"Autobiography at its best." Publishers Weekly
"A tragic, moving book about a family torn apart by the Vietnam War, a young man looking for God, a writer finding his voice." -- Boston Magazine
An American Requiem is the story of one man's coming of age. But more than that, it is a coming to terms with the conflicts that disrupted many families, inflicting personal wounds that were also social, political, and religious. Carroll grew up in a Catholic family that seemed blessed. His father had abandoned his own dream of becoming a priest to rise/i>… See more details below
An American Requiem is the story of one man's coming of age. But more than that, it is a coming to terms with the conflicts that disrupted many families, inflicting personal wounds that were also social, political, and religious. Carroll grew up in a Catholic family that seemed blessed. His father had abandoned his own dream of becoming a priest to rise through the ranks of Hoover's FBI and then become one of the most powerful men in the Pentagon, the founder of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Young Jim lived the privileged life of a general's son, dating the daughter of a vice president and meeting the pope, all in the shadow of nuclear war, waiting for the red telephone to ring in his parents' house. He worshiped his father until Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, turmoil in the Catholic Church, and then Vietnam combined to outweigh the bond between father and son. These were issues on which they would never agree. Only after Carroll left the priesthood to become a writer and husband with children of his own did he come to understand fully the struggles his father had faced. In this work of nonfiction, the best-selling novelist draws on the skills he honed with nine much-admired novels to tell the story he was, literally, born to tell. An American Requiem is a benediction on his father's life, his family's struggles, and the legacies of an entire generation.
"A tragic, moving book about a family torn apart by the Vietnam War, a young man looking for God, a writer finding his voice." -- Boston Magazine
For nearly 20 years, novelist Carroll (The City Below, 1994; Memorial Bridge, 1991; etc.) barely talked to his father, the late lieutenant general Joseph F. Carroll, founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. They fell out over the war in Vietnam; over the way the younger Carroll conducted himself as a priest; and over the son's finally opting out of the priesthood, just as his father had done. Carroll confronts the demons left by his troubled relationship with his father and his church by telling his family's story, focusing especially on the political and religious turmoil that tore them apart in the 1960s. The book is sometimes embarrassingly heartfelt in a '60s bare-your-soul style that seemed fresh then but now sounds like the everyday kitsch of touchy-feely, tell-all television. Also, Carroll's lack of communication with his father, always a man of few words, forces him to speculate about the older man's emotions, just as he must speculate about what advice his father gave presidents on the war in Vietnam. But Carroll's honesty and sincerity, and the fascination of his story, triumph over any temptation to mock him as waxing too sentimental about his glory days as a radical campus priest counseling war resisters. Carroll argues persuasively that he is still that priest, albeit in a different role, and with a wife and children. And despite his falling out with both his father and his church, he thanks them for giving him the courage of his convictions and for making him a priest, even as they broke his heart.
A fresh retelling of old stories about a son's struggles with his father and his God, and a memoir that may help put more demons to rest for others of the '60s generation.
IN THE VALLEY OF BONES
CATHOLICS CALLED IT Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but to the Jews and Protestants who also took turns worshiping there, it was just "the chapel." Mary's statue and the crucifix were mostly kept behind blue curtainsAir Force blue, the color of the carpeting, the needlepoint kneelers, and the pew cushions. The little white church with its steeple and clear glass Palladian windows could have been the pride of any New England town, but this was the base chapel at Bolling Air Force Base, on the east bank of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. A block to one side, hangars loomed above it, and up the hill on the other side a Georgian mansion, the Officers' Club, dwarfed the small churcha reminder of what really mattered here.
On a Saturday in February 1969 more than two hundred people filed into the chapel. The statue of Mary and the wretched crucifix were on display. The paraphernalia of a Roman Catholic liturgy were laid out on the side table and altarthe cruets, the covered chalice, the beeswax candles, the oversize red missal, which the chaplain's assistant would spell "missile." The congregation included Air Force officers in uniform, since this event had the character of an official function. A number were generals who had come down from Generals' Row, the ridge road along the upper slope of the base, where the vice chief, the inspector general, and members of the Air Staff lived. These were the chairborne commanders of Operation Rolling Thunder, an air war that by then had dropped more bomb tonnage on a peninsula in Asia than the Army Air Corpsever dropped on Germany.
The generals and their wives, easing down the center aisle, looked for their host and hostess, and found them already seated in the front pew. They were Lieutenant General and Mrs. Joseph F. CarrollJoe and Mary. He was the founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the man in charge of counting the enemy and evaluating targets in Vietnam. Today he wore civvies, but with his steely hair, fixed gaze, and erect posture he looked like what he was. She, a staunch, chin-high Catholic woman, was nearly in possession of a lifelong Irish dream: she was the newly minted mother of a priest. But there was worry in her fingers as the beads she held fed through them. Her lips were moving.
