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?
C.D.B. Bryan wrote the Mullens’ story because, concerned about Vietnam, he felt
there had to be some way to articulate the people’s discontent, their estrangement from their government, their increasing paranoia and distrust. And what better way was there than to…[go] to Iowa? Iowans are among the most open, honest, friendly, trusting people in the country. If they seemed unsophisticated, then they were unsophisticated in the best possible sense: they believed in personal honor, that a man’s word had meaning and that he was responsible for his acts. If the government of the United States had lost the loyalty and support of an Iowa farm family, then it indicated, to me at least, that the government was in very grave trouble indeed.
Eventually, Bryan was astonished at the intensity of the Mullens’ indignation, and by the “seemingly inexhaustible volume of sources their outrage fed upon. Local school board elections, telephone company stock manipulations, draft inequities, Nixon’s Vietnamization policies, farm subsidy programs, the voting records of incumbent congressmen and senators, the machinations of the military-industrial complex.” Though Bryan was bemused by their original romantic conception of America, he was also convinced that “the Mullens’ surviving son and daughters would never possess so naïve a confidence in this nation’s purpose or its leaders.”
Bryan seems to be suggesting that in questioning the workings of these institutions, just as they questioned the workings of the military, the Mullens have failed to accept, or to grasp, that “manipulations,” “inequities,” “machinations,” and the like are words which appropriately describe the modern world. Bryan seems to patronize them for resenting what he, on the other hand, appears to accept, though no doubt does not approve of.
I first ready Friendly Fire in three parts in The New Yorker, the first two parts with sorrow for the death of Michael, sympathy for his gallant parents, troubled by the meaning of these events for our country, perhaps even at knowing how evil had come to innocent Iowa farms like the ones where I grew up. Everyone must have found a great deal to identify with in Bryan’s careful and compassionate account.
But I read the third part very uneasily. It was as if the Sinister Force had come in and finished Bryan’s book for him in the night. Qualified, now, was the generous, sympathetic tone. A note of condescension had crept into his voice when he came to explain to the Mullens the “truth” of what he had discovered about Michael’s death.
He tells them,
I don’t believe the incident was deliberately covered up. I don’t believe that there was ever a conspiracy…. The reason why you were never sent the results of the investigation was that the report was classified “For Official Use Only,” a very minor security classification, but one which would nevertheless prevent it from being released to civilians without a “Need-to-Know.” …the reason why the report was not sent was to spare you more anguish.
How did he know? It is not that he has himself investigated the military report; it is that he has visited Michael’s battalion commander, a Lt. Colonel Schwarzkopf, and finds himself satisfied with the likable colonel’s version of the events leading to Michael’s death.
Despite some minor questions and inaccuracies, Bryan’s conclusions will probably be the reader’s conclusions too. Why, then, should the reader find himself so dissatisfied? The problem may in part lie in the nature of New Journalistic accounts, in which truth is attested to, verified by third parties, taken from tapes, and so on, but dramatized like fiction. The reader experiences such accounts as both truth and fiction, that is, as adequate accounts of the real world, but also as having certain formal qualities we expect in art. If we complain that somehow coherence, integrity, unity have been violated in the work, the journalist can protest, like the student in a beginning creative writing class, “but that’s the way it really happened,” and to a certain extent we have indeed contracted to believe him.
Perhaps, when applying the criteria of both art and reality you find tension or contradiction, you must just accept it as characteristic of this queer genre. Yet nothing in our experience of reality or of this book prepares us for, or can reconcile us to, the conclusion of the author that the officers were “fine men,” and that Peg and Gene were, finally, tired fanatics whose obsession with their son’s death was only their personal tragedy. One may object to these conclusions on the grounds of art—they seem capricious, unprepared—or one may accept them, and along with them the intransigence of facts in general, or one may simply feel, as I do, that the author betrays his work, like a painter who tires of his picture, and, in abandoning his work too soon, leaves awkward blank patches.
