- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

BABY JACK

By Frank Schaeffer

Carroll & Graf, $25.95, 356 pages

REVIEWED BY JON WARD

Hadithah marked the boiling point of this summer’s contentious debate over the war in Iraq. When a squad of Marines were accused of executing 24 civilians in cold blood last November, some said it was all the reason we needed to get out of Iraq. Others said that those who condemned the Marines were rushing to judgment.

But there was another view. Reporting on the possible mass murder was necessary, said Frank Schaeffer, a novelist from Massachusetts whose son joined the Marines in 1999 and served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. But where was reporting on the heroism of U.S. soldiers? Mr. Schaeffer asked. “Is the truth about the character of our military being accurately, or should I say proportionately, reported?” he wrote in an op-ed in late May.

“Does the public, which has woefully little personal contact with our military, know that most men and women in our services are not torturers but people like them trying to do the best they can with compassion and honor?” he asked.

Mr. Schaeffer’s new novel, “Baby Jack,” is about a Marine killed in combat in Iraq and his family’s attempts to cope. It is a story about remembrance and heroism, and how those two things rarely go together anymore. Mr. Schaeffer’s novel tells us that a soldier’s death is cause for standing up straighter and speaking in a louder, clearer voice. It is not an occasion for slumped shoulders and whispers.

Jack Ogden is the young U.S. Marine, killed while defending a supply convoy from an ambush. His father, Todd, is a self-absorbed, baby boomer painter living in Massachusetts. His mother, Sarah, has aided and abetted his father’s lifelong pursuit of “self-expression as the highest virtue.”

Both parents oppose their son’s decision to join the Marines and self-destruct when he is killed. Jack’s older sister, Amanda, works in the New York Times’ letters department. She struggles, like her parents, to cope with Jack’s death. But unlike her parents, she finds meaning in his sacrifice. And she begins to struggle with her co-workers attitudes about the military.

Amanda awakens to an appreciation of the military and reexamines her paper’s coverage of war. She says that before Vietnam, “it was common for our paper to generously cover military heroism stories” but that now, the word “heroism … seems to embarrass people.”

“These days’ reporters at the Times write about casualties and how our troops are victims; about how badly wounded they are, about mothers in trailer parks crying, soldiers with no legs learning to walk, victims again,” Amanda says. “But they never do stories about the heroism of our warriors.”

Finally, Amanda cannot stomach her colleagues’ immunity to sacrifice and service. She storms into the newsroom, the “holy of holies,” and shouts at the top of her lungs, “Jack was not a victim!”

A security guard drags Amanda, “the heretic,” out of the newsroom as alarmed scribes recoil from the screaming, crying woman, who shouts on her way out, “Does anyone in this room have a family member in uniform?”

The security guard tells her, “My little brother’s in the Navy ma’am.”

Says Amanda: “Jack’s country said it needed him and he stepped up and it feels like an honor to be his sister — a crushing, terrible soul-ripping honor but a privilege nonetheless.”

In “Baby Jack,” Amanda provides the story’s moral judgment, and her censure does not spare her parents or their generation. Amanda’s parents fall apart individually, as does their marriage. “I don’t think my parents are made of very dependable material,” Amanda says.

Todd, Jack’s father, explodes at his son’s funeral, yelling at the U.S. Marines and spitting on the flag. Sarah, his wife, tells herself she would leave him but doesn’t have the energy. “I think Dad is one of those people who never settled down after the 1960’s,” Amanda says.

Here Mr. Schaeffer offers an indictment of the baby boomer generation, his own, by their children, members of the supposedly listless and relativistic Generation X. Amanda explains in an e-mail to her mother what made Jack different from his parents:

“I think he was willing to go with the flow of being an ordinary human being … He didn’t sit there sneering at everything, but became what your generation never was: authentic.”

In another e-mail, Amanda writes to Sarah, “Jack was right, without sacrifice there is no meaning. Mother, don’t mourn Jack’s selfless death.”

When Jack had enlisted, Todd Ogden had opposed the idea, and refused to write his son at boot camp. “I was too full of pride,” Todd says. “I thought we’d reconcile someday. I thought he would explain. We will never have that talk. I will never know why … I am repentance that can find no forgiveness.”

Todd searches for peace by following in his son’s footsteps, literally. He receives permission from the Marines to visit Parris Island, where Jack went through boot camp. Todd stands on the famous yellow footsteps where new recruits stand for processing their first day on the island.

Todd, who has become an emotional mess, watches a drill instructor scream recruits out of sleep at 4 a.m., yell at them to strip their beds and fold their linens, and march them to the chow hall. Todd maintains a careful distance from the DI as he rips into his recruits. “The terror is infectious,” writes Mr. Schaeffer.

Todd cries in the dark as he listens to the recruits march to chow and sound off cadence: “He had no idea cadence is so beautiful.”

The DI drills the recruits on the way to chow, tearing them apart for the smallest error or infraction. “Dad is thinking: I’ve been asleep my whole life.”

Then Todd meets Jack’s former drill instructor, a huge black man named Staff Sergeant Isaac Jackson. Jackson knows Todd never wrote to Jack, and he knows that Todd spit on the flag at Jack’s funeral. Todd tries to explain his sorrow, his grief, his repentance, but Jackson couldn’t care less. Then Jackson says something very interesting.

“We DI’s keep each other from going over the edge. We can pick up the signal that a DI is about to flip out before he starts to reach for a recruit to do bodily harm. Who the [expletive] are you accountable to?” he asks Todd.

“Nobody,” Dad whispers.

Jackson tells him, “It’s more than you [expletive] deserve but no matter what you can always say, my son was a Marine.”

Jon Ward is the Maryland political reporter for The Washington Times.


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