Beyond Ken Burns, a Deeply Moral, Personal Vietnam
Serendipity, coincidence, or perchance very fortuitous, the release of Robert Mrazek’s novel And the Sparrow Fell coincided with the airing of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War. That national tragedy convulsed the nation, renting families and friends from traditional moorings—and from each other. Vietnam-era reverberations of national hubris and myopic thinking born of willful ignorance plague the nation still, making Mrazek’s story all the more timely.
Touted by some as a “coming-of-age story,” this novel is much more: Mrazek delves deep into how our conscience, morality, and ethics evolve and mature in the face of calamitous events such as the Vietnam War. And the Sparrow Fell, as within the much broader canvas of Burns’ and Novick’s The Vietnam War, captures this human dilemma accurately and succinctly. Why shouldn’t it? Mrazek lived fully in the era of which he writes.
Mrazek’s novel is as much quasi-memoir as fiction. Reared on the North Shore of Long Island, he graduated from Cornell before entering Naval Officer Candidate School at Newport, Rhode Island in 1967, intent on fighting in Vietnam. A freak mishap landed him in Portsmouth Naval Hospital and a medical discharge from the U. S. Navy. While in the hospital with a significant number of Vietnam wounded Marines, the duplicity and hypocrisy of those who got the country into the war slowly dawns on Mrazek. As one of the novel’s principal protagonists observes:
“You talk about Vietnam as if it were ours,” said Kate. “It isn’t ours. The truth of this war is that it’s a revolutionary war. The North is fighting to get rid of a colonial power just as we did with the British. Except now we’re in the British role. We’re not only on the wrong side, we created the wrong side, and now we’re desperately trying to prop it up. The south doesn’t have the will to fight this war because they have no stake in it.”
This conundrum is addressed throughout Burns’ and Novick’s The Vietnam War. Cornell University and the naval hospital figure prominently in the novel, as does Washington, where Mrazek served five terms in the House of Representatives, very much a proactive legislator. He wrote and co-directed the 2016 film The Congressman. His previous works include two award-winning books of nonfiction, Dawn Like Thunder and To Kingdom Come, and eight novels. Dawn Like Thunder prompted the U. S. Navy to correct the official history of the 1942 Battle of Midway.
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And the Sparrow Fell, a well-told and nimble tale, unfolds on the tableau of the fraught Vietnam War era, domestically and in the Republic of Vietnam. Travis Ledbetter, a Medal of Honor recipient for actions as a naval pilot during the Battle of Midway, is the scion of a Long Island Gold Coast dysfunctional family. In an acute sense, Travis is time-locked in World War II: “Funny thing,” he says, “That war—I’d do it again.” An impetuous act after the war results in his unceremonious discharge from the Navy.
Rick, second son of Travis, is the principal protagonist and raconteur. He is close to younger brother Tommy. They fondly refer to each other as “Beau” and “Digby,” after two characters in P. C. Wren’s novel Beau Geste. A symbiotic relationship, within which Tommy holds the moral high ground, culminates in a tragic denouement. Initially, Rick skews toward his father’s less-than-admirable conduct—prodigious alcohol consumption and blatant womanizing—coupled with his own euphemistic dreams of the glory of war. An admirer of John F. Kennedy, the latter’s PT-109 heroism is frequently invoked. He admires his older brother, David, a Cornell alumnus. David, an ardent supporter of the Vietnam War, is recognized early on by Rick for what he really is, an “all show, no go” type—a spectacle sport’s booster—of the war:
“Every year you get more and more warlike – talking about how everybody else is afraid to fight. The further you get away from the draft yourself, the tougher you talk. I remember when some of your friends called you the Artful Dodger. Where the hell were you when the country was looking for a few good men?”
Younger sister Hope, in a walk-on role, conjures up the time’s zeitgeist by trundling off to India with boyfriend Cliff St. Charles to find “inner consciousness” with Maharisha Mehesh Yogi. The novel utilizes images of Cornell University, as well as period movies and music—and yet an increasing sense of national discordance is effectively portrayed, a premonition of a crumbling at edges. Subtle anti-Semitism lingers on, notwithstanding a near universal knowledge of the Holocaust. An astrobleme had been brought down on the body politic of the nation.
