On a long train ride from Los Angeles to Oakland recently I was able to take up the recommendation of a friend who had seen a previous posting here about the dearth of good fiction with the sizzling 60s as background or prominent character.  Try Prince of Peace, he said, by James Carroll: the war in Vietnam, napalm use cover-up, trying to do good in-country, the struggles of conscience, disobedient priests and nuns, draft-board vandalism.  I was vaguely familiar with Carroll, a former priest, and author of many religiously themed books as well as occasional  scathing contributions to the Boston Globe [scroll down.]  My own brother had sent me An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us.  Our family had been Roman Catholic, as was Carroll’s, and the war certainly came between my father and me — which my brother, younger, had witnessed, to his distress. I hadn’t wanted to read the memoir but an engaged piece of fiction set in the narrative shifting years of the 60s seemed like a good bet.

As all authors must, Carroll writes about what he knows: in this case, the Catholic Church, the priesthood, the tearing trials some went through as the Johnson-Nixon war plowed its bloody wake through Vietnam and the United States, and war resistance itself. Father Michael Maguire is the core of the story –the Prince of Peace.  Older than the young college students who made up the most visible part of the anti-war movement, he had been a POW in Korea and come out a hero and a convinced Catholic, having been sustained by a copy of the New Testament given him by a Catholic Chaplain, Timothy O’Shea, moments before he forgoes escape on a helicopter to stay with a wounded friend, and falls into enemy hands. During the course of the novel O’Shea becomes Maguire’s superior, and moral touchstone as the turmoil of war evidence vs vowed obedience begins to take hold in him.

The narrator is Frank Durkin, his best friend and fellow Irish-American.  He has a multi-layered tale to tell about Michael and himself, about religious faith, sexual longing, temptation and denial, fidelity and infidelity, love and betrayal.  It is set in Vietnam and America, in relief work and wounded children evacuation efforts, in citizen protest against Robert Moses’ urban redevelopment in New York City and in anti-war actions — from draft board raids to going underground carrying the message of religiously powered hope and resistance.

Between them, but never rising to complexity, is Carolyn, the love of their lives. As  Sister Anne Edward, her love for Jesus is overwhelmed by her love for Michael.  She forsakes the church to become again, Carolyn. His vows prove more obstinate, however, and so Frank becomes his surrogate  –husband and father, all three still intimately tied together.

The wide, dominating flow of Maguire’s story, as Durkin tells it (disconcertingly sometimes as a friend who was there and other times as an omniscient narrator who knows Maguire’s inmost thoughts, even when Durkin is not around) is of his slow evolution from devout, obedient priest to full scale opposition to the the war and a climactic face to face repudiation of Cardinal Spellman’s wholehearted support of it.

For non Catholics there may be too much of the ins and outs of the Catholic hierarchy, the details of priestly vestments, wrestling with duties and obligations.

“Brother librarians in England and America, on the theory that desert monks will read any old shit, sent us their mush-spined copies of the Codex, the Devotio Moderna, the Imitatio, the Summa, the Oxoniense, the Moralia and the Etcetera.”

or

“There was a certain visceral satisfaction, one I could never have imagined in my previous life, of folding a Purificator precisely in thirds and creasing it with half one’s weight on the old iron, transforming  a balled, wrinkled cloth into a sacramental crisp and white enough to be worth of the Sacred Species.

Catholics, on the other hand, might enjoy seeing one of their own in circumstances familiar to them, or easy to imagine.  It’s a risk any novelist of an ‘exotic species’ has to take: how much detail will make it real; how much becomes insiders’ arcanum?

Carroll does a fine job of making major historical figures part of the action, chiefly Cardinal Spellman, the Cardinal of New York and the Apostolic Vicar for the Military Services, who, in Carroll’s telling, was as responsible as any but the Presidents and their Secretaries for justifying and urging on the war.

Dorothy Day, the radical catholic social worker, as well as Peter Maurin, the co-founder with her of the Catholic Worker movement, make an appearance.  Carroll shows off his deep knowledge of Catholicism as Maguire explains to a young Catholic radical that Maurin’s faith is shared by the Catholic ruler of South Vietnam.

“Peter Maurin is a Frenchman, isn’t he?  He’s a Personalist, right?  The masses are saved by leaders who embrace renunciation and serve through the purity of their intentions.  Et Cetera.. Well I’ll tell you something funny.  Ngo Dinh Diem is a Personalist too.  Personalism underlies his regime.  Ngo Dinh Nhu was a friend of Maurin’s in Paris.  The Ngos consider themselves moral exemplars, and that’s their problem.  Personalism is the root cause of the evil in Saigon.”

And Maguire himself has to have been modeled in part on the crusading Berrigan Brothers, at the forefront of Catholic resistance to the war, and leaders in draft-board actions.

