by Emily Dietrich

“Indignation” and My Father’s Army Years


The movie version of Philip Roth’s novel is called “Indignation,” and its main character, Marcus Messner, has every right to his. Squeezed by threat of being drafted if he didn’t fit in and do well in his first years at a small university in Ohio, as well as by demands by school and parents on his love life, Marcus has to speak out and act out if he is to avoid exploding. The main character’s personal ethics and life circumstances are so similar to my father’s that I deepened my understanding of my father’s army experience, how he got to Korea and why.

“Indignation” is a good word for what I would have been feeling if I had been put under the pressure my father was, but he never expressed any—about being drafted, about being sent to war, about being shot at, about any of it. He expressed indignation occasionally, about Richard Nixon’s Watergate crimes, McCarthy’s blacklist, income inequality for example, but never about being sent to Korea.

My father told the story about getting into the army this way: he was at Miami University in Ohio. He was taking engineering classes and doing so poorly, though working hard, that he figured he was stupid. He got drafted, had some time to think, and when he came back he switched to Wayne State University in Detroit and went into pre-law.

He never mentioned that going to college meant being able to defer the draft—but only if you earned good enough grades to be in the top 50% of your freshman class. Fitting in at college was also important, because you could be asked to leave if you didn’t. At the private college in the movie “Indignaton,” students are expected to go to chapel and to rush a fraternity. Marcus Messner is an atheist of Jewish heritage and didn’t see himself in a fraternity. He expresses his opinion that going to chapel was not fair. My father was also an atheist, and he told us that he was blackballed from at least one fraternity for expressing his pro-civil rights opinions.

He was being a young man, like Marcus Messner, searching for, and expressing, his developing identity. He majored in the wrong subject, totally unsuited to him, but engineering was what his father and his older brother studied, the subject that would prepare him to work in his father’s concrete business. Being not-so-great at an engineering curriculum meant getting drafted.

I think about how it must have felt to get his grades in the mail, facing his disappointment in his abilities would be hard enough, but those grades meant he was going to war. Did it feel as if it were his own fault? Did he feel he had only himself to blame? On his behalf, I feel indignation and anger that a country would send young men to die because they couldn’t afford college or struggled in college. It’s outrageous to attach the draft to achievement in that way. The draft itself is outrageous.

I often criticized my father and my mother for caring too much about what other people thought, for caring a lot about image and acting like everything was just fine all the time. I didn’t know, I really didn’t know, that the penalty for nonconformity had been so high, that fitting in and doing well meant life or death at an age when failure is the best teacher for a long life—not a crime punishable by death in war.

I feel sad that my dad thought he was stupid. though glad that he used his time in Korea to learn more about his talents. I know he was very pleased he became a lawyer, a job he loved all his life. I don’t understand why he told the story that way, left out the part about having to go to war because of his grades. I admire him for not being bitter about it. I’m extremely grateful that he was not killed.

This new knowledge comes at a good time for me. I will send my son to college this fall. It won’t be easy. But it’s not, as far as the government is concerned, a life or death situation. He can screw up and not be designated as a candidate for death. He can get indignant about whatever he wants.

Marcus Messner’s indignation showed me how angry the young men of the ’50s could have been and had every right to be. That my father wasn’t and accepted his situation with stoicism speaks of his inner strength and sense of personal accountability. For that, and for strong dialogue, great costumes and acting, and the powerful story of a young women who also did not, could not conform, I recommend seeing “Indignation.” I may even read the book!

But seeing this movie, for me, meant a wide window into a soul I miss so deeply has been opened, bringing me closer to my father.


Author: Emily

Emily Dietrich is a poet, novelist, and mystery writer.

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