A bell rang. The airman at the Hammond organ and a seminary choir began with a hymn, and the people stood, joining in with a set of coughs that moved through the chapel like a wind sent to rough up the chipper happiness of the seminarians. A line of altar boys entered from the sacristy in the rear, ambling into the center aisle, leading a procession of a dozen priests wearing stoles and albs, a pair of candle bearers, a thurifer, the surpliced master of ceremonies, and, last of all, the ordained priest come to celebrate his first Mass and preach his first anointed sermon. That new priest, with his primly folded hands and his close haircut and his polished black wingtips, was I.
A few minutes later, the Air Force chief of chaplains, Major General Edwin Chess, by church rank a monsignor, whom I had known since he accompanied Cardinal Spellman to our quarters for a Christmas visit at a base in Germany years before, stood at the microphone to introduce me. "In a day when our society is so disjointed," he said to his fellow generals, "it is a great joy to know that Father Carroll is on our side."
What? On whose side?
I was celebrating my first Mass here, as tradition required, because it was my parents' parish, not mine. True, I had served as an altar boy in this chapel nearly a decade before. My brother Brian had been married at the sister chapel, across the Maryland hills at Andrews Air Force Base. A rotation of Air Force chaplains had been welcomed into our family like bachelor uncles. When I had entered the seminary after a year at Georgetown Universitywhere I was named Outstanding Air Force ROTC Cadetit had been with the specific intention of becoming an Air Force chaplain myself. General Chess had been my spiritual director.
And no wonder I'd harbored that ambition. Air bases were like sanctuaries to me. I loved the placesthe air policemen saluting us at the gates, the sprawling hangars, the regular roar of airplanes, the friendly sergeants in the Base Exchange, the Base Ops snack bar, the mounded ammo dumps amid stretches of grass on which I'd played ball. After Hollin Hills, Air Force bases were a realm of mine. I grew up a prince, a would-be flyboy, absolutely on the side of everyone in blue. But now?
On our sidewhen had that unambiguous phrase ceased to describe my position? Perhaps beginning in November 1965 when, below my father's third-floor window at the Pentagon, a thirty-one-year-old Quaker named Norman Morrison set himself on fire. It took a couple of years, but by October 21, 1967, I was standing on roughly the same spot below my father's window. No self-immolator, I merely chanted antiwar slogansand I dared do even that only because tens of thousands of others stood chanting with me. I was sure it would never occur to my father that I was out there, and I was careful not to isolate myself from the throng. He never saw me.
As a seminarian I had embraced as an ideal Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and poet. Only months before my ordination, he and his brother led the infamous raid on the draft board offices in Catonsville, Maryland. On their side? Compared to the Berrigan witness, my anonymous participation in Washington's massive antiwar demonstrations was the height of timidity. In secret I had taken the stainless-steel model B-52 bomber that was my prize for that ROTC award out to a ravine behind the seminary and hurled it, the napalm machine, into a fetid swamp. I remember its gleaming arc as my version of the gods' dispelling in midairtheir annihilation, not ours, as Wallace Stevens had it, "yet it left us feeling that in a measure, we, too, had been annihilated." Those photographs of little slant-eyed people with melted chins and no eyelids and charred blue skin and fused fingers had given new meaning to the old word "hit," as in "hit of napalm."
I had had dreams about the war, about flying airplanes in it, but my puerile fantasy had become a nightmare. Once I dreamed of crashing a jet plane into my parents' house on Generals' Row. But it was all a secret, and not just from them. When, only a few months before, General Curtis LeMay, a 1968 vice presidential candidate, had put the most savage warmongering on display, I could not square my shame with the near worship I had felt for him as our next-door neighbor at Bolling in the early sixties. That was a secret too. I dreaded the thought that my fellow protesters might learn who my neighbors were, much less my father. In public, standing alone, I had never declared myself on the war. But what did it mean to be alone? I was two people, and considered independently, each of my selves seemed to have a coherence and integrity that were belied by the fact that I could not bring them together. For the longest time I could not speak.
And now? What to my father surely seemed a proper obeisance had become to me the secret cowardice of a magnum silentium. He had reason to take for granted the reliable decorum of my first priestly performance. But my mother, with her worrying fingers, had reason to be anxious, for she had learned never to trust the arrival of a dream, even if she could not quite imagine how it might shatter.
