When Marine Lt. David Westphall was killed in Vietnam in 1968, his parents, Victor and Jeanne, and his brother, Doug, agreed that they would like to build a monument to honor him and all the American veterans of that vain war. Using part of David's life insurance money, they asked an architect to design a chapel to be built on a peak of land they owned high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. They told the architect only that "no one should leave the monument feeling as he had before about peace and war."
Ted Luna, the architect, rose to that lofty requirement: "I made a model for the chapel and took it to the Westphalls at the ranch. They were sitting on the porch of the house. Victor just sat there and looked at it and then he began to cry. He said, 'That's beautiful.' It was one of those clear moments." The design, for a white stucco, winglike structure was executed, Victor himself doing much of the finishing work. The story of how one family's grief grew into a stunning memorial for all the veterans of Vietnam attracted national attention, and more than 100,000 people have traveled to the remote spot to see it.
Among them was Corinne Browne, a journalist who had written a book about wounded Vietnam veterans. Browne and her two children drifted into Taos in the summer of 1972, with romantic expectations of a new life among "adobe courtyards, desert flowers, and ancient pueblos"; in the East, Browne left "a failed marriage." She was looking for a place to settle her family and for a story to write. When she saw an article about Victor Westphall in the local paper, she tore it out, and a month later -- on almost the same date that Victor put the last touches on the memorial -- she drove up into the mountains and visited it. She tells us years later, after repeated visits to the chapel, that "the story of how the monument had come to replace the old man's son had fascinated me for too long. It stuck to me; I kept finding bits of it all over me, like burrs."
In writing this book she tries to pick those burrs off and stick them on us, and occasionally she succeeds. She is able to sympathize with the mother of the dead child (the book's epigraph is an ungainly but affecting line of Nikki Giovanni's: "It is not unusual that the old bury the young, though it is an abomination to nature"). As Victor's interest in the chapel grows obsessive, Jeanne refuses to leave the trailer in which they live, where she keeps a box with letters from David, and photographs of him. Browne writes:
"The best time that Jeanne and David had together was when he was small and Victor was away. She had spoken of those days with particular tenderness -- days when David had picked flowers and learned to read and surprised the neighbors by talking like a grown-up. They had gone swimming and sledding and there was no one to tell them what to do. She had guarded him as he grew as, today, she guards what he left behind. Her mourning -- an affirmation of continuity with the dead -- is relentless. The chapel is a travesty in her eyes; only memory commemorates and will not die."
This is a formidable burr. Browne takes a few simple facts, applies to them a willingness to understand, to sympathize, to make connections (such as the connection between the way the mother watched over the child and the way she watches over the dead child's memory), and suddenly she has produced a passage that moves us.
But too often her sympathy deserts her. Victor she finds intriguing and repulsive. He is a man in his early 60s of almost demonic energy. Soon after David died, he had a heart attack; at some point in his recovery he determines to turn himself into the warrior his son was by running five miles every morning and working out on a chinning bar. He has a fantasy about being chosen to fight for our country against an old man from an enemy country; a one-on-one war. Browne, who opposed the Vietnam war, is drawn to the Victor who built a chapel to peace, but she is baffled by this other Victor. She is honest enough to describe him in his complexity, but her description is disjointed and unsympathetic.
Browne visits David's grave for the first time after two years of following his story and that of his family. Here is her response:
"A pink plastic rose was beside the grave in a small container sunk in the ground. [You might ask yourself whether this is an observation free of judgment, or whether browne turns such a detail -- she has a keen eye for plastic, polyester and Naugahyde -- into a sneer.] I squatted in front of the marker. I was relieved to find it and I wanted to say something. I wanted to say, I'm sorry for all the waste, or I'm sorry that you died. I wanted to say that, perhaps, the world would make up for it in some way. But it may have been the pity I had for my own life just then, or maybe it was the cynicism of the times that muted me."
Browne's attunement to herself and to the times (she often asks herself what is expected of the New Woman in a given situation) obtrudes upon her story often enough that what must have begun as a straightforward piece of reporting is called by her publisher a memoir, and it is neither. Her own story -- of which we get only fragments -- has little to do with the Westphalls'; her final attempt to link the two stories is this weak insight: "[David] and I had the same kind of illusions: I went to New Mexico to save myself; he went to Vietnam to save 'those little people from Communism."
"Casualty" does make the important point, at least by implication, that the American casualty figures given out by our government each terrible week of that long war were understated by at least as much as the enemy casualty figures were inflated by our government. Every death, every maiming, landed like a fragmentation grenade in a circle of family and friends, inflicting too many more casualties to count.