TOM BISSELL TELLS US in his author’s note at the beginning of The Father of All Things that there are thirty thousand books on Vietnam currently in print. Thousands of journalists, participants, and scholars have sensed the importance of that war in recent American history and its influence on the American psyche and tried to make sense of it for themselves and others. What he doesn’t say is that many of the previous efforts are dry and almost unreadable while other authors are self-serving and, therefore, unreliable guides for someone trying to understand Vietnam. Bissell has produced a book that takes the reader through the complexities of Vietnamese history and the American involvement in the war in a compelling and absorbable way using two literary devices.
First, in the main section of the book titled “An Illness Caused by Youth,” he arranges to take his Marine veteran father, John Bissell, on a trip back to Vietnam. The observations and comments of the father are a springboard for the son to fill in for the reader some of the background he has gathered by researching a significant portion of those thirty thousand volumes. (His bibliography lists 121 titles, with many evaluative comments about the sources.)
Second, in order to try to bring some order to what he and his father see and the random data uncovered by his reading, Bissell poses a series of questions such as “Why did officials at all levels of the U.S. military and government lie so often during the war?” and “Could the U.S. have won the war in Viet Nam?”
The first section of the book (90 pages), titled “The Fall,” focuses on Tom’s attempt to reconstruct how his combat-veteran father felt on learning the news of the fall of Saigon at his home in Escanaba, Michigan, and contrasts this with a detailed account of the chaotic last days of South Vietnam. Tom shows us the incongruity between John Bissell’s sense of what might have been or should have been, and the reality of the anarchic evacuation of the remaining American diplomatic and civilian personnel and a portion of the many compromised South Vietnamese nationals. His father’s personal war experience was revivified by news of the fall of Saigon eight years after his tour, and his frustration that his righteous martial effort in the early part of the war didn’t lead to victory was starkly reinforced by the spring 1975 media reports from that city.
Bissell is sure that this sense of the futility of his father’s sacrifice and the sacrifices in the cohesive military unit that the Marines built around him contributed to the break-up of his parents’ marriage. He is also sure that other aspects of his father’s personality and the father-son relationship are strongly influenced by John Bissell’s Vietnam combat experience as a 30-year-old. The joint trip by John and Tom to modern day Vietnam is part of a not wholly successful effort by Tom who is not a combat veteran to understand the war’s influence on his father.
As a non-military visitor in Vietnam in 1969, I was struck hard by the absurdities of the war then raging. Bissell recounts two examples that are exact parallels to illogicalities I witnessed. In writing about Da Lat, a mountain resort area, Bissell wrote,
An ARVN [South Vietnamese] military academy had been located here, as had an NLF [Viet Cong] villa for tired vacation-needing guerillas. Both sides were aware of the other, but there is no record that any of them exchanged anything but dark glances in the market.
In a second example, Tom describes an unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement” similar to one I observed during my ten days in the Mekong Delta town of My Tho. Bissell reported an ARVN commander’s response to a question about why he didn’t choose a more favorable campground. “The Viet Cong already occupy [that campground]” To the follow up question, “Why don’t you go after the VC?” the commander replied, “As long as we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us.”
For some of the more sensitive of the American personnel the bitterest memories they carried from the war are of times when one of these “gentlemen’s agreements” were breached. I was taken to a scene where a land mine had blown up a road grader and killed a couple of Navy Seabees who were scraping out an irrigation canal for a village. The Americans had thought that there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” in place with the local guerillas for the irrigation project to be protected. The sense comes through Bissell’s writing that this kind of betrayal of the helping hand offered by the military was what had affected his father the most.
At the end of the book is a 20-page section titled “The Children of the War Speak.” Eighteen American and Vietnamese children remember their Vietnam War veteran parents. They appear to be responding to the unstated question, “How did the war shape your parent’s personality and your relationship?” This was Bissell’s question to himself, and his answer took a whole book. After reading the brief and thoughtful but anonymous responses of the children of the veterans, I was left wanting to know more of their situations, perhaps not another Bissell length book, but more.
Tom Bissell’s writing skill as well as his careful research lifts The Father of All Things above most of its many predecessors. Describing the boat traffic in the Perfume River in Hue he writes, “Large tourist ‘dragon boats,’ painted a cheerfully ugly mixture of blue and yellow and green, chugged down the Perfume’s center, leaving a wake that looked as though the river were being unzipped.” In providing some background for the conflict Tom notes, “Landlords had been despised in Vietnam long before the social abacus of Communism slid them over into a distinct class.”
Bissell does not restrict himself to the standard narrative form, and the book’s three-section format and the rhetorical questions work well. However, in the first section, use of the grammatical second person to convey what he has learned of his father’s wartime and post-war life through the 1975 fall of Saigon does not work as smoothly. This is only a minor distraction in a book that is both a sensitive personal narrative and a powerful synthesis of Vietnam War era history.
The Father of All Things may help veterans and Americans who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam come to terms with their feelings as John Bissell started to do on this journey. For others who protested the war and contemplated life in Canada, the book’s historical narrative will confirm with riveting and carefully researched detail what they had suspected all along.
After ten years of involvement in international student exchange with Experiment for International Living, John Krauskopf spent more than two decades as the foreign student adviser and director of the English as a Second Language Institute in Millbrae, California before retiring. He is now writing a book about his international experiences.
He authored the article “Christmas on the Mekong” that appeared in the November 2004 issue of Peace Corps Writers as part of our ongoing series “War and Peace Corps.”