Despite my clerical draft exemption, or because of it, mounting the tidy pulpit of that pristine war church felt exactly like conscription. On our side? The chief chaplain's words had hit me like a draft notice, and I felt naked as any inductee before my well-clothed brothers, friends, and neighbors; before a few of my fellow seminarians, hardly peaceniks; before beaming chaplains and generals; before my parents; beforehere was the deepest feelingthe one-man congregation of my father. I could no more look at him than at God.
I remember looking at the other bright, uplifted faces. One was my brother Dennis, who before this year was out would be a draft fugitive. Another was my brother Brian, who before Dennis returned from exile abroad would be an FBI agent, catching fugitives like him. I remember the beveled edges of the wooden lectern inside my clutching fingers. The Scriptures in front of me were open to a text I had chosen myself, departing from the order of the liturgical cycle. And I remember:
"The hand of Yahweh was laid on me, and he carried me away and set me down in the middle of a valley, a valley full of bones. He made me walk up and down among them. There were vast quantities of these bones on the ground the whole length of the valley; and they were quite dried up."
A mystical vision? The prophet Ezekiel in an epileptic trance? Yet news accounts not long before had described just such a scene in the valley below a besieged hilltop called Khe Sanh. Curtis LeMay had proposed using nuclear weapons to break the siege. Casualties had mounted. Ten thousand men had been killed in a matter of weeks, and that carnage was in my mind when I presumptuously chose Ezekiel's text as the starting point of my first proclamation as a priest.
Dry bones: the metaphor rang in the air, a double-edged image of rebuke, cutting both ways, toward the literal Southeast Asian valleys of the dead and toward the realm of crushed hopes about which some of us had never dared to speak. "Can these bones live?" I now asked in my excursus, repeating Ezekiel's refrain. "Dried and burned by time," I said, "and by desert wind, by the sun and most of all"I paused, knowing the offense it would be to use a word that tied the image to the real, the one word I must never use in this church, never use with them"by napalm."
It was as specific as I dared getor 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. No one but opponents of the war referred to the indiscriminately dropped gelatinous gasoline that adheres to flesh and smolders indefinitely, turning death into torture or leaving wounds impossible to treat. 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 that only deepened when I repeated, "Can these bones live?" Only now the meaning was, "Can they live after what you have done?"
That was not a real question, of course, about the million Vietnamese whose bones the men in front of me had already scorched, or the more than twenty thousand Americans who had fallen by then. They were dead. And even a timid, metaphoric evocation of their corpses seemed an act of impudence. "Can these bones live?" I realized that I had unconsciously clenched my fist and raised it. All power to the people! Hell no, we won't go! My fist upraised, as if I were Tommie Smith or John Carlos on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics, as if I were Bobby Seale. I recall my stupefaction, and now imagine my eyes going to that uplifted arm, draped in the ample folds of my first chasuble. "Can these bones live?"
I answered with Ezekiel's affirmation of the power of Yahweh, the great wind breathing life into the fallen multitudean image of the resurrection hope central to the faith of Christians. I reached for the spirit of uplift with which I had been trained to end sermons, and perhaps I thought I'd found it. Yes, we can live and love each other and be on the same side, no matter what. "Peace," as LeMay's SAC motto had it, "is our profession." None of us is evil. God loves us all. Who am I to judge? Coming from one who'd just spit the word "napalm" at them, what crap this must have been to those generals.
Can these bones live? The answer to the question that day was no. We all knew it. In my mind now I look down at my parents, stiff in the front pew, my mother staring at the rosary beads in her lap, my father stupefied like me, meeting my eyes. He must have known that I had chosen this text. That violation of the liturgical order would have been enough to garner his disapproval. But a biblical battlefield? He must have known exactly what it meant. Bones? Vietnam? To ask the question was to answer it. My fist was clenched in my father's face. "Prophesy over these bones!" Yahweh commanded. And, coward that I was, I did.
In the Catholic Church to which I was born, the theology of the priesthood affirmed that the effect on a manalways a manof the sacrament of Orders was an "ontological change," a transformation at the deepest level of one's essence and existence. It is an absurdly anachronistic notion, I would say now, but that morning I was living proof of it. My ordination in New York the previous day by His Eminence Terence Cardinal Cookehimself the military vicar, the warriors' godfatherhad given me an authority I never felt before. In my first sermon as a priest, it prompted me to break the great rule of the separation of Church and State, claiming an expertise not only about an abstract moral theology but about its most specific applicationan expertise that my father, for one, had never granted me. "I was not ordained for this," I would have said, sensing the wound that my timid reference had opened in him. "But I can't help it."
