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It has been a generation since the last American soldier left Vietnam, after almost 15 years of substantial involvement in the fight to defeat the army of North Vietnam and insurgent forces. Some 3 million Americans served, 800,000 of them in combat. The names of more than 58,000 of this country's dead are etched into the stark, granite walls of Washington's Vietnam War Memorial.
In his compelling new book, THE FATHER OF ALL THINGS, journalist Tom Bissell, born in 1974, brings that painful era to life in a rich and emotionally resonant narrative constructed around the trip he took to Vietnam in November 2003 with his father. John Bissell, a Marine combat veteran, arrived in Vietnam in April 1965 and served there until he was wounded in a booby trap explosion in late 1966. Acknowledging the humility that any writer must feel approaching a subject that has been covered in more than 30,000 books, Bissell sets for himself the task of recounting "an emotional experience interwoven with established historical facts of the Vietnam War." It is, he writes, "a book about war's endless legacy."
The book is loosely and somewhat idiosyncratically organized into three sections. The first interweaves an account of the last, desperate days before the fall of Saigon with Bissell's imaginative recreation of his father's dismay as he watches those events unfold in his home in Escanaba, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The second, and longest, section poses a handful of queries, such as "Could the United States have won the war in Vietnam?" and "What was the Soviet Union actually attempting to accomplish in Vietnam?" using them as the framework upon which the book's main narrative structure is constructed. The final section, entitled "The Children of the War Speak," contains brief snippets of interviews with Bissell's anonymous contemporaries on all sides of the conflict, reflecting on the ways in which the war's legacy affected them and their families.
Bissell is a gifted writer, whose prose is enriched by a talent for selecting arresting details that will fix the scenes he describes in the mind's eye. In one gripping section near the end of the book he describes the visit he and his father made to Cu Chi, an area that featured an elaborate network of tunnels from which guerrillas launched fiendishly ingenious attacks against American soldiers based there. Another emotionally powerful portion is Bissell's terse recounting of the My Lai massacre in March 1968, which most readers will find chilling in its harrowing detail.
Foregoing any attempt either to glamorize his father's service or to demonize the vast majority of the soldiers who fought there on all sides, Bissell nevertheless portrays his father as a fundamentally decent man, reporting that John Bissell's fellow Marines even nicknamed him "Nice Guy." Like most American soldiers, he was compelled to fight by a sense of duty to his comrades rather than to some at best vaguely understood mission to stop the spread of Communism throughout Southeast Asia. If anything, Bissell is much more judgmental about himself than he is of his father, subtly questioning whether he would have had the courage to do what his father did. One darkly comic scene describing Bissell's attempt to fire an AK-47 at a shooting gallery is likely to have readers wondering the same thing.
The book could have benefited from a map tracing the route of the Bissells' journey, as well as some photographs in addition to the few family snapshots sprinkled throughout the first section. These shortcomings are counterbalanced by a useful bibliography featuring annotations by Bissell on some of the secondary sources he relied upon in this work.
At a time when the United States is embroiled in another unpopular war, the temptation to draw facile parallels with the debacle in Vietnam is almost too great to resist. For the most part, Bissell doesn't succumb to that temptation, perhaps because most thoughtful readers already will find themselves struggling to suppress the echoes of incompetence and bravado from that era that haunt us to this day.
THE FATHER OF ALL THINGS is an intensely personal book that expands outward in concentric circles from the intimate relationship between father and son to the broadest concerns of historical and geopolitical thought. "War is appetitive," Bissell writes. "It devours goodwill, landscape, cultures, mothers, and fathers --- before finally forcing us, the orphans, to pick up the pieces." If this book finds the audience it deserves, it will remind those who lived through that era of the price war exacts, and may help educate those who did not to that grim and timeless reality.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg