I and the others who had gone to that war had gone for nothing.

It was a violent spring. Martin Luther King had been killed in Memphis and I had just begun reading Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s book “To Seek a Newer World” at the Bronx VA when Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy had been the antiwar candidate, and I remember picking up his book with hesitation at first, his views seeming so very different from my own back then, but there was something that drew me toward him and his call to end the war that spring. Maybe it was the wounded all around me on the paraplegic ward, or the hundreds of Americans who continued to die each week, but I remember feeling deeply saddened when he died, just as I had when his brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been killed in Dallas in 1963.

I had been so certain of victory, but each day now I began to realize more and more that we were not going to win in Vietnam, and that realization was painful and devastating. I felt betrayed and could not understand why my government had not done all that it could to win the war. Did they have any idea how much we had sacrificed, how many had already died and been maimed like myself? I felt sad and depressed and would often go down to the hospital library on the first floor, where I would read for hours at a time trying to forget the war. The first book that I read was about the life of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and I remember listening to his voice on the Armed Forces Radio during my second tour of duty and writing in my diary how much hearing him and his determination to stay the course and not give up in Vietnam had inspired me. Several days later I discovered the diary of Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary who had gone to Bolivia and was later killed there while attempting to inspire a revolution. I felt uneasy at first holding the book in my hands as I sat paralyzed in my wheelchair, afraid that someone might come up to me and catch me reading about the “enemy,” but I now wanted to know who this enemy was, who were these people I had been taught to hate and sent to fight and kill.

I remember watching the 1968 Chicago Republican National Convention on TV with other paralyzed veterans in their wheelchairs, the crowds in the streets outside the convention hall chanting, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” as antiwar demonstrators were beaten and bloodied by police and dragged into waiting paddy wagons. Most of my fellow veterans were angry at the protesters, cursing them and calling them traitors, but I remember feeling very differently that night. What the police had done was wrong, and for the first time, though I did not share it with anyone yet, I began to sympathize with the demonstrators.

It was not long after that that I left the hospital and began attending classes at Hofstra University on Long Island, determined to rise above what had happened to me and begin a new life after the war. It was a quiet and peaceful campus, so different from Vietnam and the hospital, and it was at the university that I was to first hear the passionate exchange of ideas and different points of view. Many of the discussions had to do with the war and why it had to end. There were the lit candles and the moratoriums, the John Lennon song “Give Peace a Chance,” and I remember listening to the Woodstock album and hearing Jimi Hendrix’s wild rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” for the first time. There was the infamous My Lai massacre poster, “And babies too?” It was shocking and I could not help but think back to that night during my second tour of duty when we shot those women and children by mistake, all those bloody bodies, the old man with his brains hanging out and that Vietnamese child whose foot had nearly been shot off, dangling by a thread.

I continued to attend classes, still keeping my thoughts and feelings about the war deep inside of me and sharing them with no one.

It was during this period that I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” and was immediately struck by the concept of “resistance to civil government and non cooperation with evil” seeming to directly contradict what I had once believed in as a boy—that my country was always right and could do no wrong. The whole idea that we as citizens had a right to follow our conscience and resist laws that were unjust and immoral had a powerful effect on me. I was later to learn that Senator Joseph McCarthy had attempted to ban Thoreau’s essay  and that both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s philosophy of creative nonviolence as a tactic for social change had been strongly influenced by their reading of “Civil Disobedience.”

There was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Nigger: An Autobiography” by Dick Gregory and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which exposed the brutality and horror of colonialism. I remember reading Jerry Rubin’s “Do It” and Abbie Hoffman’s “Revolution for the Hell of It,” astounded at the sheer audacity of these two “Yippie” (Youth International Party) radicals and their willingness to stand up to the most powerful government in the world and its policy in Vietnam. They were wild and outrageous, and believed in revolution and were not afraid to say it or write about it and act it out. There was the article in Ramparts magazine by the Army Green Beret Sergeant Donald Duncan, who had turned against the war, and I remember someone from the university mentioning that a Vietnam veteran from Suffolk Community College was now heading the S.D.S. (Students for a Democratic Society) on his campus.

There were the Columbia University sit-ins and Woodstock and the alternative radio station WBAI, which I listened to in my room late at night, deeply moved by talk of protest and revolution, power to the people and provocative antiwar songs that brought tears to my eyes, giving me an entirely different perspective on what was happening in Vietnam and here at home.

America seemed to be tearing itself apart; never before had the nation been so polarized, not since the Civil War had we as a people been so divided. Everything was being questioned, nothing was sacred, even the existence of God was now suspect. The very earth beneath my feet seemed to be shifting, and there no longer seemed to be any guarantees, or anything that could be trusted or believed in anymore. Many of the students had become so angry and frustrated with the war and what was going on that they had begun to give up on America. Many wondered if we were ever really a “democracy” to begin with, while still others spoke openly of leaving the country and abandoning America forever. I continued attending my classes, trying to be a good student, but I could not help but be affected by all the things that were happening around me. Several weeks later while sitting in the back of a crowded auditorium I remember listening to the impassioned words of the late Congressman Allard Lowenstein, who had come to speak at our campus that day, fiercely condemning the war and telling us all to not give up and that it was “better to reclaim the country than abandon it!”

It was about that time I received a call from my friend Bobby Muller, whom I had first met at the Bronx Veterans Hospital only a few months before and who had also been paralyzed in Vietnam, asking me if I would join him at Levittown Memorial High School on Long Island later that week to speak against the war. I remember being hesitant at first, telling him I wasn’t sure. I had never spoken in public before and the thought of giving my first speech against the war frightened me. When I got off the phone I felt an uncomfortable burning in my stomach. A part of me wanted to speak for all I had seen in Vietnam and the hospital and for all the thoughts and feelings I had been having ever since I had begun attending classes at the university, while another part could not help but think of what might happen to me if I did. Would I be called a traitor? Would I end up in some FBI file, no longer the quiet student sitting in his wheelchair alone on the outskirts of the demonstrations but now a direct participant, a radical, a demonstrator? I would be stepping over the line and joining with the very people I had once thought of as traitors. What would my mother and father think if they found out? And the veterans at the university—what would they say? Would they feel that I had betrayed them? Bobby called me several times that week, sounding a bit impatient, but again I hesitated, telling him that I hadn’t made up my mind yet. I asked him if he would call me the following morning, which was the day of the speech, saying I would let him know for sure. I could hardly sleep that night, tossing and turning, tormented by fear and doubt, trapped between the awful twilight of what might happen to me if I did speak and what I knew would continue to happen if I remained silent.

The phone rang early the next morning and I remember picking it up, telling Bobby in a voice that was still only half awake that I had decided to join him that day. It was nearly forty years ago but I can still remember driving down to the high school in my hand-controlled car thinking of all the things I wanted to say to the students. When I arrived I parked the car, transferred into my wheelchair and pushed over to the entrance of the school and into the auditorium, where Bobby was already sitting on the stage in his wheelchair talking to one of the teachers. I was carried up a few steps, where I joined him, and for a moment I remember turning my head and looking out at all the students, thinking how much they reminded me of myself only a few years before, so young and innocent, so trusting and willing to believe without question. Bobby spoke first and a few minutes later it was my turn. I approached the microphone slowly, pushing my wheelchair to the very center of the stage, and in a voice that I can still remember being a bit anxious I began to speak. I told them about the hospital first, the overcrowded conditions, the rats on the ward, and just as I began to speak about how I had been shot and paralyzed in Vietnam the fire bell rang. The auditorium quickly cleared after that, one of the teachers telling us that someone had just called in a bomb threat. I didn’t know what to think at first. I remember feeling frightened, angry and outraged all at the same time! Why would anyone want to stop me from speaking? Who could that voice on the other end of the phone have been? Was it another boy, a student, a teacher, an angry parent? What could they have possibly been thinking? I would never know for sure, only that someone had made an effort to stop me from speaking that day, and that affected me deeply. We all went outside and after a brief discussion decided to go over to the high school football field, where we assembled all the students in the grandstands and I continued speaking, more determined than ever to not be silenced.

There would be Kent State and my first demonstration against the war in Washington, D.C, the VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War), arrests, tapped phones, undercover agents, and many more speeches in the months and years that were to follow as my political awakening continued and I began to discover an America far different than the one I had once believed in as a boy. There were the trials and days and nights I spent in jail in my wheelchair feeling more like a criminal than someone who had risked his life for his country, but I continued to speak.

Perhaps it was survivor’s guilt, or my own desperate need to be forgiven and keep others from having to come back like me, but as I sat before those crowds I began to open up my heart in a way that I had never done before, sharing everything, all the horrors and nightmares, all the things I had locked deep inside of me and had for so long been afraid to say. In many ways I was confessing the sins of America. I remember many nights driving home to my apartment after those speeches feeling exhausted and deeply troubled, unable to sleep, knowing that if I did, the nightmares would return and I would be back in Vietnam all over again; only to awaken a few hours later with my heart pounding in my chest, feeling terribly alone and wondering why I was putting myself through all this pain and agony.

It had only been a few years before that I had sat in the living room of my house in Massapequa, Long Island, with tears in my eyes listening to the words of President John F. Kennedy call my generation to “A New Frontier,” urging us all to be ready to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to insure the success and survival of liberty,” but those words seemed hollow to me now. Somewhere along the way we had taken the wrong turn, somewhere through it all America had veered tragically off course, leaving behind our sacred ideals and betraying the very roots of our revolutionary past. Instead of the great champion of liberty we had emerged the imposter, a fraud, a dangerous, corrupt frightening monstrosity of what we had first set out to be. America had lived a terrible lie. We had been on the wrong side of history. The great defender of liberty had become the tyrant, the arrogant bully, the cruel exploiter of “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free.” Wearing the deceitful mask of the great liberator and promising freedom and democracy, we had robbed and raped, blackmailed and perverted our way around the world, supporting the most despicable tyrants and despots as we expanded our bloody empire, causing the death and suffering of countless human beings. I now understood what Martin Luther King had meant when he had called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world….”

I remember reading “State and Revolution” by Lenin and “The Prison Poems of Ho Chi Minh.” There was George Jackson’s “Prison Letters” and a powerful book by Felix Green called “The Enemy: What Every American Should Know About Imperialism.” There was the documentary “Hearts and Minds,” and the agonizing scene of the grief-stricken Vietnamese woman being held back by family members as she tried to crawl into the grave of her husband, who had just been killed in an American air strike, and the haunting scene of a terrified Vietnamese child screaming and running naked from her village after being severely burned in a napalm attack as the war raged on, and my speeches grew angry and bitter at a government I could no longer trust or believe in anymore. There were the body counts and booby traps, body bags, “light at the end of the tunnel” and Vietnam veterans throwing their ribbons and medals away at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., outraged with a government and a war they had now come to see as unjust and immoral.

The Vietnam War finally ended in the spring of 1975 and with its end came the hope that America might change and begin to confront the painful legacy of its past. I will always remember the words of Vietnam Veteran Against the War John Kerry as he spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the spring of 1971:


“And so when thirty years from now a brother goes down the street without an arm, without a leg or a face and small boys ask why, we can say, Vietnam, and not mean a desert or some filthy obscene memory, but instead mean the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped in that turning.”


But tragically that “turning” was not to be, and the dream of a more peaceful and nonviolent America was put on hold by a government that continued to refuse to face the reality of the terrible crimes it had committed in our name.

For the past three and a half years I have watched in horror the mirror image of another Vietnam unfolding in Iraq. As of this writing over 2,700 Americans have died and nearly 20,000 have been wounded while tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, many of them women and children, have been killed. Refusing to learn from the lessons of Vietnam, our government continues to pursue a policy of deception, distortion, manipulation and denial, doing everything it can to hide from the American people its true intentions in Iraq. Sadly, the “War on Terror” has become a war of terror. Never before has this government, through its outrageous provocations and violent aggressions, placed the citizens of this country in such grave danger. Never have the people of this country been so threatened, never before has life and liberty been in such great peril; not in the two hundred and thirty years since our revolution have we as a people and a nation been at such a crucial turning point. These are dangerous times. A century of arrogance, brutality and aggression has come back to haunt us all. September 11th has happened. The mask has been ripped away. The lie has been exposed and this criminal government now stands naked before the world! These are provocative words, and the truth may be deeply unsettling but when will we speak the truth? When will we end this silence? How much longer will we wait before we are ready to finally admit that the murderer lives in our own house, that this government that we entrusted long ago with the sacred task of protecting life and liberty now, by it’s every reckless, unjust and immoral action threatens the lives and liberty of us all?

Have we become so complacent, so coward and intimidated by this government that we have forgotten our own revolutionary birthright of rebellion and dissent? Have we become so paralyzed by the eleventh of September that we would give up our liberty and freedom for the promise of a security that does not exist by a government that now threatens our very lives? What will it take before we finally realize the true reality of this crisis? How many more terrorist attacks, senseless wars, flag draped caskets, grieving mothers, paraplegics, amputees, stressed out sons and daughters before we finally begin to break the silence of this shameful night? Let us open up our hearts and speak in a way we have never spoken before knowing that lives now depend on it, and the very survival of our nation is now at stake. Let not our silence in this crucial moment betray us from our destiny.


Ron Kovic

October 10, 2006


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Ron Kovic – “The Forgotten Wounded of Iraq” (2006)

August 2, 2008 at 7:21 pm (Life & Politics, Reviews & Articles)

Another article he wrote about our current war situation…

Thirty-eight years ago, on Jan. 20, 1968, I was shot and paralyzed from my mid-chest down during my second tour of duty in Vietnam. It is a date that I can never forget, a day that was to change my life forever. Each year as the anniversary of my wounding in the war approached I would become extremely restless, experiencing terrible bouts of insomnia, depression, anxiety attacks and horrifying nightmares. I dreaded that day and what it represented, always fearing that the terrible trauma of my wounding might repeat itself all over again. It was a difficult day for me for decades and it remained that way until the anxieties and nightmares finally began to subside.

As I now contemplate another January 20th I cannot help but think of the young men and women who have been wounded in the war in Iraq. They have been coming home now for almost three years, flooding Walter Reed, Bethesda, Brooke Army Medical Center and veterans hospitals all across the country. Paraplegics, amputees, burn victims, the blinded and maimed, shocked and stunned, brain-damaged and psychologically stressed, over 16,000 of them, a whole new generation of severely maimed is returning from Iraq, young men and women who were not even born when I came home wounded to the Bronx veterans hospital in 1968.

I, like most other Americans, have occasionally seen them on TV or at the local veterans hospital, but for the most part they remain hidden, like the flag-draped caskets of our dead, returned to Dover Air Force Base in the darkness of night as this administration continues to pursue a policy of censorship, tightly controlling the images coming out of that war and rarely ever allowing the human cost of its policy to be seen.

Mosul, Fallouja, Basra, Baghdad, a roadside bomb, an RPG, an ambush, the bullets cracking all around them, the reality that they are in a war, that they have suddenly been hit. No more John Wayne-Audie Murphy movie fantasies. No more false bravado, stirring words of patriotism, romantic notions of war or what it might really mean to be in combat, to sacrifice for one’s country. All that means nothing now. The reality has struck, the awful, shocking and frightening truth of what it really means to be hit by a bullet, an RPG, an improvised explosive device, shrapnel, a booby trap, friendly fire. They are now in a life-and-death situation and they have suddenly come face to face with the foreign policy of their own nation. The initial shock is wearing off; the painful reality is beginning to sink in, clearly something terrible has happened, something awful and inexplicable.

All the conditioning, all the discipline, shouting, screaming, bullying and threatening verbal abuse of their boot camp drill instructors have now disappeared in this one instant, in this one damaging blow. All they want to do now is stay alive, keep breathing, somehow get out of this place anyway they can. People are dying all around them, someone has been shot and killed right next to them and behind them but all they can really think of at this moment is staying alive.

You don’t think of God, or praying, or even your mother or your father. There is no time for that. Your heart is pounding. Blood is seeping out. You will always go back to that day, that moment you got hit, the day you nearly died yet somehow survived. It will be a day you will never forget—when you were trapped in that open area and could not move, when bullets were cracking all around you, when the first Marine tried to save you and was shot dead at your feet and the second, a black Marine—whom you would never see again and who would be killed later that afternoon—would carry you back under heavy fire.

You are now with other wounded all around you heading to a place where there will be help. There are people in pain and great distress, shocked and stunned, frightened beyond anything you can imagine. You are afraid to close your eyes. To close your eyes now means that you may die and never wake up. You toss and turn, your heart pounding, racked with insomnia … and for many this will go on for months, years after they return home.

They are being put on a helicopter, with the wounded all around them. They try to stay calm. Some are amazed that they are still alive. You just have to keep trying to stay awake, make it to the next stage, keep moving toward the rear, toward another aid station, a corpsman, a doctor, a nurse, someone who can help you, someone who will operate and keep you alive so you can make it home, home to your backyard and your neighbors and your mother and father. To where it all began, to where it was once peaceful and safe. They just try to keep breathing because they have got to get back.

They are in the intensive-care ward now, the place where they will be operated on, and where in Vietnam a Catholic priest gave me the Last Rites. Someone is putting a mask over their faces just as they put one over mine in Da Nang in 1968. There is the swirl of darkness and soon they awaken to screams all around them. The dead and dying are everywhere. There are things here you can never forget, images and sounds and smells that you will never see on TV or read about in the newspapers. The black pilot dying next to me as the corpsman and nurse tried furiously to save him, pounding on his chest with their fists as they laughed and joked trying to keep from going insane. The Green Beret who died of spinal meningitis, the tiny Vietnamese nun handing out apples and rosary beads to the wounded, the dead being carted in and out like clockwork,19- and 20-year-olds.

There is the long flight home packed with the wounded all around you, every conceivable and horrifying wound you could imagine. Even the unconscious and brain-dead whose minds have been blown apart by bullets and shrapnel make that ride with you, because we are all going home now, back to our country. And this is only the beginning.

The frustrations, anger and rage, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety attacks, terrible restlessness and desperate need to keep moving will come later, but for now we are so thankful to have just made it out of that place, so grateful to be alive even with these grievous wounds.

I cannot help but wonder what it will be like for the young men and women wounded in Iraq. What will their homecoming be like? I feel close to them. Though many years separate us we are brothers and sisters. We have all been to the same place. For us in 1968 it was the Bronx veterans hospital paraplegic ward, overcrowded, understaffed, rats on the ward, a flood of memories and images, I can never forget; urine bags overflowing onto the floor. It seemed more like a slum than a hospital. Paralyzed men lying in their own excrement, pushing call buttons for aides who never came, wondering how our government could spend so much money (billions of dollars) on the most lethal, technologically advanced weaponry to kill and maim human beings but not be able to take care of its own wounded when they came home.

Will it be the same for them? Will they have to return to these same unspeakable conditions? Has any of it changed? I have heard that our government has already attempted to cut back millions in much needed funds for veterans hospitals—and this when thousands of wounded soldiers are returning from Iraq. Will they too be left abandoned and forgotten by a president and administration whose patriotic rhetoric does not match the needs of our wounded troops now returning? Do the American people, the president, the politicians, senators and congressmen who sent us to this war have any idea what it really means to lose an arm or a leg, to be paralyzed, to begin to cope with the psychological wounds of that war? Do they have any concept of the long-term effects of these injuries, how the struggles of the wounded are only now just beginning? How many will die young and never live out their lives because of all the stress and myriad of problems that come with sending young men and women into combat?

It is so difficult at first. You return home and both physically and emotionally don’t know how you are going to live with this wound, but you just keep trying, just keep waking up to this frightening reality every morning. “My God, what has happened to me?” But you somehow get up, you somehow go on and find a way to move through each day. Even though it is impossible, you go on. Maybe there will be a day years from now, if you are lucky to live that long, when it will get better and you will not feel so overwhelmed. You must have something to hope for, some way to believe it will not always be this way. This is exactly what many of them are going through right now.

They are alone in their rooms all over this country, right now. Just as I was alone in my room in Massapequa. I know they’re there—just as I was. This is the part you never see. The part that is never reported in the news. The part that the president and vice president never mention. This is the agonizing part, the lonely part, when you have to awake to the wound each morning and suddenly realize what you’ve lost, what is gone forever. They’re out there and they have mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives and children. And they’re not saying much right now. Just like me they’re just trying to get through each day. Trying to be brave and not cry. They still are extremely grateful to be alive, but slowly, agonizingly they are beginning to think about what has really happened to them.

What will it be like for them when one morning they suddenly find themselves naked sitting before that mirror in their room and must come face to face with their injury? I want to reach out to them. I want them to know that I’ve been there too. I want to just sit with them in their room and tell them that they must not give up. They must try to be patient, try to just get through each day, each morning, each afternoon any way they can. That no matter how impossible and frustrating it may seem, how painful, regardless of the anxiety attacks and nightmares and thoughts of suicide, they must not quit. Somewhere out there, there will be a turning point, somewhere through this all they will find a reason to keep on living.

In the months and years that are to follow, others will be less fortunate. Young men and women who survived the battlefield, the intensive-care ward, veterans hospitals and initial homecoming will be unable to make the difficult and often agonizing adjustment.

Is this what is awaiting all of them? Is this the nightmare no one ever told them about, the part no one now wants to talk about or has the time to deal with? The car accidents, and drinking and drug overdoses, the depression, anger and rage, spousal abuse, bedsores and breakdowns, prison, homelessness, sleeping under the piers and bridges. The ones who never leave the hospital, the ones who can’t hold a job, can’t keep a relationship together, can’t love or feel any emotions anymore, the brutal insomnia that leaves you exhausted and practically unable to function, the frightening anxiety attacks that come upon you when you least expect them, and always the dread that each day may be your last.

Marty, Billy, Bobby, Max, Tom, Washington, Pat, Joe? I knew them all. It’s a long list. It’s amazing that you’re still alive when so many others you knew are dead, and at such a young age. Isn’t all this dying supposed to happen when you’re much older? Not now, not while we’re so young. How come the recruiters never mentioned these things? This was never in the slick pamphlets they showed us! This should be a time of innocence, a time of joy and happiness, no cares and youthful dreams—not all these friends dying so young, all this grief and numbness, emptiness and feelings of being so lost.

