Transcending the Myths of Patriotic Militarized Masculinity: Armoring, Wounding, and Transfiguration in Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July.
The task of any individual who wants to be free is to demythologize and demystify the authority or myth that has unconsciously informed his or her life. We gain personal authority and find our unique sense of self only when we learn to distinguish between our own story--our autobiographical truths--and the official myths that have previously governed our minds, feelings, and actions. (Keen, 1992, pp. 33-34)
"Myths," contends cultural historian Richard Slotkin (1993), "are stories drawn from a society's history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society's ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness--with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness may contain" (p. 5). In Ron Kovic's searing autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July, he confronts those myths that structured his life growing up in a working-class suburb of Cold War America and led him to the war in Vietnam as a gung-ho Marine. Revealing the symbolizing power of the patriotic ideology of the period, Kovic's narrative embodies both a personal and collective story of the conscious and unconscious authority of a variety of myths. In coming to terms with how those myths created an illusory and innocent persona, Born on the Fourth of July traces in non-linear fashion the disillusionment of a starry-eyed young man. Resonant of testimonies from other Vietnam veterans, Kovic's journey traverses a "landscape" that, from the perspective of John Hellman's (1986) study of the myths of the Vietnam legacy, "is an awful inversion of American assumptions and values--a nightmare version of the landscapes of previous American myth" (p. 102).
In following Ron Kovic's flight to escape the nightmare of myths that haunted his passage into the history of the Vietnam War era, this paper will underscore the development and transcendence of those myths. In particular, by highlighting those moments in Born on the Fourth of July where patriotic and military myths created compelling and contradictory consciousness that armored and eventually wounded Ron Kovic, one can better understand how, in Slotkin's terms, "myths reach out of the past to cripple, incapacitate, or strike down the living" (quoted in Burgoyne, 1997, p. 70). While crippled by those patriotic and military myths, Kovic's transfiguration by the end of his narrative suggests an alternative consciousness to patriotic militarized masculinity. Kovic's autobiographical voyage thus becomes an example of Sam Keen's (1992) understanding of how individuals achieve freedom and authenticity by demythologizing and demystifying "the authority or myth that has unconsciously informed ... (one's) life" (p. 33).
Although noting the racial and class components of the myths that ruled Kovic's life until his transformation from a despondent and embittered Vietnam veteran to an anti-war activist, the focus of much of this paper will be on the intersection of those myths with the embodiment of gender in Born on the Fourth of July. Deconstructing Kovic's narrative should help underscore the contention of Tracy Xavia Karner (1998) that "(i)ndividual stories and experiences ... provide an explanatory vantage point for `how' gender works, both at the structural level and at the personal plane" (p. 198). Thus, in probing the patriotic militarized masculinity absorbed by the young Kovic, one can assess both its authority in shaping the lives of young white working-class men during this period and the struggle by Kovic and others to transcend those myths underlying such patriotic militarized masculinity. Beyond Kovic's story, however, the question of ultimate transcendence must be weighed against a resurgent patriotic militarized masculinity of a later generation.
ARMORING THE BODY AND MYTHOLOGIZING THE MIND IN COLD WAR AMERICA
Even though the actual number of men who go to war as well as the number of such wars is small, our patriarchal society inculcates all boys with the consciousness of the warrior caste. (McBride, 1995, p. 182)
Kovic's consciousness of his patriotic heritage was rooted in being born on the fourth of July. "Being born on the exact same day as my country I thought was really great. I was so proud" (p. 49). The military and mythological components of that patriotic pride were part of a Saturday ritual that included watching war movies with John Wayne and Audie Murphy and then attempting to re-enact the adventures of their all-American heroes. "We turned the woods into a battlefield. We set ambushes, then led gallant attacks, storming over the top, bayoneting and shooting anyone who got in our way. Then we'd walk out of the woods like the heroes we knew we would become when we were men" (p. 55). As noted by Christian Appy (1993), the "celebration of military culture so central to many WWII movies and enacted in childhood games undoubtedly played an important role in shaping a glorified view of war among many young boys of the Vietnam generation" (p. 61).
