It appears that the most heroic tale for the Bicentennial, the one with the greatest power to animate feelings of national pride, is of the struggle of the American against his government. Costumed Redcoats, fascists, communists, and other traditional enemies cannot generate in us the same dread and indignation with which many of us have come to regard our leaders and guardians, from whom we had expected better if only because they had the advantages of an American unbringing. Disillusion is a powerful emotion, which explains, in part, the force of this account of the disenchantment of a pair of decent middle Americans, whose experience must awaken in each reader, in his own way, his own sense of loss.
Peg and Gene Mullen, farmers from La Porte City, Iowa, began by suspecting that the army had concealed some of the details of their son’s death in Vietnam. In the end they came to ask themselves “what was the point of five generations of a family working the same land if they had become as enemies to that nation upon which their land rested,” and their nation was in turn revealed as an enemy to them? This is only the first of many questions raised by this interesting work, which is concerned, finally, with more than just whether the army misled grieving American parents from a wish to conceal its own errors, or simply through the ineptness and bureaucratic insensitivity which the author sees as characteristic of war; or whether the judgment of the parents was distorted beyond reason by their sorrow. From the interaction of the reporter, C.D.B. Bryan, the Mullens, and the military, there emerges a significant and subtle reflection on the moral conditions of the society which produced, and variously tolerated or rejected, the war in Vietnam.
Michael Mullen was drafted out of graduate school, not wanting to go but not questioning his duty, sent to Vietnam with Charlie Company, and killed by American artillery fire. His parents were first led to believe his death resulted from Vietcong infiltration of South Vietnamese artillery installations, the first of many misunderstandings. The Mullens could perhaps have borne their grief more easily if they had been able to resolve the many inconsistencies and imprecisions in the official explanations they received. Instead they became convinced that things were being deliberately concealed.
They understood the bureaucratic incompetency, but it was infuriating. The army could not keep Michael’s rank, the nature of his wounds, or even his personal effects straight. Sympathetic letters ostensibly from two different officers were really sent by some staff clerk using the same slightly awry date stamp. The army docked Michael’s paycheck by nine days, penalizing him for getting killed before he had served long enough to earn back his advance leave.
But grieving parents were not supposed to notice things like this. In its concern to market the war, the army kept a staff, like the PR department of an expensive mortuary, to come with the village priest to give the Mullens the news, to assist them with funeral arrangements, to attend the funeral wearing uniforms. Did they want a military funeral? A flag on the casket? And, in particular, the Mullens were asked for the name of one of Michael’s friends in Vietnam, to escort his body home.
The escort business was a charade too. In their grief, the Mullens were tenacious and combative. When Michael’s body came back with any old escort, they bitterly persisted in their objections: “We were told that to have a deceased soldier’s body returned accompanied by a special escort chosen by the next of kin was…a right accorded the families of all war victims.”
The army tried to tell them it would take too long: “Tell that lady in La Porte City that she can have her escort in—take it or leave it—ten to fifteen more days.” Peg’s response was typically trenchant: “You can tell that sonuvabitch in the Pentagon that I’ll wait fifteen years for my son to come back! My son’s dead! We could put off having him come back in a casket forever!” When the Mullens continued to insist, they were threatened with reprisal against the escort, who, they were told, would probably be returned to combat even if he had a safe job now.
When Michael’s body did arrive home, the wound bore little relation to accounts of his death, and the Mullens’ anxieties were further aroused. They began to write and to receive letters from his comrades. And it wasn’t long before they realized that deaths like Michael’s, which was called by the army “misadventure” from “friendly fire,” were nonbattle casualties and therefore not being reported to the American people. There were other categories, too, by which the deaths in Vietnam could be reported in such a way as to make Americans think they were fewer in number than they were.
The Mullens resolved to spend Michael’s gratuity pay in some way to bring this situation to the attention of other Iowans. They took a half-page ad in a Sunday Des Moines Register, showing, simply, 714 crosses for the 714 Iowans who had died in Vietnam. Encouraged by an uproar of questioning and concern, they were drawn more deeply into a campaign of obsessive letter-writing, phoning, visits, and public appearances. From the beginning their concern was to educate other Iowans—middle Americans of whom, as Bryan says, they continued to think of themselves as representative, even when they appeared to be most alienated from the attitudes of their community.