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Early in the novel, Tommy’s rescue from certain drowning in icy waters by brother Rick cements a bond that holds throughout the novel. Tommy’s near-death experience is a catalyst for spiritual epiphany:
“I was in heaven,” he repeated.
“You were in heaven at the bottom of the pond?”
“I was there. It was so beautiful.”
Rick and Tommy both attend Cornell. Rick barely graduates after a self-induced lackluster performance, his prior acceptance into Navy OCS being the one saving grace—and ticket to an unearned diploma. Rick does well at Newport, but more importantly for the first time in his life forges a solid and meaningful friendship with a fellow OCS candidate. Rick has also fallen in love with Kate Kurshin, Tommy’s Jewish girlfriend and his antiwar colleague.
Rick’s time in Vietnam serves a novelistic purpose without emerging as vivid or as accurate as the rest of the novel. After he is wounded, and loses his good friend—convincing himself he murdered him—Rick is invalided to the Newport Naval Hospital. There he experiences a reasoned and convincing change of heart. Amongst a good number of combat wounded Marines from Vietnam, a studied questioning of the casus belli of the Vietnam undertaking emerges. Meanwhile Tommy has matured into a principled, fervent opponent of the war. The climatic scene unfurls during a major antiwar protest at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The question of Rick and Kate’s future together is problematical though remotely conceivable.
(A few minor quibbles about the scenes in Vietnam: U.S. Marines did not provide security for the Riverine Assault Force, the naval arm to which Rick and his friend Garland Gentry report to once in Vietnam. The Marines only operated in any numbers in the Mekong Delta during Operation Deckhouse V (January 6-15, 1967). The novel inverts the PBR (Patrol Boat, Riverine; fiberglass hull) with the PCF (Patrol Craft, Fast; welded aluminum hull), the vessel to which Rick is assigned as executive officer. In actuality, neither vessel’s complement included an executive officer: PBRs were helmed by senior U.S. Navy Petty Officers; PCFs carried an officer in charge, usually a senior ensign or lieutenant junior grade. The PCF, Mark III, referred to earlier in the novel, did not become operational until late 1970, and was not used in a training role. The novel’s River Support Squadron Nine can be assumed a stand-in for an actual River Assault Squadron 9.)
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And the Sparrow Fell does a superlative service in rendering in very human terms the angst, anxiety, frustrations, and heartbreak—as well as the ultimate tragedy of the Vietnam War. The compelling narrative is fast moving, consistently eliciting admiration and respect for authorial skill and adroitness. In the latter sense, Mrazek has brought forth a considered reflection on morality and ethics, with all their disconnects, inconsistencies, and the ever-present tendency to avoid actually confronting the unsettling discontinuity of making the right decision in confusing times. The novel is, yes, about the Vietnam era.
More to the point, And the Sparrow Fell reflects deep concern over—and gives serious consideration to—the moral basis on which not only the individual citizen, the very moral fiber and sinews of the sovereign state, but the nation itself decides to wage war. Mrazek does not paint a pretty picture, but one that is a guardedly optimistic even as its challenges are of heroic magnitude. There always has been, is, and always will be a dearth—without fail, a depressingly small number—of those willing to commit themselves to reasoned concepts of justice, fairness, personal responsibility and accountability, and doing the right thing. In those few reside hope for the many.
The suppurating wound of the Vietnam era still lingers in the national consciousness. The purported intent of healing in Burns’ and Novick’s Vietnam War documentary is problematical. But Mrazek’s novel offers hope. Though history and human nature demonstrates otherwise, hope does offer salvation, Promethean though the task may be.
Col. John C. McKay (USMC, ret.) is an adjunct professor, California State University, Sacramento, and Olmsted Scholar (Spain). He served two combat tours in Vietnam, and was twice wounded. He saw duty during the summer of 1967 aboard a PCF, or “Swift Boat,” operating out of Vũng Táo, Vietnam.