An American Requiem

January 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: James Carroll received the National Book Award for nonfiction last month for his book An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. It tells the story of a family that embodied the conflicts of the nation during the war with Vietnam. In those days James Carroll was an anti-war priest. His father was the founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the man in charge of counting the enemy and evaluating targets in Vietnam. James Carroll has since left the priesthood and is now a poet and novelist, author of, among other works, “Mortal Friends,” and “The City Below.” He also writes a weekly column for the “Boston Globe.” Thank you for being with us, Mr. Carroll.

JAMES CARROLL, Author: Thank you, Elizabeth. It’s good to be here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Your father is–is bigger than life in this book. Tell us about him.

JAMES CARROLL: Well, as a son, of course, he was bigger–bigger than life to me, but he really was an extraordinary character, no matter how you measured him. He began as a worker in the Chicago stockyards of an Irish Catholic family on the South side of Chicago. He was an FBI agent as a young man. He had a remarkable career as an FBI agent that quickly brought him into the Air Force as a general. He was the youngest general in the United States military in 1947. And he had a powerful career as an intelligence officer in the military, culminating in his–as you just said–his founding the Defense Intelligence Agency. And he was the director of the DIA through most of the war in Vietnam, a powerful man, the father of five sons, the husband of a strong Irish woman.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He was also–he had also attended seminary for 12 years and quit just as he was about to be ordained, is that right? In some ways that event is the event that sets everything else in motion in your book.

JAMES CARROLL: It’s true. The subtitle of my book is “God,” and, you know, religion, especially the Catholic faith, is the context within which the whole story unfolds. My father’s impulse to become a priest that he had as a boy and that he didn’t follow through on and that I think shadowed him for the rest of his life, of course, was a powerful factor, largely unconscious, I think, in my own decision as a young man to become a Catholic priest. So that then when I became the wrong kind of priest, you might say, it was especially loaded between us. And the crisis on this issue, religious, gets joined to the political crisis during the 60’s so that there’s a political confrontation, a religious confrontation, and, of course, you might almost say an Oedipal confrontation between me and my dad. It all came together at the same time, and because it was about the war and Civil Rights period and because my brothers were involved in the story, it became–well, it became very much a loaded American story–oddly enough, for all of the particularities of it, not that different from what was going on in many American families in the same period.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And yet so–of the different elements that occurred to other people occurred at once in your family. I thought, as I read your book, that if this had been fiction, I wouldn’t have believed it. Tell us about your brothers. Tell us about the way the political conflict manifested itself in your family.

JAMES CARROLL: Well, there were five of us. We all, more or less, came of age together in the 60’s, and by the time I was ordained to the priesthood in 1969, my father was at the peak of his power as an intelligence officer at the Pentagon. And in the same period, my–two of my other brothers made decisions that would affect the unfolding of the family story powerfully.

My brother, Brian, who was the next youngest to me, in that same time became an FBI agent, and he was assigned quite promptly to the task of tracking down draft resisters and draft dodgers and members of the so-called Catholic left. And at the same time, my brother, Dennis, next youngest, became–you guessed it–a draft resister and even a draft exile for a time, was out of the country, and eventually came back.

There was a period when we couldn’t talk about Dennis in front of Brian. We didn’t want to talk about Brian in front of Dennis. It was unbelievably complicated. And at the same time, Dad was presiding over this, well, you know, what would become clear eventually a kind of massive intelligence failure because the war in Vietnam, among other failures, was an intelligence failure. And his own war inside the Pentagon, of course, was something I didn’t know about.

And I’m identifying at the same time with the Berrigan wing of the Catholic peace movement. I’m becoming a peacenik priest. So through those years, the late 60’s, early 70’s, every possible conflict is joined in my family. And the amazing thing is that really the wonderful thing is that as a family we found a way to stay together, although the breach between me and my father actually did eventually become total.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The last chapter in your book is about your father’s death and funeral. Would you read from that for us?

JAMES CARROLL: Well, I would. You know, ironically enough, as if it is a novel, my dad died just as the war in the Persian Gulf was breaking out, and it seemed impossible to me that the whole story of our relationship should be recapitulated in yet another what to me was a very misguided American military adventure.

And I’m reading the very end of this story. We have just buried my dad at the Arlington National Cemetery. It’s January of 1991. It’s the day before the only sizeable peace demonstration that took place in Washington. And I’m going to go home, instead of going to the demonstration. “As the earth had opened under me, my personal abyss, I was staring in. And, yes, I saw those bombs, and yes, I saw the war induced into the world.

Yes, I saw the doom of history. I saw it all in the death of my father. War had come down war between us. I saw the lesson of it clear. We both lost. Victory is meaningless. But the story, this story, is a victory of the need to be victorious, which is why this particular war was holy and why this story is sacred. My father was dead, a fallible man, a noble man. I loved him. And because I was so much like him, though appearing not to be, I had broken his heart, and the final truth was, oh, how the skill of ending with uplift yet alludes me. He had broken mine.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You write that narrative, itself, is sacred. And you’ve used the word “Requiem” in the title. Were any souls laid to rest by this book?

JAMES CARROLL: Well, I did use the word “Requiem” thinking it would be about a laying to rest. I think I did in some way lay my dad to rest. The book telling the story enabled me to see the experience more from his point of view than I ever had before, seeing really what the struggle inside his life in the Pentagon was like, which was a very powerful one of which I knew nothing at the time. And I ended the story more full of respect and more full of love for him than I ever had been before. A grief struck, of course, that I couldn’t express it to him.

But then I’d have to say finally the sad thing was I didn’t find the rest myself that I thought I would. I think I speak for a lot of people in my generation, people affected by the war on both sides of it, peaceniks and veterans, that there was a way in which that war opened a wound in us that hasn’t closed yet. I hope that this story is part of the closing of that wound for Americans in some small way, but I believe that many of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to pull the threads of this narrative together in some way that will enable us to have peace at last.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, James Carroll, thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES CARROLL: Thank you very much.