Dad has just published his novel The Great Dethriffe when he went back to Iowa to visit a fellow teacher at the writer's workshop, Vance Bourjaily. Bourjaily's wife Tina asked Dad if he'd heard about the Iowa farm mother, Peg Mullen, who had taken the money the Army had sent her to bury her son Michael, who had been killed in Vietnam, and spent it instead on a half page anti war advertisement that appeared Easter Sunday in the Des Moines Register.
Both Vance and Tina thought Mrs. Mullen might be worth looking into, that it sounded like a good story. "Mom's Apple Pie Gone Sour" I remember was Tina's phrase. Still I couldn't help asking myself who was left in America who would be willing to read a story which in any way touched upon the Vietnam War. I certainly didn't want to write one. Like everyone else, I was sick to death of hearing about Vietnam.
The turning point came for me when President Nixon went out to Kansas State and told his college audience, "The heart of America is sound...the heart of America is good?"
That simply wasn't true.
The heart of America was broken over the death of her young in Vietnamese jungles, in bunkers along the Cambodian border, in helicopters over Laos, on campus hilltops in Kent, Ohio and in dormitories at Jackson State. If the President thought otherwise then, it seemed to me, it was a clear case of "The Emperor's Clothes".
I felt there had to be some way to articulate the American people's discontent, their estrangement from their government, their increasing paranoia and distrust. And what better way was there than to return to Iowa? Iowans are among the most open, honest, friendly, trusting people in the country...if the government of the United States had lost the loyalty and support of an Iowa farm family then it indicated to me at least that the government was in very grave trouble indeed.
When I telephoned Peg Mullen and introduced myself and explained what it was I wanted to do, she was willing to have me come. I was, in fact, a little startled and dismayed by how eagerly she invited me. I left for Iowa two days later.
Dad's plan was to write a 6,000 word article for The New Yorker which would appear a few months later. Instead, the story of the Mullens became the book Friendly Fire, which would not appear for five years.
Even before it was published, back when I had sent Peg and Gene Mullen the finished manuscript, I knew they would have problems with it. They could not and did not agree with me on how Michael had died. I want to backtrack a bit: when I went out to Iowa I was supposedly doing a story on why Peg had taken out the advertisement. But when I got there I discovered the real story lay in the Mullens' conviction that there existed a conspiracy to prevent them from learning how their son had died. He had been killed, they knew, by his own artillery, by FRIENDLY FIRE, but they believed the men on the guns had been drunk or on drugs, that the Army battalion commander was responsible for the cover-up, that the men had been threatened with court martial should they write the family the truth...And so when I returned to Guilford after speaking with the Mullens I told (William) Shawn (editor of the New Yorker) that I couldn't do it as an article, that I wanted to do it as a book, I wanted to find out how Michael died.
Michael Eugene Mullen
Sergeant, United States Army
Killed-In-Action 18-February 1970
By Friendly Fire
And I did find out. I spoke to the men who had been with him on the hill that night and they all agreed on what had happened. The men I talked to ranged from the West Point Lt. Colonel with three silver stars (future General Norman Schwarzkopf) to a young private in prison in Terre Haute, Indiana (William Polk) They all agreed. But the Mullens wouldn't believe that it had been just an awful, stupid accident. Their son's death had had to have more meaning. Eventually they came to believe that because of my Army Intelligence background, my Ivy League East Coast upbringing, that I was part of the conspiracy too. They don't believe that anymore...but they still aren't sure I told the truth.
In fact Peg Mullen wrote her own book in 1995, “Unfriendly Fire: A Mother’s Memoir,” expanding on her doubts. She remained distrustful of government and the media. In 2002 she wrote a columnist for the Register:
I have no idea of your age,but I hope you never have to stand in a quiet corner of an airport and say goodbye to a son in uniform, knowing in your heart that you’ll never see him again.
I hope you never suffer the horror of a military man sitting at your kitchen table trying to tell how your son died — then wait 10 days for his body to be returned and his casket unloaded in a darkened corner of the same airport.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Michael’s commander in Vietnam, met with the Mullens to answer their questions. But nothing he could say brought comfort.
“To me, the death of Michael Mullen was not just one tragedy, but two: the needless death of a young man, and the bitterness that was consuming his parents,” the general wrote in his autobiography.
More than twenty years later, Dad was still hearing from some of the soldiers who were with Michael the night he died. His favorite was surely Gary Samuels, "The Prince". who had lost a leg that night. Samuels and his wife would stop by Dad's house once a year for raucous visits full of laughter.
On a November night in 1998, Dad pulled down his leather bound edition of Friendly Fire and Gary wrote these words:
Friendly Fire--You've written quite a book! It's all true. It's as if you were sitting on my shoulder. I sincerely appreciate your efforts and so do the guys in the 198 1/6--God Speed. The Prince. Gary Samuels 11-13-98 Courty's house Guilford,CT
To which Dad responded
The inscription below was written in my presence and my response was extraordinary appreciation and affection because although Gary says "it's all true"--I WAS NOT THERE! Gary was. And he is a hero to me. CDBB Nov 13, 1998