By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published September 27, 2012
Throughout his life, my father expressed a debt of gratitude to me. “I had saved his life,” he often said, “by keeping him out of Vietnam.”
In early 1967, one of the worst years of the Vietnam War, my father received word from his draft board in Atlanta. He was soon to be one of nearly two million young Americans drafted into the armed forces, and very likely would have been among the three million who served. He might well have been one of the nearly 60,000 Americans who were killed—30 percent of them draftees—or one of the over 150,000 wounded. He could have been one of the nearly 1,600 Georgians who died.
But I was conceived, and he lived. I was born, and he did not face death in Vietnam. His draft board granted him a last-minute deferral because of my mother’s pregnancy, and for the rest of his life, he thanked me for it.
Yet I was still a child of the Vietnam War. In the car, my mother always listened to what was then Atlanta’s hip FM radio station, FM 100. When the music stopped, and the hourly news report began, the broadcast almost always mentioned guerillas in Vietnam. I didn’t know why apes in Southeast Asia were fighting.
I soon learned the truth. It was my job to get the mail each afternoon, and each week it seemed, I noticed pictures on the cover of our Newsweek magazine of this place called Vietnam. Then a family friend was shot down over Hanoi. And a teacher’s husband was killed, 40 years ago this year. And children from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos started arriving in metro Atlanta, and some of them were even in my school.
But the legacy of the war remained. Almost every important male figure in my young life had served. Now, they were teachers, and coaches, and scoutmasters, but many of them had been in Vietnam. I will never forget one father-son Boy Scout trip in 1978. My father and I were in our tent, at night, but we could hear the voices of some of the other men who were still awake and talking. They were talking about Vietnam. They were remembering what it had been like to shoot people and be shot at by men they could not see. I still recall my father’s heavy silence; there was a sense that he should have been one of them.
In the eighth grade, while playing war, I fell off my neighbor’s fence and broke my arm. As I lay on the ground, dressed in full army surplus regalia—helmet, fatigue pants, flak jacket—my neighbor ran to assist me. He picked me up in his arms and carried me home. It was more than 20 years later that I finally learned he had been in Vietnam in 1968, drafted out of Canton at age 19. I was immediately struck by empathy for the memories he must have had when he carried a wounded play soldier home to his mother.
But he wouldn’t talk about it.
Now, as a college professor, I teach a course every other year on the American literature and film that came out of the Vietnam War. More literary memoirs have been written about Vietnam than any other American war. This may be because it is true that only the defeated really remember war. Though the United States never lost a military engagement in the course of the war, the way the conflict was micromanaged by Washington politicians ensured that the larger aims of the war would never be fulfilled. To this day, the war remains a tragic defining moment in the relatively short history of this country.
Just this week, in a seminar of 20 college students, I asked about the students’ knowledge of the Vietnam War. Had they studied it in high school? Did they know anything about it? Did they have family members who served? Out of the 20, eight had family members who served. One had an uncle who had died in Vietnam. Yet none of them knew anything about the war. Two even said that they had no idea what their relatives had done in the war; the men wouldn’t talk about it.
Talking about the experience of war is crucial in healing from it. Each year, my students interview combat veterans who served. It is difficult for these men to share their experiences, but they do it, encouraged perhaps by the hope that their memories might preserve this generation of college students from other wars.
Writing about war, and reading about it, is crucial to understanding as well. Among the thousands of memoirs, histories, and literary reflections about the American experience in Vietnam, only a few are as profound as James Carroll’s “An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us.”
Carroll’s memoir won the prestigious National Book Award for 1996, and the book deserved the honor. If I were to name the best American books to come out of the Vietnam War, I would mention Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” for journalism; Philip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War” for combat memoir; Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” for experimental fiction; Bobbie Ann Mason’s “In Country” for a novel; Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam” as general history; and Carroll’s “American Requiem” for a work that represents both a lamentation and an atonement, written from a uniquely Catholic and personal perspective but offered in a spirit of reconciliation for the whole country.
Carroll’s memoir compares the parallel tracks of a father and a son throughout the Vietnam era. Joseph Carroll, the author’s father, was a high ranking and influential Air Force officer. Indeed, it was General Carroll who first noticed the Soviet missile bases in the photographs taken by U2 spy planes over Cuba. It was General Carroll who had earlier been one of J. Edgar Hoover’s must trusted FBI agents. It was General Carroll who as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency coordinated much of the air war over North Vietnam.
And it was General Carroll’s son, James, who went a different way. In 1969, one of the bloodiest years of the war, Carroll was ordained to the priesthood. Carroll was a member of the Paulists, a religious order deeply committed to the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II and the goals of both the peace movement and civil rights movement. While General Carroll was ordering B-52 airstrikes, James Carroll was being arrested at anti-war demonstrations at Air Force bases. While General Carroll remained deeply committed to his own Catholic faith, James Carroll was preaching homilies about unjust war and celebrating interfaith masses. Father and son were worlds apart.
“An American Requiem” is a portrait of a family that like so many other families during the Vietnam War was torn apart by the events on the battlefields and the American home front. It is a remarkable memoir because it is deeply personal, yet it transcends the personal to become universal. Anyone who was alive during the war can relate to the divisions it presents, and yet anyone not there will learn not only about the war but about the terrible divisions it caused throughout the country.
At the same time it addresses the tumult of the war, the book also considers the social and religious upheaval of the 1960s. In this election year, it is clear that we are still divided by race. We still need to champion the cause of the poor. We still, as a Church, remain confused and at odds about the promises and challenges of the Second Vatican Council.
In fact, during a recent reading and discussion of the book for a parish book club, the membership was deeply divided in its reactions to the book. Voices were raised. Strong opinions were expressed. The feelings that for many people had been buried for 40 years came again to the surface. Like the events in Carroll’s splendid book, the discussion could have turned ugly. Instead, it ended with a quiet sense of healing and understanding, exactly what a requiem proposes.
As we approach in 2015 the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, we need to revisit both the complex causes and the tortured aftermath of the conflict. Carroll’s “An American Requiem” is a good starting point, a memoriam for those who lived during the war, an introduction for those who came after, and an education and enlightenment for both.