C.D.B. Bryan: Writer celebrated for his Vietnam book 'Friendly fire'

Thursday 25 March 2010 01:00

The sense that the hearts and minds of the American people could be moved away from supporting their government's military actions was derided by neo-cons in the Reagan era as "the Vietnam Syndrome". That denigrates the real sense of disillusionment within middle America over the Vietnam war, a sense that was never described better than in Friendly Fire, the 1976 book by C.D.B. Bryan.

Originally commissioned as a single article by the New Yorker magazine, Friendly Fire told the story of the 1970 death in Vietnam of Iowa-born solider Michael Mullen, killed by shrapnel from his own artillery, and the process by which, in the face of official cover-up, his mother, Peg, had her middle-American faith shattered and replaced by anti-war activism. Bryan was so taken by the story he expanded the article into a series, and then a best-selling book, and eventually an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning television film starring Carol Burnett, Sam Waterston, and Timothy Hutton.

Although Friendly Fire is the book for which Bryan will be remembered, in many ways it was atypical of his career as a jobbing writer in the élite literary milieu of New York, and a formidable and entertaining presence at the cocktail parties which are the currency of that world. Bryan came to it naturally. Courtland Dixon Barnes Bryan was born in New York 22 April 1936; his father was a magazine editor and journalist. When his parents divorced, his mother Katharine Barnes married the novelist John O'Hara. Bryan grew up mostly in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a rural retreat for many New York artists. He attended a number of schools and managed to enter Yale, graduating in 1958. After service in Army intelligence in Korea and Berlin, he returned to New York, working on the satirical magazine Monocle.

His early New Yorker short story, "So Much Unfairness Of Things", based on his being thrown out of one prep school for cheating, grew into his first novel, P.S. Wilkinson (1965) which won the Harper Prize for first novels. His second novel, The Great Deathcliffe (1970) was a reworking of The Great Gatsby. But little in his work reviewing, writing essays and stories and teaching in creative writing programmes, including three years at the University of Iowa, suggested the empathy he would find, and express so powerfully, for the Mullen family.

Friendly Fire became a signpost for the loss of what Richard Nixon called "The Silent Majority". They may have been won back in the Reagan and Bush presidencies, but the legacy of Bryan's work still carries power. The most highly-publicised critic of George W. Bush's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq was not a politican, but Cindy Sheehan, like Peg Mullen the mother of a soldier killed in action, while the friendly-fire killing of the former football star Pat Tillman, and the attendant cover-up, was turned by his celebrity into a major story.

Bryan was married four times, and his best novel, Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes (1983) is a bleak yet touchingly honest look at failed romance. He wrote two coffee-table books, on The National Air And Space Museum and National Geographic Magazine, as well as the introduction to an impressive collection of photographs from the first Iraq war, In The Eye Of Desert Storm. His last book, Close Encounters Of The Fourth Kind (1995), is a study of UFOs and those who believe in them, among whom was Bryan's father.

Bryan died of cancer at his home in Guilford, Connecticut, and was holding a martini when he died. According to his son, St. George, Bryan would be cremated and his remains kept in a cocktail shaker until a memorial service could be held.

Michael Carlson

Courtlandt Dixon Barnes Bryan, writer: born New York City 22 April 1936; married firstly Phoebe Miller (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), secondly Judith Snyder (marriage dissolved; one daughter), thirdly Monique Widmer (marriage dissolved; two stepchildren), 2007 Mairi Graham; died Guilford, Connecticut 15 December 2009.

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