As the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Joseph Carroll was the Pentagon’s super-spook through much of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis and the fighting in Vietnam. He was a fervent patriot, a firm believer in U.S. military power and a conservative. James, his son, was a fiery anti-war demonstrator and a radical.
Father and son were Roman Catholics of opposite ardor and oddly similar paths. Both were what Catholics used to call “spoiled priests.” Joseph abandoned the seminary just before ordination to study law, join the FBI and go on to a brilliant military career. James was ordained, despite interior doubts, in the glory days of Vatican II and the Catholic left. Later, with glory in decline, he abandoned the priesthood, married and became a poet, novelist and newspaper commentator.
That was in 1975. Now, 20 years later, long after his father’s death, James Carroll writes of what, in his book’s subtitle, he calls “the war that came between us.” Between him and his father, that is, and also between him and God, and perhaps, he surmises, between his father and God.
Carroll, who conveys love overpowered by anger and anger undermined though not overpowered by love, does not seem certain just where God stands--let alone his father or himself. He writes, sometimes brilliantly and sometimes in fog, in agonizing certitudes whose hard-won nuances arise mainly from their clash with each other.
Emotion is not recollected in tranquillity. Addressing God and his father, his filial and religious avowals reflect the Crucifixion voice in Matthew and Mark--"Why hast thou forsaken me?"--not John’s “It is consummated” and certainly not Luke’s “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Joseph Carroll, son of a Chicago janitor, catapulted from an FBI field office into J. Edgar Hoover’s inner circle when he spectacularly located and captured Roger Touhy, a fabled gangster of the Al Capone vintage. Hoover lent him to the Air Force to set up an intelligence and counterintelligence branch. Later, in the Kennedy administration, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara promoted him to found the Defense Intelligence Agency.
James Carroll writes affectingly and with a novelist’s skill about his memories of his father as he was growing up. He was a big, handsome man whose rank and privileges made the boy feel like a prince, particularly when Joseph took a break from intelligence work to serve as Air Force chief in Germany. They had servants, a mansion, a private railroad car; later, back in Washington, James dated Lynda Bird Johnson and was invited aboard the presidential yacht.
He idolized a father who was widely respected for both charm and integrity. In a lovely opening scene, the general chauffeurs his son to deliver newspapers on a winter morning and meekly accepts a chewing-out for a sloppy toss from a sergeant who did not recognize him. There is young James’ love of the Air Force and, once he internalized into a vocation the parental hope that he would become a priest, his ambition to be an Air Force chaplain.
There were shadows. Gen. Carroll was aloof most of the time, formal in demeanor and all but incapable of give-and-take with his wife and children. James postponed his adolescent rebellion until he left college to enter a seminary run by the liberal Paulist order. There he was exposed to teachers who critically examined traditional Catholic doctrine and to fellow seminarians drawn into the political and social activism of the 1960s. Skeptical at first, James became a civil rights demonstrator. More gradually--his respect for his father and love of the Air Force were deeply rooted--he began to question the Vietnam war.
Carroll evokes engagingly the growing tension of Thanksgiving dinners at home. At one, he was temporarily persuaded by the general’s unusually patient argument that massive force in Vietnam would actually bring peace. Then his brother Dennis--who later fled the draft--piped up to refuse turkey and proclaim his vegetarianism. It is a tragicomic moment: a whole system of family pieties teeters over the uneaten drumstick.
James’ climactic confrontation came when he preached his first sermon. As is customary, it was at his family’s church. In his case, though, this was the Bolling Air Force Base chapel and it was attended by the top service brass. Clenching his fist, citing the passage from Ezekiel about the valley of bones, James denounced napalm as a contemporary bone-maker. The other generals boycotted the reception afterward; he does not report what, if anything, his father said but it marked their official rupture.
It was a miniature version of the standoff between church and state, the spiritual versus the temporal. To make the stand, James, like his father, had availed himself of rank, uniform and a millennial institution. So deeply was the general planted within the boy that only the priest could dislodge him.
This could not last. After a few years working as Boston University’s radical Catholic chaplain, counseling draft evaders and defying his cardinal, Carroll left the priesthood. His reasons for joining it had been too narrow to sustain him, he tells us. The Catholic aggiornamento was in retreat and a number of his fellow priests had departed and married. Carroll’s vocation was not to be a solitary holy fool nor to endure when all men despised him. It was, he realized, to have a family and become a writer.
Carroll’s attempts to come to terms with himself and his father make absorbing if sometimes uneven reading. He finds evidence that Joseph had his own doubts about the military hawks and used his intelligence analyses to fortify McNamara’s eventual skepticism about escalation. It led McNamara to depart as defense secretary; later Gen. Carroll was himself forced out after providing data that argued against the Nixon administration’s initial interest in an anti-ballistic missile.
James wants in some fashion to redeem Joseph, yet he can’t. Above all he can’t forgive him his silence. Had the general confided his qualms to the priest, the son might not have lost the father. It seems shaky; it seems to ignore the human reality of the older man that the author elsewhere conveys so well.
Books about seeking out fathers have become something of a literary genre. Some are perceptive and moving, as Carroll’s mainly is. But they can also become, as this one sometimes does, surrogate of a self-assertion too primally voracious to be voiced directly. Roots are necessary and a severed tree dies. But one that grows rootward instead of upward is a tree distorted by gales or lightning or it is an excess of the topiary art or perhaps a weeping willow.