Printer Friendly

An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us.

James Carroll Houghton Mifflin, $23.95 by Colman McCarthy

Current Catholic teaching--if I have this right--allows members of the flock a number of theological choices on the issue of people killing each other in armed governmental combat. If you believe in the "just war" theory, as did bishops on the German and French side in World War II, fine. If you are selective about favoring wars, fine again. If you are conscientiously against all wars always, in the manner of such Catholic pacifists as Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan, no problem here, either. It wasn't for nothing that James Joyce liked to say of the Catholic Church, "Here comes everybody."

The family of three-star General Joseph Carroll, the director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency during most of the war in Southeast Asia, was one where the choosing took a fierce turn. The general, an Americanist who ardently believed in the moral rightness of his nation's military adventures, saw Vietnam as a just war. His son James, second of the five Carroll boys raised on General's Row next to General Curtis Lemay's manse at a Washington air base, condemned the U.S. role as "immoral savagery."

Was the son concluding, therefore, that his military father, tight with McNamara and Cardinal Francis Spellman, a man who blessed bombers in Vietnam, was an immoral savage? The answer, far beyond the boundaries of a yes or no, emerges slowly and gracefully in this well-crafted narrative about a family rended by conflict and, like the nation, knowing little of the art of unhurtful conflict resolution.

James Carroll, a husband and father in his mid-50s, is a novelist and teacher living in Boston, where he writes a weekly column for The Boston Globe. After a year at Georgetown University in 1961, where he was honored as ROTC Cadet of the Year, Carroll chose the priesthood and entered the novitiate of the Paulist Fathers. In early 1969, he was ordained in New York by Terrence Cardinal Cooke, the U.S. military vicar. He celebrated his first Mass the next day at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, his parents' home parish.

I was at that Mass to write a piece for The Washington Post about Carroll. The news was that this young independent-thinking priest signed on just when others of the collar were departing in protest over one Vatican policy or another. The Mass was meant to be a grace-giving sacramental moment. Carroll, surrounded by his proud dad and fellow brass in their dress blues, was introduced by the Air Forre chaplain as God's newest chosen one: "In a day when our society is so disjointed, it is a great joy to know that Father Carroll is on our side."

Again, please? Two years before, as a Paulist seminarian, Carroll had been one of tens of thousands chanting antiwar slogans at the Pentagon within sight of his father's third-floor window. The general never saw his son, nor suspected he was, in the father's phrase, a "kook" protester. In his maiden sermon, Carroll stuck to a benign text from the prophet Ezekiel, with a reference to death and bones "burned by time and by desert wind, by the sun." Then Carroll added, "and by napalm."

He recalls: "It was as specific as I dared get--or as I needed to. Others in that congregation may not have felt the dead weight of that word, but I knew my father would, and so would the other generals.... Napalm embodied the perversion of the Air Force, how 'Off we go into the wild blue yonder' had become the screeches of children. There was a sick silence in the chapel."

At a reception at the Officers' Club after the service, no generals showed. So mutinied against, the humiliated father would never understand nor forgive. Lifelong alienation marked the rest of the relationship. It didn't help that five years later, Carroll, in his words, "would violate his solemn vow and leave the priesthood." He had been a chaplain at Boston University, organizing antiwar protests and getting busted and jailed. "Holiness had ceased to be an ambition of mine," he writes, "which may have been the problem. To me, Jesus was not holy. Why should I be?"

At 60, General Carroll, after being transferred and demoted when he broke publicly with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird on a policy matter, retired from the Air Force. As the Pentagon was losing a war outside its walls, General Carroll was taking a hard hit inside.

This is no happy-ending tale, with a father-son reconciliation scene where they embrace each other heart-to-heart even if they never saw eye-to-eye. The general had Alzheimer's disease and died at 80, in January 1991, "an almost entirely broken man."

One weakness stands out among the many strengths of this memoir: the absence of a full definition or broad description of the pacifist philosophy. It's not enough to refer to the influence of the Berrigans or offer allusions to a "throng of Catholic lefties." Critics of pacifism mistakenly, or bullheadedly, equate it with passivity, when it is much the opposite.

Carroll's failure may be traceable to his not being a pacifist, in fact. All too stirringly, he wrote in the Globe of his support for sending the U.S. military to Bosnia. Surely General Joe Carroll would have rallied 'round that intervention, too. Father and son would not have been so far apart after all.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Previous Article:Flashbacks: Twenty-Five Years of Doonesbury.
Next Article:A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia.

Related Articles
Rooster Crows at Light from the Bombing: Echoes from the Gulf War.
Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union.
Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New, Revised.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters