American Lives, American Symbols
By Julie Buntin
When Dr. James Carroll took the stage recently at Marymount Manhattan College’s Theresa Lang Theatre, several students in the packed audience whispered to each other, “Who is this guy?” Despite two introductions detailing Carroll’s significant contributions to literature, journalism, and the Catholic Church, many of MMC’s students felt more than a little out of the loop. By the time Carroll’s lecture was concluded, a much different murmur was heard by the younger crowd in the audience, as evidenced not only by their voices but their passionate standing ovation.
Visiting the college as a distinguished Rudin lecturer, gave a talk entitled “America and Its Wars”, which discussed at length the trajectory of the military industrial complex in America as well as symbols of American identity formed out of war. Carroll’s personal role in his lecture was also evident, and increasingly poignant throughout the lecture—his descriptions of growing up as the “son of a soldier” and what the Washington Mall represented in his own life helped link writer with audience, and more importantly, human with human.
As a speaker, Carroll was impossible to ignore, his fatherly, tanned face and emphatic speaking voice standing in subtle contradiction to the formal gray suit and tie he wore for the occasion. He spoke eloquently, almost as if he were writing, and attempted to create scene and character for everyone in the room. Aside from the large body of knowledge Carroll imparted regarding the state of America’s nuclear arsenal and the reasons behind several important decisions in military history, one message stood out starkly from the lecture and proved unshakable for many students.
“When he talked about the non-violent counter-current in the sixties, and Martin Luther King, I felt passionate about the war for the first time in a while, more hopeful… Like maybe we can do something about it, or we have to do something about it, that we can help,” said Ashley Oeffinger, a sophomore political science major, after the lecture’s conclusion. “It’s just what this country’s doing doesn’t seem to be connected to what I’m doing. I was reminded of my responsibility as an American citizen and that’s really cool.”
Who we are as Americans and the purpose of each American life to impact history is a running theme throughout Carroll’s work. The biographical thread running throughout his speech created a monumental thesis—we are history, he seemed to say, and history is us. Carroll made our lives, no matter how inconsequential, and America’s future inextricable.
According to Carroll, America’s heart lies in the buildings created out of strife, like the Arlington Cemetery, the Vietnam War Memorial, the War Dept., and the Pentagon. The Pentagon in particular was a pivotal image in Dr. Carroll’s discussion. “The Pentagon defines our reach across the world,” he said, “and that reach is our tragedy.” As the audience stood and flooded the Theresa Lang Theatre with applause, the students were filled with a sense of purpose, to stop that reach, and to create the histories of themselves and their country.