The physical and psychological battles from the war in Iraq will rage on for decades, deeply impacting the lives of citizens in both our countries.

As this, the 38th anniversary of my wounding in Vietnam approaches, in many ways I feel my injury in that war has been a blessing in disguise. 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 that I have suffered for a reason and in many ways I have found that reason in my commitment to peace and nonviolence. We who have witnessed the obscenity of war and experienced its horror and terrible consequences have an obligation to rise above our pain and suffering and turn the tragedy of our lives into a triumph. I have come to believe that there is nothing in the lives of human beings more terrifying than war and nothing more important than for those of us who have experienced it to share its awful truth.

We must break this cycle of violence and begin to move in a different direction; war is not the answer, violence is not the solution. A more peaceful world is possible.


I am the living death
The memorial day on wheels
I am your yankee doodle dandy
Your John Wayne come home
Your Fourth of July firecracker
Exploding in the grave


Ron Kovic

January 18, 2006

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Ron Kovic – “Born on the Fourth of July: The Long Journey Home” (2005)

August 2, 2008 at 7:14 pm (Life & Politics, Reviews & Articles)

The respected Vietnam veteran and author of Born on the Fourth of July, which was made into the acclaimed Oliver Stone film starring Tom Cruise.

This is an article he wrote a few years ago…


It was exactly forty years ago this past September that I left my house in Massapequa, New York to join the United States Marine Corps and begin an extraordinary journey that was to lead me into a disastrous war which would change my life, and others of my generation, profoundly and forever. There are times in the lives of both individuals and nations when we cross certain thresholds where there is no going back, no return to the innocence we once knew; the change is utter and irreconcilable. We often sense these moments. I know I did that day.

I can still remember leaving my house that morning, saying goodbye to my mother, my father driving me down to the Long Island Railroad station with only a few words being said between us–Dad was always that way–and then that long and contemplative ride into the city, being sworn in at Whitehall Street, holding my right hand up proudly with all the other young men, taking the oath of enlistment, and swearing our allegiance to the Constitution of the United States.

The fall of 1964, September 2, a lifetime ago. That last bright and beautiful morning when everything was to change forever, that last moment of lighthearted innocence and youth, of Massapequa and the backyard before the shock, the chaos, and the deluge. I had just turned eighteen that summer, and there are some old black-and-white photographs of me from those days. It’s amazing that I still have them, considering I have misplaced them many times over the years, thinking them lost forever, only to later find them in some unexpected place, like a deeply disturbing dream that I have been trying to repress.

I remember seeing those photos on several occasions after I came home from Vietnam and each time having terrible nightmares that shook me badly. I couldn’t look at them, could not face that young man I had been before the war and my injury. I would always promise myself to never look at them again. My trauma was still very deep, and that beautiful boy, that body, had been destroyed, defiled, and savaged. My wounding in Vietnam both physically and emotionally haunted me, pursued me, and threatened to overwhelm me.

I wrote Born on the Fourth of July in the fall of 1974 in one month, three weeks, and two days, on a $42 manual typewriter I had bought at Sears & Roebuck in Santa Monica, California. It was like an explosion, a dam bursting, everything flowed beautifully, just kept pouring out, almost effortlessly, passionately, desperately. I worked with an intensity and fury as if it was my last will and testament, and in many ways I felt it was. I continued to suffer from nightmares, constant anxiety attacks, severe heart palpitations, and a powerful, almost obsessive feeling that I would not live past my thirtieth birthday. I was living each day as if it were my last, as if everything had been compressed together by the war, and now every second counted.

I wrote all night long, seven days a week, single space, no paragraphs, front and back of the pages, pounding the keys so hard the tips of my fingers would hurt. I couldn’t stop writing, and I remember feeling more alive than I had ever felt. Convinced that I was destined to die young, I struggled to leave something of meaning behind, to rise above the darkness and despair.

I wanted people to understand. I wanted to share with them as nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone through, what I had endured. I wanted them to know what it really meant to be in a war–to be shot and wounded, to be fighting for my life on the intensive care ward–not the myth we had grown up believing. I wanted people to know about the hospitals and the enema room, about why I had become opposed to the war, why I had grown more and more committed to peace and nonviolence.

I had been beaten by the police and arrested twelve times for protesting the war, and I had spent many nights in jail in my wheelchair. I had been called a Communist and a traitor, simply for trying to tell the truth about what had happened in that war, but I refused to be intimidated. I loved the night and I would write for hours as if no time had passed at all. I was exhausted and my back ached, but none of that seemed to matter. I felt wonderful inside, tired but completely consumed by my writing.

I would drink a couple cups of coffee and then with a new surge of energy work for another hour or so as the bright lights of the morning began to fill the room. I’d neatly stack all the pages next to the typewriter after holding them proudly in my hands, then go to my bedroom and transfer out of my wheelchair onto a mattress on the floor. I remember thinking to myself one morning that if I died in my sleep, someone would come into the apartment and find those pages next to the typewriter and know that I was not a victim, but someone who had been trying to move beyond his terrible tragedy and the terrible injustice of that war.

With the exception of that initial burst of writing and rare moment of stability in Santa Monica in the fall of 1974, I continued to be extremely restless back then, frantically moving from one place to the next, living on the edge, racing in cabs to the airport, flying from city to city on my monthly compensation check, suddenly showing up at friends’ houses in the middle of the night and sleeping on their couches–always carrying the manuscript with me and always frightened, desperately needing to escape the demons that were closing in on me.

Over the next year and a half I wrote several additional chapters of Born on the Fourth of July. Some of the stories were ones I had told my mother when I first came home from the hospital and would lay on our couch in the living room when I couldn’t sleep, which was often back then. Night after night I would repeat the story of how I was wounded that day in Vietnam, describing every single detail. My dear mother would sit patiently in her chair, listening to her son who had come home paralyzed from the war, trying her best to understand.

I attempted to write at my friends Skip and Ginny’s place on Mohegan Lake, in their laundry room, but couldn’t seem to get started. I wrote most of the chapter about my childhood at a little hotel not far from Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, and the ambush chapter, the most painful but one of the best, at Connie’s apartment in L.A. I wrote the Memorial Day chapter one afternoon in San Francisco at the Sam Wong Hotel on Broadway, just down the street from Enricos Café in North Beach. I can still remember the open window of my hotel room and the noise of passing cars and trucks in the street below, the fumes, the honking horns, but that became a very beautiful chapter and I still enjoy reading it to this day.

I dictated the very first page of the first chapter to my friend Roger at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood, and the remainder of the chapter up in Mendocino where he and Mary were living at the time. I had driven all the way up in a used car I had just bought in L.A. and later abandoned in their driveway. It was deep in the woods, quiet and peaceful, so very different from the war and the hospitals and all that I had been through. The air was fresh and there was a pond behind their cottage where I dictated to Roger, and I remember feeling exhausted as he held me in his arms and I began to cry in the midst of all that stillness. It was a painful but beautiful birth.

I am extremely grateful to Akashic Books and its publisher, Johnny Temple, for bringing out this new edition of Born on the Fourth of July at such a crucial moment in our nation’s history. For the past two years we have been involved in a tragic and senseless war in Iraq. As of this writing, over 1,500 Americans have died and more than 11,000 have been wounded, while tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, many of them women and children, have been killed.

I have watched in horror the mirror image of another Vietnam unfolding. So many similarities, so many things said that remind me of that war thirty years ago which left me paralyzed for the rest of my life. Refusing to learn from our experiences in Vietnam, our government continues to pursue a policy of deception, distortion, manipulation, and denial, doing everything it can to hide from the American people their true intentions and agenda in Iraq. The flag-draped caskets of our dead begin their long and sorrowful journeys home hidden from public view, while the Iraqi casualties are not even considered worth counting–some estimate as many as 100,000 have been killed so far.

