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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Friendly Fire October 14, 1976