The deep roots of Catholicism in the cataclysm that overtook Vietnam are shown vividly.  The Ngo clan ruled the state, Diem as President, his brother Nhu as his chief counselor, and Can, the viceroy of Central Vietnam.  A fourth brother, Thuc was the Archbishop of Hue and friend and protégé of Cardinal Spellman.  Catholics were in positions of power, civilian and military, and did not wield it lightly on the overwhelmingly Buddhist country. The first chink in Father Maguire’s armor of holy obedience to the Church begins as he comes to understand this.

Norman Morrison, the Quaker who immolated himself outside McNamara’s office on November 2, 1965 finds his fictional alter-ego in Nicholas Wiley, who does the same in the novel, after pushing Maguire steadily into seeing what the Church is doing to aid and support the war.

Maguire is so much the center of the story that one forgets for long stretches that its reason for being is to unburden the narrator, Frank Durkin, from the lashings of his own conscience, for an act that is not revealed until the final pages.  It is his confession, as it were, revealed in the opening pages, ‘this strange impulse to sit at my desk — to lean to your ear–and speak.’

We forget, in part, because Carroll offers too much: too much detail, too much wrestling with religious, hierarchical obligations most of us will never feel, and even too much story.  The first chapter finds Durkin in Israel, a lay brother in a priory where monks of many orders come for retreats.  His daughter Molly arrives, after years of separation, to summon him home to her mother, his former wife, and to the funeral of his best friend and successor husband.  Why is this long prologue necessary?  We never go back, nor does Durkin; there is no reference again to Israel, or the Phantoms bombing Lebanon which open the novel, until the end.  It seems a sort of unnecessary context setting: as if to say history doesn’t stop, it just changes territory. I would have preferred some deep excisions to make room for deeper development of the climactic sequence of personal betrayal discovered, then repaid by counter betrayal.  It seemed odd to me, that between best friends no words would pass; that nothing would be said between husband and wife; that we know nothing of her thoughts and feelings as one man goes to prison and another half way around the world to a desert monastery.

For all that, Prince of Peace, is a fascinating fictional return to the anti-war 60s.  I learned history I had never known, particularly the claim, made at least twice, that American escalation had ‘peculiarly Catholic origins.’  Carroll shows us the links between Dr. Tom Dooley, an early humanitarian in Vietnam — whom Kennedy cited in the founding of the Peace Corps–, his fervent Catholicism and anti-Communism, which tied him closely to Cardinal Spellman, who had the attention, moral and political  of the Kennedys, and was himself a strong supporter of Joseph McCarthy and fervent — as in,  ‘you can be excommunicated for not believing this’– anti-communist.

I was reminded of some of the major actors of the time.  The scenes in Vietnam as Maguire discovers the anti Buddhist bigotry of the Catholic regime, finding forced conversions in order to receive Catholic aid and the slaughter of monks, ring true. His break with his superiors be choosing to march at the head of dissident Vietnamese Catholic priests in Saigon, and subsequent face-down with a former friend, revealed to be CIA, is heartfelt, if perhaps too heroic. I would have liked to enter into more of the actual organizing work after Maguire’s conscience springs free. We hear of his random, unadvertised appearances at rallies and church events; we don’t get into the danger and hard work so many suffered.

We do appreciate Carroll’s afterword  written for the 1998 republication of the original 1984 edition, in which he speaks of the continuing effects of the American war in Vietnam and the unfinished work to understand it.  He reiterates the claim made in the novel itself regarding Catholic influence in supporting the known-to-be-corrupt Diem government   Citing Robert McNamara’s memoir: “he said that Ngo Dinh Diem’s Catholicism was part of what led to the first fatal errors: ‘we totally misjudged that.'”  He tells us that it was the revelation of the My Lai massacres of over 500 civilians that propelled him into writing Prince of Peace, and properly notes that those killings were not an abberation, as Nick Turse has recently made abundantly clear in his Kill Anything That Moves. 

He also remarks what surely many others have wondered: “On the Mall in Washington, one might also wonder where the names of the Vietnam War protesters are.  No monument stands to the peace movement.”

A monument would be a wonder, of course, among all the granite and marble reminders of glorious wars.  More important, however, is to nudge the popular conscience into suspicion and  resistance to talk of war, to remind many and show many more the results of war on victim and perpetrator alike, on civilian and soldier, to offer stories of moral conflict, resistance to war fever and the courage to take a stand against ‘patriotic’ duty.  More fiction like Carroll’s, more memoirs from those who refused combat, more reminders that there were, and always will be, rich and powerful narratives countering the dominant one would be far better than a monument, glimpsed once and soon forgotten.

 

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