The paraplegics, amputees, burn victims, the blinded and maimed, shocked and stunned, brain damaged and psychologically stressed, now fill our veterans hospitals. Most of them were not even born when I came home wounded to the Bronx V.A. in 1968. The same lifesaving medical-evacuation procedures that kept me alive in Vietnam are bringing home a whole new generation of severely maimed from Iraq.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which afflicted so many of us after Vietnam, is just now beginning to appear among soldiers recently returned from the current war. For some, the agony and suffering, the sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, and awful bouts of insomnia, loneliness, alienation, anger, and rage, will last for decades, if not their whole lives. They will be trapped in a permanent nightmare of that war, of killing another man, a child, watching a friend die … fighting against an enemy that can never be seen, while at any moment someone–a child, a woman, an old man, anyone–might kill you. These traumas return home with us and we carry them, sometimes hidden, for agonizing decades. They deeply impact our daily lives, and the lives of those closest to us.

To kill another human being, to take another life out of this world with one pull of a trigger, is something that never leaves you. It is as if a part of you dies with them. If you choose to keep on living, there may be a healing, and even hope and happiness again–but that scar and memory and sorrow will be with you forever.

Some of these veterans are showing up at homeless shelters around our country, while others have begun to courageously speak out against the senselessness and insanity of this war and the leaders who sent them there. During the 2004 Democratic Convention, returning soldiers formed a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War, just as we marched in Miami in August of 1972 as Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Still others have refused deployment to Iraq, gone to Canada, and begun resisting this immoral and illegal war.

For months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, citizens here in the United States and around the world marched and demonstrated in growing opposition to our government’s reckless plan to launch an attack. I proudly participated in protests in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., doing countless interviews and speaking out wherever people would listen to me. Many prominent world leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II, began to raise their voices against the terrible and ill-fated foreign policy. This extraordinary opposition culminated on February, 15, 2003, when more than 30 million citizens in over 100 nations participated in the most massive demonstration on behalf of peace in the history of the world. Never before had so many human beings come together before a war had even begun to say no to the insanity and madness.

Many of us promised ourselves long ago that we would never allow what happened to us in Vietnam to happen again. We had an obligation, a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, as human beings, to raise our voices in protest. We could never forget the hospitals, the intensive care wards, the wounded all around us fighting for their lives, those long and painful years after we came home, those lonely nights. There were lives to save on both sides, young men and women who would be disfigured and maimed, mothers and fathers who would lose their sons and daughters, wives and loved ones who would suffer for decades to come if we did not do everything we could to stop the forward momentum of this madness. We sensed it very early and very quickly. We saw the same destructive patterns reasserting themselves all over again as our leaders spoke of “bad guys” and “evil-doers,” “imminent threats” and “mushroom clouds,” attempting to frighten and intimidate the American people into supporting their agenda.

The Bush administration seems to have learned some very different lessons than we did from Vietnam. Where we learned of the deep immorality and obscenity of that war, they learned to be even more brutal, more violent and ruthless, i.e., “shock and awe.” Sadly, the war on terror has become a war of terror. Where we learned to be more open and honest, to be more truthful, to expose, to express, to shatter the myths of the past, they seem to have learned the exact opposite–to hide, to censor, to fabricate, to mislead and deceive–to perpetuate those myths.

Instead of being intimidated or frightened, many of us became more outraged and more determined than ever to stop these ignorant, arrogant men and women who never saw the things we saw, never had to grieve over the loss of their bodies or the bodies of their sons and daughters, never had to watch as so many friends and fellow veterans were destroyed by alcoholism and drugs, homelessness, imprisonment, neglect and rejection, torture, abandonment and betrayal, in the painful aftermath of the war. These leaders have never experienced the tears, the dread and rage, the feeling that there is no God, no country, nothing but the wound, the horrifying memories, the shock, the guilt, the shame, the terrible injustice that took the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and over two million Vietnamese.

We had to act. We had to speak.

I am no longer the 28-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 60 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 fury 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 its problems. There has been a reckoning, a renewal. The scar will always be there, a living reminder of that war, but it has also become something beautiful now, something of faith and hope and love.

I have been given an 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 physical 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 firsthand what our government’s 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 and 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 beautiful 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.


Ron Kovic
Redondo Beach, California
March 2005

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Gary Snyder – “Four Changes” (1970)

August 2, 2008 at 7:10 pm (Gary Snyder, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)


Humanity is but a part of the fabric of life — dependent on the whole fabric for our very existence. As the most highly developed tool-using animal, we must recognize that the unknown evolutionary destinies of other life forms are to be respected, and act as gentle steward of the earth’s community of being.

There are now too many human beings, and the problem is growing rapidly worse. It is potentially disastrous not only for the human race but for most other life forms. 


First, a massive effort to convince the governments and leaders of the world that the problem is severe. And that all talk about raising food-production — well intentioned as it is — simply puts off the only real solution: reduce population. Try to correct traditional cultural attitudes that tend to force women into childbearing — remove income tax deductions for more than two children above a specified income level, and scale it so that lower income families are forced to be careful too — or pay families to limit their number. Take a vigorous stand against the policy of the right-wing in the Catholic hierarchy and any other institutions that exercise an irresponsible social force in regard to this question; oppose and correct simple-minded boosterism that equates population growth with continuing prosperity. Work ceaselessly to have all political questions be seen in the light of this prime problem. 

Share the pleasure of raising children widely, so that all need not directly reproduce to enter into this basic human experience. Adopt children. Let reverence for life and reverence for the feminine mean also a reverence for other species, and future human lives, most of which are threatened.


Pollution is of two types. One sort results from an excess of some fairly ordinary substance — smoke, or solid waste — which cannot be absorbed or transmuted rapidly enough to offset its introduction into the environment, thus causing changes the great cycle is not prepared for. (All organisms have wastes and by-products, and these are indeed part of the total biosphere: energy is passed along the line and refracted in various ways. This is cycling, not pollution.) The other sort is powerful modern chemicals and poisons, products of recent technology, which the biosphere is totally unprepared for. Such is DDT and similar chlorinated hydrocarbons — nuclear testing fallout and nuclear waste — poison gas, germ and virus storage and leakage by the military; and chemicals which are put into food, whose long-range effects on human beings have not been properly tested. 

The human race in the last century has allowed its production and scattering of wastes, by-products, and various chemicals to become excessive. Pollution is directly harming life on the planet: which is to say, ruining the environment for humanity itself. We are fouling our air and water, and living in noise and filth that no “animal” would tolerate, while advertising and politicians try to tell us “we’ve never had it so good.”


Effective international legislation banning DDT and related poisons — with no fooling around. The collusion of certain scientists with the pesticide industry and agribusiness in trying to block this legislation must be brought out in the open. Strong penalties for water and air pollution by industries. Phase out the internal combustion engine and fossil fuel use in general — more research into non-polluting energy sources; solar energy; the tides. No more kidding the public about atomic waste disposal: it’s impossible to do it safely, and nuclear-power generated electricity cannot be seriously planned for as it stands now. 

