Friendly Fire

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Specifically speaking, Friendly Fire is an elaborately detailed account of the reaction of the parents of Michael Mullen to his death in Vietnam by “artillery fire from friendly forces.” Grief-stricken by their loss and confused and angered by their inability to find out the details of what happened to their son, Gene and Peg Mullen, sturdy citizens of La Porte City, Iowa, engaged simultaneously in a crusade against the Vietnam War and a determined effort to learn the exact circumstances of Michael’s death. More generally, the book offers a scrupulously particularized example of a common condition in the 1970’s, the alienation of Americans from their government because of the senselessness of the destruction in Vietnam and because of the blank impermeability of Washington’s bureaucratic wall. The Mullens’ story is a dramatic one in that their son’s death was so entirely useless and also in that they quickly became convinced that they were victims of a conspiracy on the part of the United States Army to withhold information. They became obsessed, fanatical, lonely, boring to others—and finally subject to observation by the FBI.

C. D. B. Bryan heard from friends about the Mullens’ antiwar efforts, went to see them, and ended up reporting their private battle with their government, first in The New Yorker and then in this book. On the model of In Cold Blood, he offers conversations and exhaustively detailed reporting of incidents. Near the end of the book Bryan brings himself into the story, however, and the tone of the book changes. In this respect it is different from Capote’s book; it is more self-conscious and less emotionally unified.

Friendly Fire begins with a preface authenticating its accuracy. In addition to his personal observations and his tape-recorded interviews, Bryan informs the reader, he has made use of public records, private journals, and public and private correspondence. He sought corrections and confirmations of interviews and conversations. He can therefore assert with confidence that he is giving the reader circumstantial truth.

This claim is necessary, because the book would otherwise read like fictionalized history or biography, since it is so filled with conversations and descriptions of emotions, actions, movements, weather—everything a novelist uses to build a narrative. Though the style is more journalistic than novelistic, Bryan, who is the author of two novels, builds to climaxes and uses a novelistic rather than an expository or strictly chronological structure.

For instance, the first chapter describes Michael’s last night at home, in September, 1969, and his leavetaking the next morning. In this way Bryan establishes sympathy for the sergeant and his family. The chapter shows Michael clearing land until ten o’clock at night, shows his father’s concern that Michael will have to kill in battle, and evokes the friendliness and love shared by the family. Just before leaving Michael tells his mother not to worry, that it will all be over by March first. The chapter then ends dramatically with the announcement that on March 1, 1970, Michael Mullen’s body arrived at the same airport—and that one year later Michael’s mother was under surveillance by the FBI.

Next, Bryan traces, by means of flashbacks, the roots of the Mullens to homesteaders from Ireland who helped to settle Iowa one hundred years before. Stemming from hardy farming stock, lovers of the land, good Democratic Party workers, religious, moral, independent, and patriotic, the Mullens are shown, with no condescension, as an admirable American family from America’s heartland. In La Porte City they were well-liked and respected. And Michael, with the same love of the earth and sense of the continuity of generations on the land as his father, was due to inherit the farm. A serious, upright young man, Michael had worked his way through college and then began studying for a Ph.D. in animal nutrition. But when he received his draft notice, he left graduate school as a matter of course and reported for induction.

Here and throughout the book Bryan emphasizes the irony that if Michael hadn’t been such a good boy, he would never have lost his life. Spending one day filing papers in the draft headquarters at Des Moines, Michael learned about the young men who had found manifold ways of avoiding military service. He carried off to basic training camp his new knowledge that the system was corrupt and that he had not had to be drafted. Yet, hating war, gentle by nature like his father, he nevertheless learned what he was taught: to kill. Then he was flown away to Vietnam.

Bryan next describes, again with sympathy, the confusion and bitterness that resulted when on February 21, 1970, a Catholic priest and an Army sergeant arrived to break the news to the Mullens that...

(The entire section is 2000 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, July, 1976, p. 93.

New York Review of Books. XXIII, August 5, 1976, p. 41.

New York Times Book Review. May 9, 1976, p. 1.

Newsweek. LXXXVII, May 17, 1976, p. 107.

Time. CVII, April 19, 1976, p. 93.