Kovic's march to militarized masculinity was also inevitably connected to the celebratory myths of Cold War America in its struggles to defeat communism around the globe. Watching "I Led Three Lives" on television in the 1950s led Kovic to recall "how brave he was, putting his life on the line for his country, making believe he was a Communist, and all the time being on our side, getting information from them so we could keep the Russians from taking over our government" (p. 60). Bombarded by media images that reinforced an anti-Communist ideology and perpetuated the myth of a noble and generous America, both Kovic and the country would go to Vietnam "believing it was a replay on a smaller scale of World War II: a struggle to defend democracy against aggression, which we surely would win, not only because we were more powerful but because the right was clearly on our side" (Hallin, 1986, p. 209).
Doing right and winning were central to Kovic's socialization as a good Catholic and a high school wrestler. Nowhere is the emphasis on armoring the body and disciplining the mind more evident that in Kovic's account of his experiences with his wrestling coaches. "`Wanting to win and wanting to be first, that's what's important,' the coaches told us.... If you want to win then you're going to drive your bodies far beyond what you think you can do. You've got to pay the price for victory" (p. 62)! Referring to the body as a "remarkable machine" (p. 60), the coaches smoothed the way for the military drill instructors that Kovic would encounter as a Marine in basic training.
Kovic's desire to join the Marines was not only an obsession of the pumped-up young warrior-in-training, but also an aspect of the mythologizing that Marine recruiters conveyed to the impressionable Kovic in high school. "The Marines," exclaimed a Marine recruiter, "have been first in everything, first to fight and first to uphold the honor of our country.... There is nothing finer, nothing prouder, than a United States Marine" (p. 74). Relying once again on a mechanistic approach to body and mind, the recruiters asserted that "the Marine Corps built men" (p. 74). Responding viscerally to the call, Kovic's enlistment reflected the patriotic and militarized conditioning of body and mind reflected in Sam Keen's observation that "(e)very man is `the Manchurian candidate,' a hypnotized agent of the state waiting to be called into active service by the bugle call of `Duty,' `Honor,' `Patriotism'" (p. 46).
On the other hand, the militarized masculine character structure and patriotic myths that propelled Kovic into the Marines were reinforced by the social and economic factors that led predominantly working-class young men into the military. Eschewing the debilitating and low-paid work that his father did as an A&P checker, Kovic commented that he "wanted to be somebody ... ma(king) something out of my life" (quoted in Appy, 1993, pp. 61-62). Believing that patriotic duty would also elevate his status and valorize his manhood, Kovic dove headfirst into the Marines.
The section in Born on the Fourth of July on Kovic's basic training in the Marines (pp. 76-93) brings into sharp focus the ideological and mythological components of a patriotic militarized masculinity. Utilizing the passive voice to accentuate how he was being shaped into an instrument of punitive agency, Kovic comments: "They were driving him and pushing him and shoving him, screaming and bullying him through this whole crazy thing" (p. 80). Calling recruits "babies" "ladies" and "maggots," Kovic refers to the constant "cursing" (p. 87) that followed the recruits throughout basic training and underscored the misogynist and homophobic derision with which the drill instructors bombarded the recruits. As Appy (1993) notes in his study of basic training experiences for working-class recruits, "(w)omen and gays were referred to interchangeably as the epitome of all that is cowardly, passive, untrustworthy, unclean, and undisciplined" (p. 101).
In the last part of this section on basic training, Kovic reconstructs a stream-of-consciousness diatribe that highlights the hyper-aggressive molding of patriotic militarized masculinity. Interweaving the rhetoric of President Kennedy to "bear any burden" (p. 90) with racist calls to kill yellow commies (p. 91), Kovic's intense collage of basic training reveals how "basic training combined discipline and aggression, obedience and anger ..., instilling in recruits a focused hostility aimed at a prescribed enemy" (Appy, p. 97). Particularly noteworthy for the sacrifice that Kovic would pay for such obedience was the refrain: "this is my rifle this is my gun this is for fighting this is fun" (p. 89). The phallic symbolism would come crashing down on him when a wound in Vietnam would take away his sexual potency, leaving him with a "dead swinging dick" given for America (p. 112).
VIOLENCE AND WOUNDING IN THE VIETNAM WAR
We may speak casually of the "body politic," the "collective unconscious," the "communal spirit," but we ought to know that cultures aren't "bodies" or "psyches." Myths and ideals can't really be "wounded." We are obsessed with the trauma and injury we have suffered, as if the United States, not Vietnam and Kampuchea, were the country to suffer the bombings, the napalm air strikes, the search-and-destroy missions, the systematic deforestation, the "hamlet resettlement" programs. (Berg & Rowe, 1991, p. 2)
It is only near the end of Born on the Fourth of July that the reader comes face-to-face with the horror that the war unleashed on the Vietnamese and the American grunts, like Kovic, who prosecuted the war on the ground. Out on patrol Kovic and his platoon rain down deadly fire on a suspected enemy location, only to discover that the hut that took the brunt of the attack was filled with children. Entering the hut, Kovic recounts: "All he could see now was blood everywhere and he heard their screams with his heart racing like it had never raced before. He felt crazy and weak as he stood there staring at them with the rest of the men, staring down onto the floor like it was a nightmare, like it was some kind of dream and it really wasn't happening" (p. 206). The inversion of Kovic's seemingly innocent dreams had come to this nightmare, his manly duty translated into a mistaken atrocity. In Christian Appy's nuanced reading of the "complicity and culpability" of working-class warriors like Kovic, he nonetheless rightly contends that these grunts were caught-up in a war where "atrocity was intrinsic to the very nature of American intervention in Vietnam" (p. 267).
Going into the Vietnam War, soldiers like Kovic were indoctrinated with the belief that they were on a noble mission. Yet that mission from its outset was steeped in the ideology of anti-Communist interventionism and the mythologies of American military and technocratic triumphalism (Baritz, 1986; Gibson, 1986; Sherry, 1995; Slotkin, 1993). Playing out the frontier myths of "cowboys and Indians," U.S. ground troops found it difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate the "good guys" from the "bad." For Kovic, such difficulties in the mission were reflected in the following:
He remembered how difficult it had been when he had first come to the war to tell the villagers from the enemy and sometimes it had seemed easier to hate all of them, but he had always tried very hard not to. He wished he could be sure they understood that he and the men were there because they were trying to help all of them save their country from the Communists. (p. 201)
However, in the aftermath of the slaughter of the innocents, Kovic, "feeling awful and sick" (p. 209) begins a descent into psychic numbing that will only end after reconciling himself to his own physical and mental wounding.
Before that physical wounding, however, Kovic accidentally shoots one of his own men. Such casualties of "friendly fire" may have accounted for 15-20 percent of U.S. casualties during this period, according to a 1968 Pentagon study (Appy, p. 185). Much of that friendly fire can be attributed to the way that grunts "were used to draw enemy fire into fixed and identifiable positions" (Appy, p. 183). Hence, the use of grunts as sacrificial bait was bound-up with the search-and-destroy tactics used by the military in Vietnam (Sherry, 1995, p. 268). Compounding that situation was the desire and drive of certain ambitious officers "to sacrifice their men for the sake of promotion" (Appy, p. 232).
Kovic's ultimate sacrifice, nonetheless, was undertaken with both bravado and guilt. Out on another patrol after the friendly fire and atrocity incidents, Kovic tries to assure himself"how much I wanted to prove to myself that I was a brave man, a good marine" (p. 218). When he is hit by a bullet, his initial thoughts are that "I was getting out of the war and I was going to be a hero" (p. 221). However, when the next bullet smashes into his body, severing his spinal cord, he loses all feeling in his body (p. 222). Reflecting afterwards that "the wound is my punishment for killing the corporal and the children" (p. 20), Kovic only slowly begins to realize that all the armoring and mythologizing that constituted his patriotic militarized masculinity had been fatally pierced. Transcending both the wound and the myths of patriotic militarized masculinity would require additional trauma and eventual transfiguration.
TRAUMA AND TRANSFIGURATION
But no myth/ideological system, however internally consistent and harmonious, is proof against all historical contingencies. Sooner or later the bad harvest, the plague, defeat in war, changes in modes of production, internal imbalance in the distribution of wealth and power produce a crisis that cannot be fully explained or controlled by invoking the received wisdom embodied in myth. (Slotkin, 1993, p. 6)
The wound that left Ron Kovic a cripple was intimately bound up with those myths that "reach out of the past to cripple" (Slotkin quoted in Burgoyne, 1997, p. 70). Yet, those myths of patriotic militarized masculinity would not be confronted until his paralysis of body and mind were further subjected to the crises surrounding the continuing Vietnam War. Among those crises were his own personal struggle over the loss of masculinist sexuality and mobility and the political battle that was part of what one historian of the domestic impact of the Vietnam War has called "The War Within" (Wells, 1996). From the harsh and harrowing portrayal of hospital conditions for Vietnam veterans to his activism as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kovic fought that war within as a transfigured warrior.
The most immediate and wrenching crisis that Kovic faced concerned the trauma of his sexual wounding and his self-image as a man. This intersection between gender and sexuality is explained by Fracher and Kimmel (1992):
For men, the notion of masculinity, the cultural definition of manhood, serves as the primary block of sexuality. It is through our understanding of masculinity that we construct a sexuality, and it is through our sexualities that we confirm the successful construction of our gender identity. Gender informs sexuality; sexuality confirms gender. Thus, men have a lot at stake when they confront a sexual problem: they risk their self-image as men. (p. 441)
In a torrent of self-loathing and self-pity, Kovic acknowledges the trauma caused by his condition:
I am twenty-one and the whole thing is shot, done forever ... and now I am left with the corpse, the living dead man, the man with the numb legs, the man in the wheelchair, the Easter Seal boy, the cripple, the sexlessman, the sexlessman, the man with the numb dick, the man who can't make children, the man who can't stand, the man who can't walk, the angry lonely man, the bitter man with the nightmares, the murder man, the man who cries in the shower. (p. 38)
Throughout this initial period of coming to grips with his traumatic wounding, one finds continual references to how his physical paralysis has undermined his potency as a man. From being trained to see his body as a machine and his penis as a "tool" (Fracher & Kimmel, 1992, p. 443) of that machine, Kovic cries out for "someone to love this broken body of mine" (p. 113). When he first discovers someone to love his broken body, it is a Mexican prostitute, trained in the art of pleasing someone beyond genital stimulation. The recognition that someone else can give him pleasure, albeit even in an exploitative relationship, has a temporary liberating impact. Moreover, it begins a kind of sexual healing and gender transfiguration that no longer defines hardness and intercourse as critical to masculinity.
On another level, the recognition that his phallic power was sacrificed for his country provides an opening to confront the myths that constructed his patriotic militarized masculinity. "Yes, I gave my dead dick for John Wayne and Howdy Doody.... Nobody ever told me I was going to come back from this war without a penis" (p. 112). Lacking the phallic power conveyed by the patriotic penis, Kovic questions the meaning of those myths and authorities that previously convinced him of the innocence and the glory of America, the right and might of the U.S.A. As one counselor of Vietnam Vets was to assert: "The Vietnam veteran participated in the historical experience that broke down the mythology of America's `right and might'" (MacPherson, 1984, p. 243). The irony, of course, is that breaking down that mythology required Kovic's broken-down body.
Beyond the broken-down body, Kovic's spirit was sorely tested by the dehumanizing conditions in the VA hospitals. The harrowing description of the filth and neglect in these hospitals is a key to the indictment against the government. At one point Kovic comments: "It never makes any sense to us how the government can keep asking for money for weapons and leave us lying in our own filth" (p. 39). The transformation that he undergoes from "love or leave it" patriotic to critic of the government is directly related to the dehumanization and abandonment he experiences in these hospitals. "I feel myself changing, the anger is building up in me. It has become a force I cannot control.... I am lying in my own excrement and no one comes" (p. 130). Even his cry of "I fought in Vietnam and I've got a right to be treated decently" is contested when one hospital aide retorts: "Vietnam don't mean nothin' to me or any of these other people. You can take your Vietnam and shove it up your ass" (pp. 130-131). Being made to feel like shit is part of the transformation that Kovic and other veterans make in seeing the whole war in Vietnam as a waste and beginning to protest both the conditions in the hospitals and the never-ending war (Wells, 1996, pp. 454-455).