Stop all germ and chemical warfare research and experimentation; work toward a hopefully safe disposal of the present staggering and stupid stockpiles of H-Bombs, cobalt gunk, germ and poison tanks and cans. Laws and sanctions against wasteful use of paper etc. which adds to the solid waste of cities. Develop methods of recycling solid urban waste. Recycling should be the basic principle behind all waste-disposal thinking. Thus, all bottles should be re-usable; old cans should make more cans; old newspapers back into newsprint again. Stronger controls and research on chemicals in foods. A shift toward a more varied and sensitive type of agriculture (more small scale and subsistence farming) would eliminate much of the call for blanket use of pesticides. 

Use fewer cars. Cars pollute the air, and one or two people riding lonely in a huge car is an insult to intelligence and the Earth. Share rides, legalize hitch-hiking, and build hitch-hiker waiting stations along the highways. Also — a step toward the new world — walk more. Boycott bulky wasteful Sunday papers which use up trees. It’s all just advertising anyway, which is artificially inducing more mindless consumption.

Refuse paper bags at the store. Organize Park and Street clean-up festivals. Don’t work in any way for or with an industry which pollutes, and don’t be drafted into the military


Everything that lives eats food, and is food in turn. This complicated animal, homo sapiens, rests on a vast and delicate pyramid of energy-transformations. To grossly use more than you need to destroy is biologically unsound. Most of the production and consumption of modern societies is not necessary or conducive to spiritual and cultural growth, let alone survival — and is behind much greed and envy, age old causes of social and international discord.

Humanity’s careless use of “resources” and our total dependence on certain substances such as fossil fuels (which are being exhausted, slowly but certainly), are having harmful effects on all the other members of the life-network. The complexity of modern technology renders whole populations vulnerable to the deadly consequences of the loss of any one key resource. Instead of independence we have over-dependence on life-giving substances such as water, which we squander. Many species of animals and birds have become extinct in the service of fashion fads — or fertilizer, or industrial oil. The soil is being used up; in fact humankind has become a locust-like blight on the planet that will leave a bare cupboard for its own children — all the while in a kind of Addict’s Dream of affluence, comfort, eternal progress — using the great achievements of science to produce software and swill. 

Goals: Balance, harmony, humility — growth which is a mutual growth with Redwood and Quail (would you want your child to grow up without ever hearing a wild bird?) — to be a good member of the great community of living creatures.


It must be demonstrated ceaselessly that a continually “growing economy” is no longer healthy, but a Cancer. And that the criminal waste which is allowed in the name of competition must be halted totally with ferocious energy and decision. Economics must be seen as a small sub-branch of Ecology, and production/distribution/consumption handled by companies or unions with the same elegance and spareness one sees in nature. Soil banks; open space; phase out logging in most areas. 

Plan consumer boycotts in response to dishonest and unnecessary products. Politically, blast both “Communist” and “Capitalist” myths of progress, and all crude notions of conquering or controlling nature.

The inherent aptness of communal life: where large tools are owned jointly and used efficiently. The power of renunciation: If enough Americans refused to buy a new car for one given year it would permanently alter the American economy. Recycle clothes and equipment. Support handicrafts — gardening, home skills, midwifery, herbs — all the things that can make us independent, beautiful and whole. Learn to break the habit of unnecessary possessions — a monkey on everybody’s back — but avoid a self-abnegating, anti-joyous self-righteousness. Simplicity is light, carefree, neat, and loving — not a self-punishing ascetic trip.

It is hard to even begin to gauge how much a complication of possessions, the notions of “my and mine,” stand between us and a true, clear, liberated way of seeing the world. To live lightly on the earth, to be aware and alive, to be free of egotism, to be in contact with plants and animals, starts with simple concrete acts. Simplicity and mindfulness in diet is a starting point for many people.


We have it within our deepest powers not only to change ourselves but to change our culture. If we are to survive on earth we must transform the five-millennia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive, harmony-oriented, wild-minded scientific/spiritual culture.

Goal: Nothing short of total transformation will do much good. What we envision is a planet on which the human population lives harmoniously and dynamically by employing a sophisticated and unobtrusive technology — in a world environment which is “left natural.”

Specific points in this vision:

  • A healthy and spare population of all races, much less in number than today.
  • Cultural and individual diversity, unified by a type of world tribal council. Division by natural and cultural boundaries rather than arbitrary political boundaries.
  • A technology of communication, education, and quiet transportation, land-use being sensitive to the properties of each region.
  • A basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property-seeking, while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other ways of authentic being-in-the-world. Women totally free and equal. A new kind of family — responsible, but more festive and relaxed — is implicit.


Since it doesn’t seem practical or even desirable to think that direct bloody force will achieve much, it would be best to consider this a continuing “revolution of consciousness” which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won’t seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy’s side.

New schools, new classes, walking in the woods and cleaning up the streets. Create an awareness of “self” which includes the social and natural environment. Consider what specific language forms, symbolic systems, and social institutions constitute obstacles to ecological awareness. Let no one be ignorant of the facts of biology and related disciplines; bring up our children as part of the wild-life. Some communities can establish themselves in backwater rural areas and flourish — others maintain themselves in urban centers — and the two types work together, a two-way flow of experience, people, money, and home-grown vegetables.

Investigate new lifestyles. Work with political-minded people where it helps, hoping to enlarge their vision, and with people of all varieties of politics or thought at whatever point they become aware of environmental urgencies. Master the archaic and the primitive as models of basic nature-related cultures — as well as the most imaginative extensions of science — and build a community where these two vectors cross. 

We are the first human beings in history to have all of humanity’s culture and previous experience available to our study — the first members of a civilized society since the early Neolithic to wish to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our selfhood, our family, there. We have these advantages to set off the obvious disadvantages of being as screwed up as we are — which gives us a fair chance to penetrate into some of the riddles of ourselves and the universe.

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Gary Snyder – Essay (1977)

August 2, 2008 at 7:06 pm (Gary Snyder, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

Taken from his book of essays – The Old Ways from 1977…

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley studying Chinese and Japanese and planning to go to the Orient, in a perhaps excessively orderly fashion I decided I should get my teeth fixed. I didn’t realize they had dentists all over the place. Anyway, I signed up with the University of California dental school, and for two years I bicycled from Berkeley to San Francisco once a week and put myself in the hands of a Japanese-American dental student. On one of those occasions I took along New World Writing No. 7, and I read the little thing by a fellow named Jean-Louis, which was one of the most entertaining things I’d read in a long time, and it always stuck in my mind. I didn’t know anything of Jack or Allen at that time, but I never forgot that little piece of prose, “Jazz of the Beat Generation.” It was the first time I saw the term Beat Generation. What I liked was the writing, of course, and the energy that was in it, and the evocation of people. Of course it didn’t say “Jack Kerouac,” it said “Jean-Louis.”

Later I met Allen. Shortly after that, I met Jack. When I met Jack, and hearing Allen speak of his projects and hearing Jack speak, I flashed that he was Jean-Louis.

Allen asked Rexroth who was doing interesting poetry in the area. Allen had the idea of trying to put together some kind of poetry reading, and Kenneth mentioned my name as one person he might want to look up. So Allen just turned up at my place when I was fixing my bicycle in the backyard, and said that he had been talking to Kenneth. So we sat down and started comparing who we knew and what we were thinking about. 

Jack was, in a sense, a twentieth-century American Lithographer. And that’s why maybe those novels will stand up, because they will be one of the best statements of the myth of the twentieth century. just as Ginsberg represents one clear archetypal aspect of twentieth century America, I think Jack saw me, in a funny way, as being another archetypal twentieth-century American of the West, of the anarchist, libertarian, IWW tradition, of a tradition of working outdoors and fitting in already with his fascination with the hobo, railroad bum, working man. I was another dimension on that.

Like on one occasion I remember we spent a number of hours in which I simply explained to him how logging camps worked and what all the steps in a logging operation are. Now I don’t believe he ever used that in a book, but he was collecting that kind of information and enthusiastically digesting it all the time.

If my life and work is in some sense a kind of an odd extension, in its own way, of what Thoreau, Whitman, John Muir, etcetera, are doing, then Jack hooked into that and he saw that as valuable to him for his purposes in this century.

And Allen was the New York radical, Jewish intelligentsia. Jack really was skillful in identifying these types, recognizing them as being a particular image that would become part of the mythology of America that he was working at. When he talked about his great novel that he was writing, it was like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of stories which sketch out the view of the times. And he saw himself on the scale of a mythographer. The legend of Duluoz.

The dialectic that I observed in Jack, which was kind of charming, really, and you see it at work in his novels, was that be could play the fool and he could play the student very well. “But see, I really don’t know anything about this. Teach me!” “Wow! You really know how to do that?” and lead you on. ‘I’hat was balanced by sometimes great authoritativeness and great arrogance, and he would suddenly say, “I am the authority.” But then he would get out of that again. It was partly maybe like a really skillful novelist’s con, to get people to speak. And be uses that as a literary device in his novels, where he presents himself often as the straight guy and he lets the other guys be smart. 

I much appreciated what he had to say about spontaneous prose, although I never wrote prose. I think it influenced my journal writing a lot, some of which would, say, be registered in the book Earth House Hold. I think that I owe a lot to Jack in my prose style, actually. And my sense of poetics has been touched by Jack for sure.

Our interchanges on Buddhism were on the playful and delightful level of exchanging the lore, exchanging what we knew about it, what he thought of Mahayana. He made up names. He would follow on the Mahayana Sutra invention of lists, and he would invent more lists, like the names of all the past Buddhas, the names of all the future Buddhas, the names of all the other universes. He was great at that. But it was not like a pair of young French intellectuals sitting down comparing their structural comprehension of something. We exchanged lore. And I would tell him, “Now look. Here are these Chinese Buddhists,” and that’s how we ended up talking about the Han-shan texts together, and I introduced him to the texts that give the anecdotes of the dialogues and confrontations between T’ang Dynasty masters and disciples, and of course he was delighted by that. Anybody is. ‘I’hat’s what we did.

I didn’t then, and I don’t now, think in terms of whether or not people are genuinely committed Buddhists or not. We’re working with all of these things, and it doesn’t matter what words you give to them, and if I thought that there was some point where I would say, “Jack, you’re thinking too much about how the world’s a bad place,” that would be my sense of a corrective and his understanding of the Buddha-dharma, but that wasn’t in my interest, or anybody else’s interest, to think: “Is this guy a real Buddhist or not a real Buddhist?” He was worried about it later, but I never was, and I don’t think Philip Whalen ever was, or anybody else.

When Jack came I was living over on Hillegass, and Philip had come back from the mountains. I had spent the summer up in the Sierra Nevada working on a trail crew and, naturally, we were talking a lot about the mountains. We were just back fresh from it, from the season’s work, and I had rucksacks and climbing rope and ice-axes hanging on the walls around my place. Naturally we talked some about all of that.

I perceived that there was a kind of freedom and mobility that one gained in the world, somewhat analogous to the wandering Buddhist monk of ancient times, that was permitted you by having a proper pack and sleeping bag, so that you could go out on the road and through the mountains into the countryside. The word for Zen monk in Chinese, yun shui, means literally “clouds and water,” and it’s taken from a line in Chinese poetry, “To float like clouds, to flow like water,” which indicates the freedom and mobility of Zen monks walking around all over China and Tibet and Mongolia on foot.

With that in mind I said to Jack, “You know, real Buddhists are able to walk around the countryside.” So he said, “Sure. Let’s go backpacking.” I think John Montgomery said, “There’s time for one more trip into the mountains before it gets too much colder.” It was around the end of October.

So we headed up over Sonora Pass, leaving at night in Berkeley, and went over to Bridgeport, up to Twin Lakes and went in from there, over Sonora Pass.

It was very funny. It’s very beautifully described in The Dharma Bums, actually. It was very cold. It was late autumn. The aspens were yellow, and it went well below freezing in the night and left frost on the little creek in the canyon we were camped at. There was a sprinkle of fresh white’snow up on the ridges and peaks. We made it up to the top of the Matterhorn and came back down again. Actually, Jack didn’t. I guess I was the only one that went up there. I was the persistent one.

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Gary Snyder – “Riprap” (1959)

August 2, 2008 at 6:56 pm (Gary Snyder, Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
              placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
              in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
              riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way.
              straying planets,
These poems, people,
              lost ponies with
Dragging saddles –
              and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
              ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
              a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
              with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
              all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.

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Lew Welch – “Not yet 40, my beard is already white”

August 2, 2008 at 6:38 pm (Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

One of the more obscure poets of the Beat-world. He was a drinking buddy of Jack Kerouac’s and a step-father to the future Huey Lewis (no kidding). He disappeared into the California mountains in 1971 and his body was never found. A suicide note was left behind. Not sure when this was written…but I’m assuming the early 60s…

Not yet 40, my beard is already white
Not yet awake, my eyes are puffy and red,
like a child who has cried too much

What is more disagreeable
than last night’s wine?

I’ll shave
I’ll stick my head in the cold spring and
look around at the pebbles
Maybe I can eat a can of peaches

Then I can finish the rest of the wine,
write poems ’til I’m drunk again,
and when the afternoon breeze comes up

I’ll sleep until I see the moon
and the dark trees
and the nibbling deer

and hear
the quarreling coons.

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William S. Burroughs – “Naked Lunch” (1959 – excerpt)

August 2, 2008 at 4:59 pm (Poetry & Literature, The Beats, William S. Burroughs)

This is an excerpt from WSB’s famous novel Naked Lunch  


‘Selling is more of a habit than using,’ Lupita says. Nonusing pushers have a contact habit, and that’s one you can’t kick. Agents get it too. Take Bradley the Buyer. Best narcotics agent in the industry. Anyone would make him for junk. (Note: Make in the sense of dig or size up.) I mean he can walk up to a pusher and score direct. He is so anonymous, grey and spectral the pusher don’t remember him afterwards. So he twists one after the other …Well the Buyer comes to look more and more like a junky. He can’t drink. He can’t get it up. His teeth fall out. (Like pregnant women lose their teeth feeding the stranger, junkies lose their yellow fangs feeding the monkey.) He is all the time sucking on a candy bar. Baby Ruths he digs special. ‘It really disgust you to see the Buyer sucking on them candy bars so nasty,’ a cop says.

The Buyer takes on an ominous grey-green color. Fact is his body is making its own junk or equivalent. The Buyer has a steady connection. A Man Within you might say. Or so he thinks. ‘I’ll just set in my room,’ he says. ‘Fuck ’em all. Squares on both sides. I am the only complete man in the industry.’

But a yen comes on him like a great black wind through the bones. So the Buyer hunts up a young junky and gives him a paper to make it.

‘Oh all right,’ the boy says. ‘So what you want to make?’

‘I just want to rub against you and get fixed.’

‘Ugh … Well all right … But why cancha just get physical like a human?’

Later the boy is sitting in a Waldorf with two colleagues dunking pound cake. ‘Most distasteful thing I ever stand still for,’ he says. ‘Some way he make himself all soft like a blob of jelly and surround me so nasty. Then he gets well all over like with green slime. So I guess he come to some kinda awful climax … I come near wigging with that green stuff all over me, and he stink like a old rotten cantaloupe.’