For the reader, in this case, the effect is devastating. From the painstaking chronicle of official mendacity, mortal blunders, and moral evil, the shape of the circumstances of Michael’s death emerges with a certain clarity: the certainty is that because of inadvertence, muddle, contingency, and waste, precise questions of guilt and accountability become impossible to ask or answer. The difficulty lies not in the fact that Bryan does accept the assurances of the military, but in the ease with which he does so, and in the suddenness with which he turns on the Mullens, who until now have been sympathetically presented.
This seems to transform him from a careful investigative journalist to something more like an unreliable narrator in a work of fiction, inviting scrutiny of his own motives and character. It is like what must have happened between Marlow and Kurtz out there in the heart of darkness, a realization of affinity, after which Marlow goes back and tells genteel lies about heroism to Kurtz’s innocent fiancée. “I think it’s important for you to know that both Schwarzkopf and Captain Tom Cameron, your son’s company commander, were fine officers. Fine men,” Bryan goes back and tells the Mullens. And it may be true; it probably is. Yet, in the context of this book, until now so strongly sympathetic to the Mullens, and for historical reasons, such as the army and government record for cover-ups, this conclusion needs more than simple assertion.
Bryan presents the Mullens with what he believes to be the truth about Michael’s death. “I don’t buy it,” says Gene. “I don’t buy Schwarzkopf, and I don’t buy the military.” For Bryan the Mullens become no longer prototypical Americans but fanatical, rigid in their hatred and bitterness. But the reader comes to wonder whether Bryan—trusting authority, easily lured by sincerity and surface plausibility, willing to accept “machinations” and “manipulations” as inevitable—is not himself a more representative American.
Here is one example of many: when Peg asks Bryan why the soldiers who wrote to them were threatened with courts-martial her question was probably Socratic, directed to the issue of the whole conduct of and justification for the war. But Bryan replies: “I tried to explain that if the boys had written, they would have directly disobeyed the order from Americal Division Headquarters stating that all communication with next of kin was to emanate from Division to ensure that parents were not given conflicting facts and accusations.” This is the state of mind that bought “national security” as an excuse for everything. The exchange goes on:
“We didn’t get any facts!” Peg protested.
“In other words,” Gene said, “they only give out the facts they want the parents to know. To fit the story.”
“But there wasn’t any story,” I said.
And so on. They are talking at cross purposes here, and Bryan’s faith in the military makes him sure that the Mullens are simply irrational. (A few months later, the corruption of Americal Division was to be exposed by the Peers report.)
Probably Bryan’s acceptance of military procedure is to be explained simply by his sense of reality. Himself an honorable man, he cannot resist another one, an officer and a gentleman who looks him straight in the eye. Just as people who have read The Final Days may have had their previous dislike of General Haig compromised by a realization that he had his problems too, or by his moment of candor (“He’s guilty as hell”), so was Bryan unable to resist Schwarzkopf’s appalling sincerity—and even, perhaps, his more gracious social arrangements—his “home in Annandale, Virginia,” his “wife, Brenda, a former TWA stewardess,” his daughter “Cindy.”
Never mind that he talks like the veteran of some sort of Defense Department encounter group: “I find the distortions, the twisting, the accusations [by the Mullens] to be a dirty business. It’s highly upsetting to me and so I haven’t been able to remain unemotional….” About the artillery incident which caused Michael’s death, “like I said, I was furious! But don’t get me wrong…. It wasn’t because I blamed Kuprin directly as the man responsible, but it was as if my unit had done something terrible…. I was tremendously emotionally upset about that whole incident, and as I told the Mullens, nobody was more upset than I was.”
Probably nobody was. We believe Schwarzkopf, just as Bryan does. But perhaps the word “tragedy” comes too easily to both of them. Schwarzkopf says,
Michael’s death was a terrible, terrible tragedy. A tragedy typical of a profane thing called war…. I don’t know how to express this, but try to think of it this way: Michael was killed due to an error…but I don’t think it was an error of deliberate negligence. The error was made because of the unique set of circumstances surrounding this particular mission. All right, yes, it was an error committed by some individual and…I don’t know the name of that individual. But….
And so on. These are modern sensibilities, men of the world. They accept “tragedy,” ambiguity, human frailty. How unlike them is the concentrated passion of the Mullens. Theirs is the burden of hating; and the light of their moral indignation, like that of all fanatics and saints, is too glaring to bear in ordinary life.
