In response to:
True Patriots from the August 5, 1976 issue
To the Editors:
Although I appreciate the attention paid my book, Friendly Fire, in Diane Johnson’s August 5 review, I would like to correct some misconceptions which she embraces not, I suspect, so much through any faults of her own as a reviewer but through my flaws as a writer.
Ms. Johnson implies that I simply accepted Lt. Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s version of how and why Michael Mullen was killed by “friendly fire” without seeking corroborating or conflicting evidence. That just isn’t so. I spoke also with Michael’s company commander, the medic who attempted to resuscitate Michael, the young black man who was asleep next to Michael when the shell hit and who was subsequently imprisoned for incidents arising from the operation on which Michael was killed. I spoke with the young man who lost his leg in the same explosion that killed Michael and another young man who was Michael’s closest friend in the 3rd Platoon. Since the book’s publication I have spoken with three other young men who, too, had been there. Each of them independently confirmed those details given me by Schwarzkopf. It was through their recounting of their personal experiences during the military operation upon which Michael was killed that I was able to reconstruct what had happened that night. This reconstruction was sent to each of the major individuals mentioned for their confirmation or corrections (just as the entire manuscript was sent to the Mullens and Schwarzkopf before asking them to sign a release). Their corrections, incorporated into the final draft, then appeared as “The Mission” at the end of the book. I believe, therefore, that this final section is more than the “very accomplished fiction” Ms. Johnson states; it is what happened on the night Michael died.
Because I had never written a nonfiction book before I assumed that a reader is more interested in the results of an investigation rather than its process. I felt that if a reader was confident that I had “done my homework” in reconstructing the events following Michael’s death and shown what had happened to his family, he or she would be equally willing to accept that I had properly researched what had happened on the night that he died. That Ms. Johnson feels I failed to properly do so seems less critical a judgment than political and emotional and but one more piece of evidence of how very deep cut the wounds of this war still.
Secondly—and it bothers me that it should even be necessary to say this—I love Peg and Gene Mullen, they have been as family to me these past five years, I think them heroic people. Ms. Johnson’s implication that I felt “patronizing” or “condescending” or “deprecated Peg’s courage” is so patently wrong that I am ashamed such a suggestion might even appear in print. And yet such a gross misinterpretation might be the consequence of my efforts to keep myself out of Friendly Fire as much as possible. It is not, after all, my story or Schwarzkopf’s or even Michael’s; it is Peg’s and Gene’s. Because I became a part of their story I should perhaps have been more explicit about my own feelings. Perhaps not. Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I know only that the vast majority of readers who have written me, like the vast number of reviews I have seen, did understand that at no time did I feel anything but the greatest anguish, respect, and affection for the Mullens. What I tried to show was that this lowa farm family’s anger, bitterness, paranoia, suspiciousness, and heartbreak were the understandable and inevitable result of the insensitive, arrogant, and bureaucratic treatment they had received—and not just from the military, the government, their community, and their priest but, to my horror, from myself as well. I was forced to face that ugly dwarf-soul in every writer who, when confronted by someone’s personal anguish, feels that flicker of detachment which tells him that he is also witnessing “good material.” (At those moments one senses a dreadful kinship with those ghouls gathered below a suicide’s ledge.) And yet, as I wrote in Friendly Fire: “it was precisely the exploitation of Peg’s grief upon which any [book] would have to depend.” To admit that does not mean one does not feel sympathy and love and understanding at the same time; it merely means that the writer recognizes that this moment of anguish provides a means of expressing that anguish to others. But to suggest that I lost sympathy with the Mullens because I found no evidence of a coverup is utterly wrong. Since Ms. Johnson’s conclusion was the same initially arrived at by Gene and Peg, what I wrote in the book about that moment of confrontation bears repeating here:
“I knew because I thought [Peg and Gene] wrong about Schwarzkopf, they believed I had passed judgment against everything they had done. I knew they were wondering whether they could trust me, or had I, too, become a part of the conspiracy to hide the truth? Vietnam did that to us. It dragged us all in, made us choose sides. Had not Peg herself said, “There’s only one side when you lose your son”?
That I disagreed with them about Schwarzkopf was beside the point. I did agree with them on principle: Michael’s death was an unforgivable tragedy—as Schwarzkopf, too, would have been and was among the first to agree. [p. 330]
Although I knew what had happened to the Mullen family was awful, I had not understood how truly awful it was. I could not because no matter how much I sympathized and agreed with them, it had not happened to me. It was not the Mullens’ lack of understanding that bothered me, it was my own! I had thought that if I could find out how their son had been killed I could offer them some peace. You must understand that when I first went to see Peg and Gene they were literally killing themselves and I was terribly concerned for their emotional and physical well-being. I did then and still do care very deeply about that family. I did find out how and why Michael was killed and my own personal anguish lies in my naïveté in believing that to tell them what I had learned would give them any comfort when instead it angered them all the more. What comfort is there is knowing that your son whom you so loved died because of a stupid mistake? Wouldn’t one prefer to believe that a deliberate conspiracy did exist to prevent one from learning the truth rather than to learn that there existed only that awful insensitivity of a bureaucracy capable of believing that form letters of condolence will satisfy a grieving family? The real enemy of Friendly Fire is not just war, itself, but the United States Government and the arrogance of a few powerful men who presumed not only to speak for the American people and to know what was best for the American people, but who would not listen to the American people and worse, made every effort to isolate themselves from any situation in which a confrontation or disagreement might occur.
The resulting polarization that such a governmental attitude incurred exists still: I do not accept Ms. Johnson’s implication that because Lt. Col. Schwarzkopf was a professional military officer that he could not also be a fine man. Yes, he was ambitious; yes, many of the men hated him because he insisted on discipline in the field, that the men wear their helmets and flak jackets (if Michael had had his flak jacket on he would not have been killed), but he was not a criminal. Why is it so inconceivable to Ms. Johnson that Gene Mullen and Norm Schwarzkopf could not both be fine men?
There are several questions Ms. Johnson asks the answers to which are in the text (Who called in the artillery? Why didn’t it fire until three in the morning? etc.) and again, I must assume it was my failure as a writer that she did not pick them out. It was not and is not my intention to suggest that because no coverup occurred in Michael’s death that the military did not cover up any others. I tried in my book to deal with one specific incident and the impact the Vietnam War had on one specific family. The lies, the coverups, the atrocities perpetrated by the United States Army in Vietnam—and we know they are legion—must be explored by other, better writers in other, better books.
Diane Johnson replies:
Mr. Bryan’s long rejoinder in defense of his sincerity, the quality of his anguish, the character of Lt. Col. Schwarzkopf and much else, seems to be based on the mistaken impression that these things have been impugned. It doesn’t entirely surprise me that he appears not to understand the real nature of my reservations, which are based, ultimately, on a state of mind, all too common, which I take also to be his—uncomfortable with skepticism, especially political skepticism, and yet committeed to the idea that the truth of things is always “somewhere in between.”
Regarding his methods of research, I am aware, as anyone would be who read his book, of what people he talked to; it is because he describes his researches in detail as far as they went that the reader assumes he did not do what he does not mention. As I stressed in my review, the reader is not likely to reach conclusions different from Bryan’s (though I have heard from readers who hold, as I do not, that a coverup was involved). Nonetheless, the conclusion, where details are effaced, left embedded in a fiction for the reader to “pick out,” or omitted—and which officer did receive the reprimand?—is likely to leave the impression that the author’s commitment to the task he set himself faltered in the face of military imperatives, which Mr. Bryan seems to have a higher regard for than others may. Perhaps this impression is owing, as Mr. Bryan suggests, to his failure as a writer, but given the skill and compassion which inform the rest of the book, such a failure is hard to credit.