Tour of Duty

Sunday, March 25, 2007


A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

By Tom Bissell

Pantheon. 407 pp. $25

Recent years have brought an avalanche of first-person memoirs from veterans of the Vietnam War. But what we hadn't seen, until very recently, were sons and daughters of those veterans offering their own insights on the war's continuing personal and political legacies.

Nowcomes Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things, a powerful and unusual take on the war, his father and their often turbulent relationship. How unusual? No other book in the enormous Vietnam canon combines a modern Vietnam travelogue, a history of the war and a rumination on its fallout in the psyches of a father and son.

Former Marine Capt. John Bissell fought in Vietnam in 1965-66. His hazardous tour of duty has haunted him ever since, and he has spent decades trying to come to grips with it. Since childhood, Tom Bissell also has been affected by his father's wartime experiences. John Bissell's particular case of postwar emotional trauma included alcohol abuse, a turbulent marriage (and divorce), and obsessive rantings to his young sons about the life-and-death decisions he was forced to make in Vietnam.

"While growing up, I had associated nearly everything about my father with the Marine Corps and Vietnam," Tom Bissell writes. "This strange, lost war, simultaneously real and unimaginable, forced [children of Vietnam veterans] to confront the past before we had any idea of what the past really was. The war made us think theoretically long before we had the vocabulary to do so. Despite its remoteness, the war's aftereffects were inescapably intimate. At every meal Vietnam sat down, invisibly, with our families."

Born in 1974, after his father returned from Vietnam, Tom Bissell graduated from Michigan State, served in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan and went on to travel the globe and to carve out a notable literary career. A previous book, God Lives in St. Petersburg, brought him a Rome fellowship from the American Academy of Letters.

Throughout his life, Bissell says, it sometimes "felt as though Vietnam was all my father and I had ever talked about; sometimes it felt as though we had never really talked about it." Bissell remedies that failure in his well-crafted book, the heart of which is his account of the life-changing trip he and his father made to Vietnam in 2003. "I was almost thirty years old, my father just past sixty," Bissell writes. "It staggered me, suddenly, how little relative time we still had left together. I knew that if I wanted to find the unknown part of my father I would have to do it soon, in Vietnam, where he had been made and unmade, killed and resurrected."

Bissell goes on to write eloquently about what happened on the trip. He also provides a surprisingly in-depth look at the history of the war and offers thoughtful assessments on just about every aspect of the conflict, from Gen. William Westmoreland's incompetent leadership to the abilities of the largely "corrupt, spineless, and endlessly inept" South Vietnamese military and political leadership.

The Father of All Things is a one-of-a-kind accomplishment that provides ample evidence of the long-lasting impact of the Vietnam War among the families of the 2.8 million Americans who took part in it. Wars, in general, Tom Bissell says, wound "everyone right down the line. Take the 58,000 American soldiers lost in Vietnam and multiply by four, five, six -- and only then does one begin to realize the damage this war had done."

-- Marc Leepson is book editor and columnist for the VVA Veteran, the newspaper published by the Vietnam Veterans of America.

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