It appears that experience of army life is a great qualifier of moral indignation. Schwarzkopf says, “Probably the most antiwar people I know are army officers,” but the reader, remembering Westmoreland, Abrams, and other generals, knows better. Generals are interested in war, and even ordinary citizens who have been to war may be corrupted by it to the extent that they can then imagine it and take it for granted, like the man the Mullens knew who, when told that his brother was coming home from Vietnam early, said, “So what? I was there for two years and it didn’t hurt me any,” a remark which shows how it did hurt him. To the man of the world, the Mullens’ rage is self-indulgence, a luxury of innocents.
Everyone agreed that Michael Mullen had been killed by friendly fire about three in the morning by guns shooting “defensive targets” at the request of an unknown lieutenant, and that an error was involved. Bryan tells the Mullens “the truth is neither in your favor or their favor. It’s somewhere in between,” regarding the unresolved details, but in fact that is mainly the army’s view of the situation, and it seems a fault that Bryan did not do more to resolve the details, for the reader if not for the Mullens. In a chronicle of concealments and evasions, the reporter still leaves us to wonder not only who called in the order for the firing, but why the shots were delayed until three in the morning, which was so unusual that at least three of Michael’s comrades wrote the Mullens about it. Or why another letter, signed by sixty of Michael’s company, was intercepted by the army and never sent. Or why there were so many other instances of censorship.
If, as Bryan tells us, a record of every artillery shot was made, did he examine that record? Which officer received a reprimand and why? What about the report of the investigation, despite its minor security classification? Did the military prevent Bryan from seeing this? There are many questions of this kind; and, finally, one remembers that Schwarzkopf’s version of events is based not only on his memory but on an investigation carried out by the artillery officers involved.
Since these events (1970-1972), we have had Watergate, the Church and Pike reports, and daily newspaper revelations to familiarize us with deceitfulness at every level of government. Even more than the Mullens could have then, the reader today will realize that the conclusions that Bryan has accepted rest upon the investigation of the responsible people by themselves; and the reader may question whether this can result in a fair inquiry (or, if it could, whether anything would be done). And if suspicion of self-investigations was not the reader’s attitude, it would still be encouraged by the events which Bryan recites, but which he does not resolve. There were real people to be interviewed, real reports to be read. He concludes the book with a dramatization of what “really” happened, but it is only a very accomplished fiction, leaving the reader, already made skeptical by recent history, in the oddly solitary position of the Mullens, whose refusal to be reconciled to ambiguities mirrors the reader’s own.
Just as the word “tragedy” is used rather lightly in this book to abridge complexity, so too is the word “truth” often loosely substituted for “right,” in the sense of right and wrong, perhaps to avoid asking whether the Mullens or the military were “right.” Yet to many Americans, now, this seems an easy question to answer. The people who most mind the discovery that their government was “wrong,” of course, are the people who expected something and believed in it. The violated feelings of people like the Mullens probably cannot be argued or willed away. Perhaps their disaffection can be coaxed away, public confidence won back as one wins the confidence of a wounded animal, feeding it little bits of truth, bit by bit, until it is sure that it isn’t being fed poison. But it will take a long time—and who is to do it?
In the long run, Bryan finds the Mullens “naïve” to believe in an America out of “an innocent history primer, one capable of expressing a faith in a simpler America—an America which probably never even used to be.” But that is too easy. It would be nice to think that nothing has been lost in America because there was nothing special there to begin with. But where does he imagine the Mullens got their idea of America? La Porte City, Iowa, is maybe an artifact, maybe a place left over from the past like one of those language pockets where people still speak Elizabethan English, and La Porte City may have been changed out of all recognition by recent events. But it is not an imaginary place. The values the Mullens learned there should not be dismissed as if they had never existed.
Mr. Bryan is certainly to be admired for giving us their story, but the heroes are the Mullens, who by refusing to surrender their grief and bitterness, or their sense of the discrepancy between the America they thought they had and the America they found upon closer inspection, or their struggle to retain the old America, take upon themselves and suffer the true burden of honorable patriotism.
Friendly Fire October 14, 1976