AN AMERICAN REQUIEM: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us
By James Carroll Houghton Mifflin Co. 279 pp., $23.95
James Carroll, a columnist and much-published author, has reached deep inside himself to offer us an impassioned memoir that works well at three different levels:
First, as a classic account of growing up Roman Catholic in the l950s and '60s, with all the tensions that entailed: to be part of - yet apart from - American society as a whole; to hanker for personal freedom and fulfillment while dealing with hierarchy and authority; and somehow to find stability and belief in a religion swept by the winds of change. Though filled with doubts, Carroll studied for the priesthood and indeed was ordained, but then left it in l975.
Next, in presenting a young man's shift from the middle-class conventions of his parents toward a different social and personal consciousness in an era of free thinking, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. His family had come a long way, from Chicago's "back-of-the-yards," via the FBI, to brass-hat status in the military; but he sought something freer, more open and tolerant.
Finally, in portraying an intense, troubled father/son relationship, between the young Carroll and his distant, close-mouthed father, an Air Force lieutenant-general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Carroll grew up on military bases, in the subculture of salutes at the main gate, sargeants as orderlies, and family cars bearing two - and eventually three - stars. He and his four brothers absorbed Air Force thinking, from the Strategic Air Command slogan, "Peace is Our Profession," through the fear of another Pearl Harbor, and the conviction that the Russians only understand strength.
The adoring son began raising questions, however, as he grew older. There was Martin Luther King Jr., whom his father, the general, despised as a radical. Arguments erupted, as they did over Vietnam.
Consider the contrast: a father, who as head of the Pentagon's intelligence operations is a dogged key player in trying to destroy an ephemeral, faraway enemy. A son who is steeped in a new, liberalized Catholic dogma of world peace, racial justice, and theological speculation. Conflict ensued.
The general also had begun adult life as a seminarian, but had dropped out at the last moment in favor of marriage. An older brother had been severely handicapped by polio as a child. Carroll's mother obsessively sought his recovery. Having begun in the FBI, the general had retained J. Edgar Hoover's friendship and with it, an insider's knowledge of Washington. Above all, there was Robert McNamara, whom the general served loyally, and whom Carroll portrays with a rare sense of nuance.
The general remains a silhouetted figure throughout. He is more a product of Carroll's skill as a writer than a living, breathing personage.
General Carroll was suddenly retired as the Nixon administration took office. He died in l991.
Carroll's brothers have established themselves in academia or the helping professions. One is an FBI man, carrying the same badge his father had worn. James Carroll himself is a well-known novelist, his principal concern the Irish in this country, in all their accomplishments, disappointments, and sorrowful irony.
Life went on for this family as it did for the nation, which is to say reconciliations occurred in silence, and in separations, and out of weariness with the war. For Carroll, as well as for many in his generation, the turbulent '60s remain an ambivalent mixture of sadness and hope.
*Leonard Bushkoff reviews books on history for the Monitor.