Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 16, 2005

Operation Last Patrol

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 16, 2005

With the November 22nd DVD release of Frank Cavestani’s 1972 “Operation Last Patrol,” a landmark documentary about antiwar Vietnam veterans protesting the Republican Party convention that year, we are struck by obvious similarities between that period and our own.

Just as Cindy Sheehan galvanized the conscience of a nation by challenging a war waged in the name of lies, so did the caravan of veterans who made their way from California to Miami. Indeed, in the final scene of Cavestani’s film, where we see the paraplegic Ron Kovic inside the convention hall denouncing the war to the obvious dismay of the cops and Secret Service agents surrounding him, we are reminded of how Cindy Sheehan spoiled another party at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. With the tragic loss of one’s mobility or one’s son ostensibly on behalf of defending freedom, there is little that one can do to besmirch a Ron Kovic or a Cindy Sheehan, no matter how hard the war-makers try.

“Operation Last Patrol” follows Kovic and his comrades as they wend their way East. The most gripping moments obviously involve Kovic, who was played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July.” As he sits in the driver’s seat of a specially prepared automobile that can be controlled from the steering wheel, he tells the interviewer about his narrow escape from death on the Vietnamese battlefield. A bullet severed his spine and left him utterly without feeling or mobility beneath his chest.

Cavestani’s film predates the publication of Kovic’s 1976 memoir that details his evolution from a gung-ho Marine recruit out of Massapequa, Long Island in 1964 to an outspoken critic of the war. In a phone conversation I had with Cavestani (an old friend) just after viewing the film, I was told that he was immediately attracted to Kovic when he began filming. Indeed, no matter how good an actor Tom Cruise (Cavestani served as a consultant to Oliver Stone), there is no substitute for the real thing.

Although Cavestani is obviously a political person, this film is not a dry, didactic exercise. Oddly enough, it has the same kind of ‘road’ lyricism as “Easy Rider.” In a gesture that expressed their disaffection from the “straight” culture that seemed to have made the war possible, the Vietnam veterans in “Operation Last Patrol” look like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper with long shaggy hair, beards and scruffy jeans. When they stop to talk or even argue with straight-looking bystanders en route to the convention, the veterans disarm the typical Archie Bunker reaction by calmly explaining that they fought in Vietnam.

This film is an extremely important addition to our cultural and historical heritage. It would be of immense value to high school or college classes studying the Vietnam era. It is also a film that the antiwar movement can turn to today. As the war in Iraq continues to take its toll on today’s Ron Kovics, we must try to find a way to reach out to involve them in protests. Indeed, a new organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War has begun to apply the lessons of the past to today’s struggle.

Ron Kovic’s memoir has been released in paperback from Akashic Publishers this year with a new introduction that concludes as follows:

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.

1 Comment »

  1. […] at the 1972 Miami Republican Party convention titled “Operation Last Patrol” that I reviewed here. The movie featured Ron Kovic, whose autobiography “Born on the Fourth of July” was made into a […]

    Pingback by Remembering Laura Kronenberg « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 10, 2010 @ 4:39 pm


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