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

National Book Award: Non-Fiction (1996)

One of the worst qualities of the Baby-Boom generation--a group which has many unattractive qualities--is their propensity to view their own personal concerns and desires as if they were universal moral imperatives.  Unfortunately, the very size of their demographic cohort has led to their being taken seriously when they make these claims.  This tendency has served to stand the traditional structure of society on its head, with the most callow and immature generation exerting an inordinate influence over their wiser, more experienced, elders.  The most notorious example of this was their opposition to the Vietnam War, during which they turned a perfectly typical lack of enthusiasm for warfare on the part of those who will actually have to do the fighting, into a sweeping judgment that the war was itself immoral.

This annoying trait has never been put on more ostentatious display than here in James Carroll's memoir about his tortured relationship with his father during the war years.  Joe Carroll, who had quit the seminary just before his ordination as a priest, went on to become a lawyer, an FBI agent, an Air Force General, and the first director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  Having judged himself unworthy to be a priest, he and his devout wife Mary placed their hopes in their sons, with James, after his older brother Joe contracted polio, becoming the natural choice to become a priest.  James did go through the motions of joining the priesthood, though it's never clear from his narrative that he held any genuine religious beliefs, but as he became increasingly involved in the Catholic Left anti-War movement of the 60's & 70's, he eventually quit the Church.  He has since become a bestselling novelist, a Boston Globe columnist, written this prize-winning memoir and has just written Constantine's Sword, a "historical" account of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church (see Orrin's review).

These are the bare bones of the story and they suggest a young man whose opposition to the immorality of the Vietnam War causes a crisis of faith.  In point of fact, the War seems to have had little to do with Carroll's personal crisis, certainly its morality had nothing to do with it, instead the story he has to tell is that age old tale of youth rebelling against authority.  I'm loathe to engage in psychoanalysis, being both unqualified and not much of a believer in its efficacy, but Carroll uses the term Oedipal so often and the book is cast so clearly in the form of an Oedipal drama that it's hard to avoid doing so.  Start with the fact that he outdoes his father by actually becoming a priest, where Joe fell short; continue with the way that this profession figuratively wed him to his pious mother, whose entry to Heaven would be virtually guaranteed by virtue of having borne a priest; move along to his utter rejection of his father's profession and an eventual adoption of complete pacifism; then conclude with his decision to leave the priesthood after his father had been forced out of government and crippled by disease.  It's hard to see how Vietnam actually matters to any of this psychodrama : had his Dad been a butcher, Carroll would have become a vegetarian, had he been a fireman, Carroll would have been an arsonist.  This is a mere story of generational tension dressed up in the ennobling guise of a great moral struggle.

The most revealing aspect of Carroll's self-portrait and the account of the moral dilemma he supposedly faced as a result of the War is his complete failure to consider the consequences of peace on the Vietnamese people.  His opposition to the War, as he himself depicts it, is almost exclusively a function of the fact that he's made uncomfortable by the means that were being used to conduct it.  There is not a single word of consideration here of what would, and did, happen to the people of Vietnam once America withdrew.  The moral calculus at work seems to be that it is better that Vietnam be destroyed by Communism than that a single American have to commit an act which will trouble his conscience.  That is a perfectly honorable argument to make, and a necessary corollary of pacifism.  His failure to face it here raises the question of whether he's ever actually considered it.  It would be entirely consistent with the totally selfish sensibility he brings to the rest of the issues he discusses for him never to have thought about this one.

Even this shortcoming would not be so bad were it not for the impact it has on the rest of the book.  But one result of his failure to treat this issue is that he ignores what was certainly a central motivation of Cold Warriors like his father.  They certainly prosecuted the War because they had considered the consequences of not doing so and found these consequences unacceptable.  While it is possible, perhaps even accurate, to argue that they were wrong in their determination, simple fairness requires that Carroll give them their due and look at their legitimate motivations.  Deprived, by the author, of the beliefs that drove them, they are presented as one-dimensional characters whose sole purpose is to stand as convenient villains in Carroll's little morality play.

One final item deserves comment here.  At one point in the book Carroll places the "blame" for American involvement in Vietnam on the Catholic Church and the advocacy for intervention of folks like Cardinal Spellman.  Though delusional, this assertion is of a piece with his blaming the Holocaust on the Catholic Church, as he does in the aforementioned Constantine's Sword.  One has, first of all, to be troubled by a man who attributes such power to an institution which after all represents a minority of the citizens of Germany and the United States and which has proven incapable of influencing those nations on such issues as birth control, and the like.  Secondly, one can't help noticing that there's an element here of reenacting the Oedipal drama with his biological father, his rebellion now directed towards the figurative father, the Church, perhaps even God.  The cumulative effect of these two books is to suggest that the greater problem lies not in the sins, real or imagined, of Joe Carroll and the Catholic Church but in the psychological conflicts of James Carroll.

Finally, Carroll claims to have arrived at the viewpoint that war is always unjust.  How then would he square his concern over the Holocaust with this position ?  He makes much over his obsession with the threat of nuclear war : but if we'd had the bomb in the late 30's or early 40's, or better yet, if Churchill had it, would Carroll really oppose dropping it on Hitler and the high command of the Nazi Party, no matter how many innocent civilian lives it would have claimed ?  Would he really be unwilling to sacrifice 30,000 or 40,000 or however many in order to save the tens of millions who ended up dying during the War ?  For an author who writes with such smug self-certainty about the purity of his own moral vision, and who is so eager to judge the moral failings of others, he somehow manages to avoid the really hard questions that his newfound philosophy raises. For all that these books are about the author himself, they ultimately reflect fairly little deliberation over the ramifications of the moral choices that he's made.   An author who's made such a big production over his rejection of traditional Christianity and of the Catholic Church owes the reader a more thoughtful look at the philosophy that he's adopted in their stead.  The absence of such at least implies that they've not been replaced by much.

Which brings us to the final legacy of the Baby-Boom generation.  They have succeeded brilliantly in rebellion, in rejecting the institutions, the morals, and the beliefs of their parents and the other generations that came before them.  The problem they have left behind is what should replace the Judeo-Christian culture which they've done their best to destroy.  Destruction is relatively simple, give an idiot a sledge hammer and, sooner or later, he'll knock down a building.  It's creation that's difficult.  No number of idiots, nor any amount of time, will suffice to reconstruct that building.  Perhaps in this sense James Carroll's book is a signal text for his generation : just as he speaks eloquently about rejecting the faith of his fathers but falls silent about what has replaced it, his generation stands amidst the rubble they have created and have no idea what to erect in its place.


Grade: (D-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Constantine's Sword : The Church and the Jews: A History by James Carroll (FSB Associates)
    -International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life (Brandeis)
    -EXCERPT : Sign of Folly from Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History by James Carroll
    -ESSAY : An American Requiem : God, my father, and the war that came between us (James Carroll, Atlantic Monthly, April 1996)
    -EXCERPT : Elvis Disappears from An American Requiem (James Carroll, Atlantic Monthly)
    -EXCERPT : The Leap of Faith  from An American Requiem (James Carroll, Atlantic Monthly)
    -EXCERPT : A Defender of Justice from An American Requiem (James Carroll, Atlantic Monthly)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter Three from The City Below (James Carroll, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY :  WHICH CHRIST IS BUSH'S MODEL? (James Carroll, Boston Globe - December 21, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Charting Boston's course (James Carroll, Boston Globe Magazine)
    -ESSAY : The truth about NATO's air war (James Carroll, The Boston Globe, June 20, 2000)
    -ESSAY :   We've Missed the Real Scandal (James Carroll, The Boston Globe, February 9, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Let's Get Real About Executions in America (James Carroll, Bostone Globe)
    -ESSAY : A Lesson Unlearned: War Makes Things Worse (James Carroll,  Boston Globe -April 6, 1999)
    -REVIEW : of Hitler's Pope : The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell (James Carroll, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944 by James M. O'Toole (James Carroll, July, 1992, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion by Stephen L. Carter (James Carroll, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of JOAN OF ARC By Mary Gordon (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of LIVES OF MORAL LEADERSHIP By Robert Coles (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Memoir My Life and Themes. By Conor Cruise O'Brien (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of AND THE SEA IS NEVER FULL Memoirs, 1969- . By Elie Wiesel (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE BOSTON IRISH A Political History. By Thomas H. O'Connor (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Markers By Sidney Zion (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of TABLE MONEY By Jimmy Breslin (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of BLACK ROBE By Brian Moore (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of WHAT I LIVED FOR By Joyce Carol Oates (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of KOLYMSKY HEIGHTS By Lionel Davidson (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of BUFFALO SOLDIERS By Robert O'Connor (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PROVIDENCE By Geoffrey Wolff (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Good Morning, Merry Sunshine : A Father's Journal of His Child's First Year. By Bob Greene (James Carroll, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Story of My Life : James Carroll talks about his memoir, An American Requiem, winner of the 1996 National Book Award for non fiction. (Atlantic Monthly)
    -INTERVIEW : AN AMERICAN REQUIEM :  James Carroll received the National Book Award for nonfiction last month for his book An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came  Between Us. It tells the story of a family that embodied the conflicts of the nation during the war with Vietnam. Elizabeth Farnsworth has a conversation with Carroll. (Elizabeth Farnsworth, Online Newshour, January 3, 1997)
    -INTERVIEW : with James Carroll (One to One -- Henry Tischler, Interview Central)
    -INTERVIEW : FATHER & SON, GOD & COUNTRY :  An interview with James Carroll (John D. Spalding, 05/23/97,  Commonweal)
    -PROFILE : Vichy Catholic : A Boston-based columnist who still insists that he is a Catholic has risen to prominence through his repeated attacks on the Church (C. J. Doyle, Cathic Net)
    -ESSAY : Liberal disagreement : The Times' Anthony Lewis vs. the Globe's James Carroll (Dan Kennedy, Weekly Wire)
    -Reader's Guide: James Carroll, An American Requiem (Houghton Mifflin)
    -REVIEW : of AN AMERICAN REQUIEM God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us By James Carroll (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of AN AMERICAN REQUIEM God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. By James Carroll (Gustav Niebuhr, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PRINCE OF PEACE By James Carroll (Webster Schott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : FAMILY TRADE. By James Carroll (Alan Cheuse, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of SUPPLY OF HEROES By James Carroll (Maeve Binchy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The City Below by James Carroll (Martin Green, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of THE CITY BELOW By James Carroll (Thomas Adcock, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of MEMORIAL BRIDGE By James Carroll (Donald E. Westlake, NY Times Book Review)