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James Carroll
From An American Requiem
(Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996)

A Defender of Justice

My brother Dennis decided to come in from the cold of his own contradicted life. He returned to the United States, and came at once to see me in Boston. He had learned that, after his refusal to report for induction, his draft board had referred his case to the U.S. attorney. But because of the backlog of such cases, he had yet to be formally indicted. He had returned to America prepared to go to jail, but I encouraged the impulse he also had to apply for conscientious-objector status. He had refused to do that in the first place because, at the time, one could do so only by appealing to religious convictions, narrowly defined. Dennis would not pretend to be religious. To him, the war was wrong whether God existed or not.

Such restricted notions of "religious" had now loosened somewhat. I knew there were precedents for an appeal to "mere" ethical conviction as a basis for conscientious objection. If his application was rejected, he intended again to refuse to serve. This time he would go to jail. Without revealing his whereabouts, he contacted the Selective Service. He was told to report for a hearing in Washington, and advised to come accompanied by an attorney. An appeals board would decide whether to seek an indictment; if no indictment was called for, the board would reorder his induction or recommend him for CO status.

Meanwhile, I used my contacts to find a lawyer. That was when Dennis stunned me. He had not been in direct communication with our parents in nearly two years, yet he said that he intended to ask Dad to be his lawyer.

Read other passages from An American Requiem

  • "An American Requiem," from the April, 1996, Atlantic
  • "Elvis Disappears"
  • "The Leap of Faith"

    * * *

    Read a passage from The City Below, a novel

  • from Chapter Three

    * * *

    Read essays by James Carroll

  • "The Cardinal of Repression," from the July, 1992, Atlantic
  • "God's Patriots," from the July, 1992, Atlantic

    * * *

    An Essay on James Carroll

  • "The FBI and Leo Tolstoy" by Martin Green, from the July, 1994, Atlantic
  • "You can't do that," I said. "Dad would never help you, and it would only be cruel to ask him." As it was cruel, I might have added, of Dad to ask me to offer a blessing at Hoover's dinner.

    "He went to law school," Dennis said. "He was admitted to the bar. He's a lawyer."

    "He's also ashamed of you. Believe me, I know. He hates what you've done."

    Dennis shrugged, not answering with the question that hung above us both: But does he hate me?

    I remember how angry I became at Dennis. His plan struck me as passive-aggressive, almost sadistic, guaranteed to escalate the insult and bad feelings between him and Dad. I knew so little. I have referred to my father in the period after his retirement as an almost entirely broken man. I used the word "almost" because something vital and courageous and large-hearted had remained intact in him. He drew on it in response to Dennis, agreeing to represent him before the appeals board.

    He took the project very seriously. He studied the law and then met with Dennis, to advise him as he prepared his own statement. When the day of the Selective Service hearing arrived, Dad appeared wearing his uniform, one of the few times he did so in retirement. His three stars matched those of General Lewis Hershey, the infamous long-time Selective Service director. When Dad and Dennis entered the hearing room, the board members were seated on the far side of a long table. Our father introduced Dennis, but the chairman, struck by the uniform, wanted only to hear from the general. He asked Dennis to step outside. Dad looked at Dennis, then said, "My son has a statement to make."

    With that, the board sat through Dennis's reading of his long, painstakingly composed declaration of conscience. I had read it, and found it to be a clear and forthright definition of the war's immorality and of a citizen's obligation to oppose it. When Dennis finished, the chairman asked him again to wait outside. Dennis left the room.

    It was perhaps the next Christmas when I visited my parents, and we went to midnight Mass at St. Paul's College. By then I could not worship at the Bolling chapel. After Mass, I was sitting in the Paulist common room when an elderly priest asked my father about his defense of my brother. Unaware that I was listening, he described it. The chairman of the appeals board acknowledged that he knew who Dad was, and asked for his view. Citing the law, Dad explained why his son's position -- not just then, but in the first place -- was proper and legal. "The right to conscientious objection," he said, "is basic to the American idea." The board's task, as he saw it, was only to determine if the application for exemption from military service was authentically based on conscience. "I am here today," he went on, "not because I agree with what my son just said -- obviously, wearing this uniform, I don't -- but because I know with absolute certitude that his position is sincerely held, prudently arrived at, and an act, if I might add, of heroic integrity."

    The chairman eyed his fellow board members, whose simple nods said it all. He gaveled the hearing to a close. Dennis was granted his CO status. He did a year's alternative service, as an orderly in a mental hospital.

    The priest to whom my father told all this was a World War II combat veteran whose wounds had left the right side of his face frozen. His right eye would often fill up and overflow. Tears would stream down his one cheek without his being aware of it. That happened now. He said to my father, "General, I think it was big of you to support your son, but frankly, I don't think your boy's attitude does him much credit." .

    "I suppose I should agree with you," my father replied. "I share your instincts. I've spent my whole life defending our point of view. But I don't think you understand my son's position well enough to see the point he has. All I know for sure is this: if human beings don't drastically change the way they resolve their conflicts, we won't survive this century." Then, after a pause, still unaware of me, my father added, "My son Dennis certainly represents a drastic change from the way we were brought up. And that may be just the change we need."

    There was a thin glistening on the priest's cheek as he listened to my father. I had to remind myself that his tears signified no particular emotion. Unlike mine. It wasn't only that I envied Dennis, confronting as I had to, yet again, how little I knew of my father's true capacity. It was also that I saw Dad, for the first time, as a "child-changed father," in the phrase Cordelia used of Lear. Dennis had touched him in that dark corner of the self on the walls of which his worst fear was scrawled.

    And what was that but the fear of nuclear war? When Dad had first encountered the real risk of Armageddon, perhaps in meetings with our Bolling neighbor Curtis LeMay, perhaps in Wiesbaden while Nikita Khrushchev pawed at Berlin, or perhaps during the Cuban missile crisis when the Chiefs wanted to attack, how could that misfit general have ever imagined that a glimpse of the way out of this dead end would come from his lost-soul son?

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    Copyright © 1996 by James Carroll. All rights reserved.