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Book Review


Carroll, James. An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996). 280 pp, $15.00.


The book is a National Book Award Winner.

     A first glance at the title of this book might suggest its use to demonstrate to students the impact of the tragedy of Vietnam upon the interrelationships of typical American families, but this is no such family. The father, Joseph, and mother Mary Morrisey Carroll, could be seen as having achieved the American Dream. Joseph, the son of a janitor on the South Side of Chicago, becomes the youngest general in the Air Force and, finally, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, advisor to Presidents, and a figure of influence in all of the corridors of power. His son, the author, grew up in a family of privilege, closely meshed with the FBI, the Defense Department, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It was a world of flags with stars on the limousines, and Marine guards snapping rifle salutes. The author was moved to finally decide on the Catholic priesthood, not by whim, but by the kind urging of Pope John XXIII during a private family audience. His literary mentor was to be Allen Tate.

     This author of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power,1, a 600 page history of the Pentagon, has written this very personal book to reveal generational devastation in a family living deep within three great houses of power--the FBI, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Pentagon during the time of Cold War, McCarthyism, and the tragic insertion of American power into Southeast Asia.

     James Carroll as a boy dreamed of the Air Force as a career. He later served seven years as a radical Catholic priest deeply involved in antiwar protest only to ultimately leave the priesthood, marry, raise children, and become a major literary figure in our world writing poetry, novels, and consummately crafted history. He is currently a regular columnist for the Boston Globe. The focus of this book is his relationship with his father, his inability to sustain it, and his regret over his inability at the time to see the tragic ambiguity of his father's roles-- complicity in wanton, cruel destruction of innocent humans, and yet heroic opponent of that very destruction.

     This is a book worthy of being read by any professor, instructor, or teacher of world history to probe the institutional depths of what modern international power is and the very personal, human, family roots of sweeping international events. It is not a book to assign to high school AP students, for while its sweep is global, it would assume too much background. It might be considered as part of a project for a competent college student, and it should be on the book lists for graduate students dealing with 20th and 21st century warfare.

     In the 1920's, the South Side of Chicago was controlled by Mayor Edward Kelly's political machine, and the father of Joseph owed his job as janitor to that machine. It was also with the support of this Irish Catholic citadel that Joseph spent from 1922 until 1934 in the archdiocesan seminary on track for the priesthood, an achievement of great moment which would mark a family's crucial elevation from working to professional class.

     This was not to be. Joseph, overwhelmed by his "unworthiness" to be a priest, becomes captivated by the redheaded Mary Morrisey, who had quit high school to become a telephone operator and had then risen to supervisor. Joseph later described himself as an Irish Jansenist who believed humans, in particular himself, incapable of doing good.

     Until their marriage in 1938, Joseph worked the stockyards during the day and attended Loyola Law School, a blue collar night school, until graduating with his law degree in 1940. In the midst of the Depression, he was thankful to accept an appointment to the FBI. Here he achieved swift success and became a favorite of J. Edgar Hoover, who in 1947 recommended him to Stuart Symington who needed a fresh, proven intelligence professional with no military past to appoint as the Brigadier General to take charge of the new Air Force Office of Strategic Intelligence. By the time of the Vietnam War, Joseph was a major figure in the military and political leadership of Washington, DC.

     James grew up the second of four sons. The eldest, Joseph Jr., contracted polio in 1947, and, in spite of confinement to to a wheel chair, he emerges as the family's academic. The third son, Dennis, becomes the long-haired political radical and draft dodger, while the youngest, Kevin, becomes an FBI agent charged with pursuing draft dodgers.

     James Carroll first dreamed of being an Air Force pilot. He lived in a world of Air Force limos, sergeant chauffeurs, limo doors being opened, and snapped salutes. His model of a B-52 he treasured as a symbol of the power of the just.

     Later, with the constant urging of both of his parents, he was lead to consider the priesthood. His ambivalence ended with the encouraging hand of Pope John XXIII on his shoulder, and he entered seminary to be ordained a Paulist priest in 1969. For Mary, his mother, this fulfilled the greatest dream of any Irish Catholic mother from the South Side of Chicago. For the General, it was a critical event which might atone for his lifelong unworthiness.

     Two things happened during James' clerical education. He was radicalized by the writings of theologian Hans Kung, and he was introduced to the world of poetry in a summer program in which his mentor was the Catholic poet, Allen Tate.

     As the Civil Rights movement flourished, an original distaste for Martin Luther King, Jr. was gradually transmuted into deep admiration. His father, privy to intelligence information gathered on King, some false and some petty and sexual, was to respond to James' probing inquiries only with a sharp, "Charlatan!", and a refusal to discuss him further.

     James' radicalization then proceeded so swiftly that when he delivered his first sermon, to the horror of his father and mother and the gathered generals, he ended with a condemnation of napalm and an upraised, defiant fist. From that point, the break between the two men became permanent.

     It was only many years later, after the General has retired under pressure and regressed into depression, senility and, a totally isolating Alzheimer's that James discovered what his father's true role had been. As the fiercely loyal assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his battle to tear Pentagon power from the generals, who wished to prolong the war, and even escalate to using the nuclear option; General Joseph Carroll had been crucial. As early as 1963, he was sending memos to LBJ that the war could not be won; in August of 1967 he used his DIA figures to prove the blanket bombings had utterly failed. Finally, a year and a half after McNamara left DOD, the General's unflinching testimony before Fulbright's Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, and his refusal to back Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird's fabrication of a threat of a Soviet "first-strike move" lead to his immediate forced retirement the same month. This was failure, further proof of unworthiness, and provoked his immediate decline. He was never coherent enough in his senility for the son to apologize, and to restore a warm relationship.

     Within the limits of space, this review can not do justice to the detailed chronicle of military and religious power, of horrifying bombings, of bureaucratic duplicity, and victimization which this book contains. The Vietnamese and American soldiers were victims; but, so too, both a father and a son. This war left us with a legacy of violence which haunts and moves the world to this day. The reader is able to explore the intricate subtleties of analysis, emotion, and realism created by this master craftsman. It is a poignant book, a beautiful book, and a relentless examination of the worlds of power. No simple statement that there are two sides to every story; it is, instead, a moving, complex description of the web of complicity within which all of us are caught.



Jack Betterly
Emma Willard School, emeritus


1 Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

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