Kovic's realization that he no longer amounted to anything in the eyes of those responsible for the wounds he suffered in Vietnam and his terrible treatment in the hospital is brilliantly encapsulated in his insight that the hospital "is more like a factory to break people than to mend them and put them back together again" (p. 130). The factory metaphor captures the sense of alienation felt by Kovic who has, like workers producing surplus value, become dead labor to those who utilized his labor for the killing machine in Vietnam. Moreover, the fact that military spending diminished the necessary expenditures on the very machines that were instrumental to the survival and well-being of Kovic and other veterans brings the war home in the most physically intimate way (pp. 131-132).
Yet, it is the war at home that rouses Kovic from his embittered passivity and transforms him into an anti-war activist. Acknowledging that his experiences in the hospital had changed him, marking "the end of whatever belief I'd still had in what I'd done in Vietnam" (p. 134), his anti-war sentiments are galvanized by the news of the murder of four students at Kent State. Vowing to go to Washington to demonstrate, Kovic recounts his amazement at the sense of solidarity and carnival-like atmosphere that he observes in the capitol. But his transformation from mere observer to full participant is inflamed by an attack on the demonstrators by the police. Kovic concludes his account of the demonstration (pp. 136-40) with a poignant and revealing juxtaposition: "There was a togetherness, just as there had been in Vietnam, but it was a togetherness of a different kind of people and for a much different reason. In the war we were killing and maiming people. In Washington on that Saturday afternoon we were trying to heal them and set them free" (p. 140).
Kovic's own healing process and his transfiguration from "a thing to put on a uniform and train to kill" (p. 166) into a human being who cares for others and respects himself required encountering those myths underlying patriotic militarized masculinity and engaging in a political activism aimed at healing and self-healing. As psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton noted in his case study of Vietnam Veterans, "political activism helped anti-war veterans recover from much of the emotional and psychological trauma of their wartime experience" (quoted in Appy, p. 309). Moreover, breaking through the myths of patriotic militarized masculinity also resulted in a form of post-traumatic stress where Kovic was forced to recognize the pain he caused others and himself in killing. Overcoming a form of "toxic masculinity" (Karner, 1998, p. 231), Kovic found that manhood could be measured by your care for others and respect for yourself.
TRANSCENDING, TRANSFORMING, OR TEMPORIZING THE MYTHS OF PATRIOTIC MILITARIZED MASCULINITY
In that long run, our choice is not between myth and a world without myth, but between productive revisions of myth--which open the system and permit it to adjust its beliefs (and the fictions that carry them) to changing realities--and the rigid defense of existing systems, the refusal to change, which binds us to dead or destructive patterns of action and belief that are out of phase with social and environmental reality. (Slotkin, 1993, pp. 654-655)
The historical moment that allowed both Kovic and the anti-war movement to challenge patriotic militarized masculinity was defined by the horrors of the war in Vietnam and the realization that American power and mythology had reached a dead-end. As Lynda Boose (1993) points out: "What the debacle of America's masculinized, militarized policies on both fronts of the Vietnam War had opened up was the sudden space in American culture for an alternative to the mythology of a national self born in and valorized by a history of conquest and dominance" (p. 585). During the 1970s, the time when Born on the Fourth of July was published, a mood of "disillusionment, mistrust, and guilt" marked both the book and the political culture (Savran, 1998, p. 194). Acting on that disillusionment, Kovic was able to transform himself into a different kind of man--a softer, more gentle man. Noting the brotherhood found in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kovic reflected on the fact that talk of "death" and "atrocity" was approached with "unaccustomed gentleness" (p. 147). Hence, Kovic's transfiguration and transcendence of the patriotic militarized masculinity was part of a historical moment and movement.
However, that transfiguration became problematic in the next decade not only for the political culture, but even for those men who rejected patriotic militarized masculinity. In this concluding section of the paper, I want to consider whether patriotic militarized masculinity was transformed or merely temporized. Have the myths been restored, recuperated, or transcended?
According to several feminist scholars, the remasculinization of America in the 1980s was a regressive search for a renewed patriarchy (Boose & Jeffords, 1990). The Reagan "revolution" and the Rambozation of pop culture (Savran, 1998) offered hard bodies and repressive and re-designed imperial policies, often rooted in the old myths of regeneration through violence and cowboy imagery (Jeffords, 1994; Slotkin, 1993). Where military adventurism failed to pump up the myth of American right and might, paramilitary fantasies took over and launched extreme right-wing forays into the political culture in the hopes of salvaging real American manhood (Gibson, 1994).
In the struggles to revision American manhood, a mythopoetic men's movement, reflected in the work of Robert Bly and Sam Keen, offered an alternative to the hard-body and right-wing remasculinization of America. Noting that the war in Vietnam rightfully called into question the older myths of patriotic militarized masculinity, Robert Bly (1992) insisted that while "the male in the past twenty years has become more thoughtful, more gentle ..., he has not become more free" (p. 2). While Sam Keen (1992) recognized how men have been wounded by a warrior psyche, the analysis of that warrior psyche seemed more concerned with the mythic and abstract components of that psyche than the very real historical and social roots unveiled in Born on the Fourth of July (Savran, 1998, p. 295). As James McBride (1995) argues in his convincing critique of the shortcomings of Bly and Keen, neither are able to transcend fully a masculinist approach to gender.
Perhaps a key to the inability of transcending a regressive masculinist mythology is the still longed-for desire to recuperate some of the mythic past and rescue a wounded manhood and nation. Nowhere are these desires for recuperation and rescue more evident than in Oliver Stone's film version of Born on the Fourth of July. Released at the end of the 1980s, the film shares what Berg and Rowe (1991) point to as a prime component of "healing the wounds" and "patching up our conventional myths and values, rather than subjecting them to necessary criticism and revision" (p. 10). While Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (released in 1989) "emblematizes the shift from the spectacular images of muscular masculinity that defined the films of the previous decade to a more internal, psychologically nuanced model of male identity," that identity "brings into sharp focus the ideology of masculinity implicit in the military and national tradition" (Burgoyne, 1997, pp. 68, 71). Yet, where Kovic's narrative refuses to seek restorative closure, offering a questioning and still unsettled transfigured masculinity, Stone's film deploys Kovic's appearance at the 1976 Democratic National Convention as "a new way of reinstating family and home as .the dominant fantasy and metaphor of national community" (Burgoyne, 1997, p. 84). Hence, Kovic in Stone's film, as opposed to Kovic's own narrative, is ultimately an agent for healing the nation and reconfirming that we can all go home again. Although Stone's film underscores the way the traumas suffered by Kovic and the nation are linked to the myths of patriotic militarized masculinity, the revisioning necessary to transcending and transforming the residues of those myths suffers from the revised patriotism of the narrative closure of the film.
To go beyond the residual myths of patriotic militarized masculinity means transcending the forms of patriotism and war-making embedded in the American story. Barbara Ehrenreich's (1998) brilliant expose of the interconnections of the passions of war and American patriotism provide an important starting point to the revisioning process. As she notes in her conclusion on "Fighting War": "We will need `armies,' or at least networks of committed activists willing to act in concert when necessary, to oppose force with numbers, and passion with forbearance and reason" (p. 240). Both Kovic's autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July, and his continuing activism against American war-making offer a profile in the kind of courage we, but especially American men, will need in confronting all those existing systems that perpetuate narrow national and militaristic mythologies. If we are to transcend and transform patriotic militarized masculinity for good, and not just temporarily, we must take seriously Kovic's dedication to challenging those myths, with our bodies and our minds.
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Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Fran Shor, Interdisciplinary Studies Program, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202 or email@example.com.
FRAN SHOR Interdisciplinary Studies Program Wayne State University Detroit, Michigan
Fran Shor is a professor in the interdisciplinary studies program at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. Author of Utopianism and Radicalism in a Reforming America, 1888-1918 (Greenwood Press, 1997), he has also published in the area of gender issues in the radical labor movement of the early twentieth century, Jack London, and contemporary American film. He feels a special affinity with Ron Kovic because he also was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War, albeit as a student radical and draft resister. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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|Publication:||The Journal of Men's Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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