After Mass there was a reception at the Officers' Club, and I was not the only one who noticed when my father's fellow generals did not show up. They had no need to pretend, apparently, that my affirming peroration had undone the damage of my impudent reference to the war. My father stood rigidly beside me in the boycotted reception line. We were the same height, but his posture was better than mine and I thought of him as taller. Typical of me. Looking at it from his side, as I was conditioned to do, I saw that his presence next to me displayed a rather larger portion of parental loyalty than I deserved. I had already begun to see what I had done in referring to Vietnam not only as an act of smug self-indulgence but, conversely, as yet more proof of my cowardice. I had said enough to offend my father, and also enough to make me see what I should have said.
It wasn't cowardice, I see now. What an unforgiving perception the young man I was had of himself, but he had yet to move through the full cycle of this story, had yet to move away, that is, from seeing the world as populated by cowards and heroes. The point is, despite my act of resistance, my father and L even at that cold moment, were not unlike each other. And yet we would be separated for good now. "These bones," I saw too late, were also the whole house of our relationship, and no, they would not live. There were two lasting effects of the sermon I gave on February 23, 1969. The first, and most painful, was the breach it caused between me and my father. For more than two years I had feared that if I dared hint at my rejection of the war, if I hinted at my not being "on his side" in the home-front war against armies led by the Berrigans or even Bobby Seale, he would neither understand nor forgive me. In prospect, to a young man such a consequence is fearsome, but abstractly so. I anticipated my father's reaction accurately, yet I never imagined how debilitating to him would be, not my rejection, but all that it symbolized; nor how disheartening to me would be our lifelong alienation.
The second effect of that sermon was its manifestation of the kind of priest I had become. Alas, the wrong kind. Wrong for the countryboth Berrigans would soon be in jailand wrong for the Church. Pope John XXIII had famously opened the windows to let in fresh air, convening a council that was to end the era of Counter-Reformation rigidity. With the openhearted, beloved Angelo Roncalli on the throne of Peter, the day of a calcified, totalitarian Catholicism was supposed to be over. But Roncalli was gone. I didn't know it at ordination, but Church renewal had already failed a few months before, with Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning birth control. Pope John's fresh air had moved across the valley of dry bones but had not entered them. I think now that my fate as one who, a short five years later, would violate his solemn vow and leave the priesthood was sealed in that inadvertently clenched fist of mine. The strident question "Can these bones live?" found an answer in Jesus' searing words: "Let the dead bury the dead."
During the Nixon administration, William Rogers defended the team ethic of the Vietnam War by saying, "There gets to be a point where the question is: whose side are you on? Now, I am the Secretary of State of the United States, and I'm on our side."
Because of accidents of my personal history, I associate the forcing of that question with an Air Force chaplain's remark and Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones. For me, the image of the death-littered valley has always overwhelmed the image of a promised restoration, those bones up and dancing. Even in the era when I could rhetorically evoke the magical breath of God, I did so dutifully. I was too innocent to know it, but my cherished version of the Good News was too thin, too devoid of irony, and too cheaply won to sustain me as a preacher, much less to carry the weight of what was coming. The death-littered valleys of Vietnamwithin weeks of my first Mass, reports would surface of the one at My Laichanged the way I thought of my family, my nation, my faith, and myself. Ultimately, of course, it was all a lesson in mortality: my parents died, although not before my infant daughter did. And now I know, as privileged twenty-six-year-old American men never do, that my bones too will be scorched, and the breath will leave my body forever. Far more devastatingly, I know already that I will die as my father did, as a man who fell far short of his first and most generous dream. I will die as the flawed compromiser I was already when I wounded him with a sermon that was not cruel enough. And why shouldn't this soul be sorrowful?
Yet from here, precisely in this am I seized, not by some falcon-Yahweh who lifts me up, but by the story. I am a writer, no priest. I believe that to be made in God's image is to do this: arrange memory and transform experience according to the structure of narrative. The story is what saves us, beginning in this case with Ezekiel, coming down through valleys and a blue curtain to Jesus, my only God, whose fate was and remains the same as my father's, mine, and everyone's. Telling His story, in my tradition, is what makes Him really present. And that is why this soul, also, can rejoice.
James Carroll was raised in Washington, D.C., and ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. He served as a chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974, then left the priesthood to become a writer. A distinguished scholar-
in-residence at Suffolk University, he is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast.
His critically admired books include Practicing Catholic, the National Book Award–winning An American Requiem, House of War, which won the first PEN/Galbraith Award, and the New York Times bestseller Constantine’s Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.
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