As Middle Western, middle-aged farmers who had given a son for their country, they had an image untainted by radicalism in any form, and, perhaps unlike long-haired peaceniks, they did get answers to their letters, people in Washington returned their calls—and they also got what they would not have believed possible in a land whose goodness and integrity they had taken for granted: lies from American generals who looked them straight in the eye, insults and physical abuse in the course of peaceful protest, verbal abuse from their own senator (Jack Miller. Harold Hughes appears to have been responsive and concerned). They became enemies in the eyes of their country.
At one point Peg Mullen says to a Pentagon official, “Colonel, we can read. We’re not just stupid farmers out here.” It was this realization, however belated, that had panicked an administration which had counted on the support of “the heart of America.” Now the Mullens, who thought of themselves as representative Americans, were placed on “lists,” put under surveillance, and probably wiretapped along with the dangerous radicals and intellectuals. It was never clear who was meant to be left as the constituency.
How can one explain the reluctance of people in the Midwest to recognize what was happening in Vietman? In part it may have been simple lack of information. Midwesterners who go to live elsewhere learn fast enough—and many express the feeling that there was much they had not heard at home, especially from the Midwestern press. People who live in urban centers forget, or perhaps cannot imagine, the regional variations in the treatment of current events in this country, even though local differences are taken for granted as natural, even charming, in much smaller nations like England. Add to this that Midwesterners are often deeply skeptical, not credulous, and it seems likely that many people didn’t believe much of the news that came from untrustworthy Eastern places likes Washington.
Nonetheless, many of them do seem to have difficulty with the distinction between protest and complaint. Stoicism is an admired virtue. A man should stand up for what he believes, but his beliefs should not seem to be self-serving. A man should oppose social injustice and face controversial situations, but in fact, in this homogeneous society, he seldom encounters any. La Porte City, for instance, was almost entirely Protestant and Republican (though the Mullens were Democrats and Catholics), and there was only one non-Caucasian, an Indian woman.
Mere complainers are deeply resented. Senator Jack Miller replied to one of the Mullens’ antiwar letters by saying, “With few exceptions, the persons bearing the real burden of this war…have been the least complaining…. I regret that you are one of the exceptions,” words which seem simply inhuman, but which must have echoed the sentiments of, say, the waitress at Mom’s Cafe, who disapproved of Peg and Gene: “Other people have lost their sons, and they don’t protest.”
That they did not raise their children to protest is, now, one of the bitterest things the Mullens have to bear. “It’s not that we didn’t want Mikey to go, it’s that we—we let him go!” And, “we raised Mikey in the belief that an individual, a man, obeyed. That you didn’t question and, this was so wrong! So wrong. Mikey never went against an order. And this, this is our anguish! That we ever did such a thing to our child.”
Bryan seems to deprecate Peg Mullen’s emotional courage in recognizing this. “The one time during those five days I spent with the Mullens that Peg ever cried was when she spoke of having reared’ Michael to accept unquestioningly the authority of the United States Government. By magnifying the military’s guilt, she could minimize this, the source of her own.” But the military was partly to blame, and in accepting any measure of guilt, Peg Mullen showed herself brave enough to do what many parents have not done, that is, to accept the extent to which parents were in fact involved in the question of the drafting of their sons.
It is true that many American parents simply let their sons serve in the military, maybe out of principle, or out of ignorance, but some acting in the naïve but traditional belief that a few years in the army would shape up an otherwise intractable, troublesome, or immature kid, of whom, in the protesting, dope-ridden Sixties, there were more than the usual number. In a curious, circular way, the resistance thus fed the war.
But geographical factors must also have played a part. Liberal parents on the coasts and sympathetic draft boards countenanced a greater variety of choices than Peg and Gene Mullen may have heard of—Canada, COs, jail. They may not have realized in the very different moral climate of their town the relative absence of stigma attached to these choices elsewhere. Before the end of the war something like half the draftees in Alameda County in California were refusing induction, something that was probably unimaginable in Iowa, even at the end. How can those mothers let their sons go, people would say in California, not realizing that those mothers did not have the company of thousands of others at every march and rally, and the possibility of a sympathetic judge in court. The regional inequity in the conduct of the draft will surely be a source of continuing bitterness in this society, for how can parents who lost their sons ever really forgive those who did not send theirs?