‘Well it’s still an easy score.’

The boy signed resignedly; ‘Yes, I guess you can get used to anything. I’ve got a meet with him again tomorrow.’

The Buyer’s habit keeps getting heavier. He needs a recharge every half hour. Sometimes he cruises the precincts and bribes the turnkey to let him in with a cell of junkies. It gets to where no amount of contact will fix him. At this point he receives a summons from the District Supervisor:

‘Bradley, your conduct has given rise to rumors — and I hope for your sake they are no more than that — so unspeakably distasteful that … I mean Caesar’s wife … hrump … that is, the Department must be above suspicion … certainly above such suspicions as you have seemingly aroused. You are lowering the entire tone of the industry. We are prepared to accept your immediate resignation.’

The Buyer throws himself on the ground and crawls over to the D.S. ‘No, Boss Man, no … The Department is my very lifeline.’

He kisses the D.S.’s hand thrusting his fingers into his mouth (the D.S. must feel his toothless gums) complaining he has lost his teeth ‘inna thervith.’ ‘Please Boss Man, I’ll wipe your ass, I’ll wash out your dirty condoms, I’ll polish your shoes with the oil on my nose …’

‘Really, this is most distasteful! Have you no pride? I must tell you I feel a distinct revulsion. I mean there is something, well, rotten about you, and you smell like a compost heap.’ He put a scented handkerchief in front of his face. ‘I must ask you to leave this office at once.’

‘I’ll do anything, Boss, anything.’ His ravaged green face splits in a horrible smile. ‘I’m still young, Boss, and I’m pretty strong when I get my blood up.’

The D.S. retches into his handkerchief and points to the door with a limp hand. The Buyer stands up looking at the D.S. dreamily. His body begins to dip like a dowser’s wand. He flows forward …

‘No! No!’ screams the D.S.

‘Schlup … schlup schlup.’ An hour later they find the Buyer on the nod in the D.S.’s chair. The D.S. has disappeared without a trace.

The Judge : ‘Everything indicates that you have, in some unspeakable manner uh … assimilated the District Supervisor. Unfortunately there is no proof. I would recommend that you be confined or more accurately contained in some institution, but I know of no place suitable for a man of your caliber. I must reluctantly order your release.’

‘That one should stand in an aquarium,’ says the arresting officer.

The Buyer spreads terror throughout the industry. Junkies and agents disappear. Like a vampire bat he gives off a narcotic effluvium, a dank green mist that anesthizes his victioms and renders them helpless in his enveloping presence. And once he has scored he holes up for several days like a gorged boa constrictor. Finally he is caught in the act of digesting the Narcotics Commissioner and destroyed with a flame thrower — the court of inquiry ruling that such means were justified in that the Buyer had lost his human citizenship and was, in consequence, a creature without species and a menace to the narcotics industry on all levels.

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti – “Totalitarian Democracy” (2004)

August 2, 2008 at 4:07 pm (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

The first fine dawn of life on earth
The first light of the first morning
The first evening star
The first man on the moon seen from afar
The first voyage of Ulysses westward
The first fence on the last frontier
The first tick of the atomic clock of fear
The first Home Sweet Home so dear
The sweet smell of honeysuckle at midnight
The first free black man free of fright
The sweet taste of freedom
The first good orgasm
The first Noble Savage
The first Pale Face settler on the first frontier
The first ball park hotdog with mustard
The first home run in Yankee Stadium
The first song of love and forty cries of despair
The first pure woman passing fair
The sweet smell of success
The first erection and the first Resurrection
The first darling buds of May
The last covered wagon through the Donner Pass
The first green sprouts of new grass
The last cry of Mark Twain! on the Mississippi
The First and Last Chance Saloon
The ghostly galleon of the half-moon
The first cry of pure joy in morning light
The distant howl of trains lost in book of night
The last new moon sinking
The last of the Mohicans
The last sweet chariot swinging low
The last hand caught in the last cookie jar
The last cowboy on the last frontier
The last bald eagle with nothing to fear
The last buffalo head nickel and the last buffalo
The first hippie heading for the hills
The last bohemian in a beret
The last true poet with something to say
The last Wobbly and the last Catholic Anarchist
The last living member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
The last Nazi
The last Mom and Pop grocery
The last firefly flickerng in the night

The first plane to hit the first Twin Tower
The last plane to hit the last Twin Tower
The only plane to ever hit the Pentagon
The birth of a vast national paranoia
The beginning of the Third World War
(the War Against the Third World)

The first trip abroad by an ignorant president
The last free-running river
The last gas and oil on earth
The last general strike
The last Fidelista the last Sandinista the last Zapatista
The next political prisoner
The last virgin and the last of the champagne
The last train to leave the station
The next Great Depression
The last will & testament
The last welfare check for rent
The end of the old New Deal
The insecurity of Homeland Security
The last independent newspaper
printing the news and raising hell
The last word and the last laugh and the Last Hurrah
The last picture show and the last waltz
The last Unknown Soldier
The last innocent American and the first Ugly American
The last Great Lover and the last New Yorker
The last home-fries with ketchup-to-go
The last train home at midnight
The last syllable of recorded time
The last long careless rapture
The last independent bookstore with its own mind
The last best hope of mankind
The lost chord and the lost leader
The last drop of likker
The cup that runneth over quicker
The last time I saw Paris Texas
The last peace treaty and the Last Supper
The first sweet signs of spring
The first sweet bird of youth
The first baby tooth and the last wisdom tooth
The last honest election
The last freedom of information
The last free Internet
The last free speech radio
The last unbought television network
The last homespun politician
The last Jeffersonian
The last Luddite in Berkeley
The last Bottom Line and the last of Social Security
The first fine evening calm and free
The beach at sunset with reclining nudes
the lovers wrapped in each other
The last meeting of the Board
The last gay sailor to come aboard
The first White Paper written in blood
The last citizen who bothered to vote
The first President picked by a Supreme Court
The end of the Time of Useful Consciousness
The unfinished flag of the United States
The ocean’s long withdrawing roar

The birth of a nation of sheep
The deep deep sleep of Middle America
The underground wave of feel-good fascism
The uneasy rule of the super-rich
The total triumph of imperial America
The final proof of our Manifest Destiny
The first loud cry of America über alles
Echoing in freedom’s alleys
The last lament for lost democracy
The total triumph of
totalitarian plutocracy


Cut down cut down cut down
Cut down the grassroots
Cut down those too wild weeds
in our great agri-fields and golf courses
Cut down cut down those wild sprouts
Cut down cut down those rank weeds
Pull down your vanity, man, pull down
the too wild buds the too wild shoots
Cut down the wild unruly vines & voices
the hardy volunteers and pioneers
Cut down cut down the alien corn
Cut down the crazy introverts
Tongue-tied lovers of the subjective
Cut down cut down the wild ones the wild spirits
The desert rats and monkey wrenchers
Easy riders and midnight cowboys in narco nirvanas
Cut down the wild alienated loners
Cut down cut down all those freaks and free thinkers
Wild-eyed poets with wandering minds
Soapbox agitators and curbstone philosophers
Far out weirdos and rappers
Stoned-out visionaries and peace-niks
Exiles in their own land!
O melting pot America!

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti – “Constantly Risking Absurdity” (1989)

August 2, 2008 at 4:01 pm (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of the day
performing entrachats
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
any thing
for what it may not be
For he’s the super realist
who must perforce perceive
taut truth
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
with gravity
to start her death-defying leap
And he
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
of existence.

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