A trip down memory lane with Dad — to Vietnam
March 24, 2007
Monday, March 19, 2007
sfgate_get_fprefs(); The Father of All Things
A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
By Tom Bissell
PANTHEON BOOKS; 407 PAGES; $25
Tom Bissell’s wandering journey through Vietnam, “The Father of All Things,” within the context of the Vietnam War and his unresolved relationship with his father, does not lead to an epiphany, nor a holy grail. Instead, Bissell’s account, in tandem with his father’s recollections, offers a fresh and comprehensive look at the Vietnam era.In 1967, after being wounded in Vietnam, Capt. John Bissell resigned his Marine commission and moved his young bride to his hometown of Escanaba, Mich. The younger Bissell imagines his father’s thoughts as he watches televised accounts of Saigon’s fall. At the same time, the marriage between a traumatized John and his wife, Muff, the author’s mother, is unraveling. John is incapable of sharing his deepest feelings with her and finds solace in alcohol:
“Of course you know that if you keep behaving this way you are going to lose Muff forever … You honestly don’t know what you would do, or where you would be, without her. … Yet running contiguous to this certainty are rivers of far inkier thought. They flow through the black, treeless landscape of your mind and feed into your heart, changing its electricity, coarsening it … And your mouth is so dry. You need a drink. You pacify yourself by thinking of that drink, the way the scotch-soaked slivers of ice will melt against your teeth.” It is in passages like this the author finds his most expressive voice.
In other places Bissell defines the reasons we continually retrace our most difficult moments:
“Why do disasters demand such constant revisitation? Perhaps the first human being to delineate yesterday from today was not acting upon any natural observation but was instead seeking to commemorate some previously unthinkable event. Where were you when? Do you remember? We employ so many signifiers to hallow our larger, shared disasters that memory itself collapses beneath the weight. I was there. I remember. But all one truly remembers of most disasters is having forgotten what existence was like before they occurred. …
“On April 29th, 1975, my father was losing something of himself. He was losing what was at that time possibly the largest part of himself. This was his certainty that what he had suffered in Vietnam was necessary. In other words, he was losing his past and future all at once. He would lose much more. We all would. We would lose so much we would forget, perhaps, what it was we had lost.”
In the book’s second part, as father and son traverse Vietnam, the author continuously prods John Bissell to talk about his memories. This veteran is not a particularly revealing person. Pulling stories out of him is hard work, and it shows. At the same time, the son occasionally mines some gems, as in this exchange with a former South Vietnamese soldier.
” ‘The bad memories,’ my father said, ‘like this.’ He then pantomimed taking his brain out of his head, slipped the imaginary brain into his shirt pocket, and slyly patted it.”
Bissell’s extensive description of the grisly My Lai massacre and its aftermath, the harrowing attempted evacuation of Saigon and Da Nang, and the atrocities committed by both sides during the course of the war, offer proof of his astonishing skill. The reader desperately wishes to look away from the heartbreaking narrative of death and destruction, but Bissell’s powerful writing forces one to open one’s eyes and take in the enormity of the moral abyss.
Similarities to the war in Iraq can be found on every page, but Bissell does not spell them out. Simply put, technological advances do not assure victory, and leaders do not always tell the truth, no matter which side they are on. The line between combatants and civilians is consistently blurred.
After a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, Bissell describes a display that honors all the journalists killed in wartime, especially relevant at this moment in time. He also generously pays tribute to fellow writers on Vietnam: Philip Caputo, Tim O’Brien, Neil Sheehan and Tobias Wolff, among others.
Bissell reads so much about the Vietnam War that he seems to know more about it than his father.
” ‘I read somewhere,’ I told my father, ‘that the National Liberation Front was so effective using booby traps because they knew which trails you’d take. They knew American soldiers would always take the easiest, driest-looking path.’
” ‘I’m sorry to say,’ my father admitted, ‘that what you read is probably true.’ ”
In his author’s notes, he asks, “More than thirty thousand books on Vietnam are currently in print. Why another?” The answer is not difficult. Bissell looks at the war through the lens of a generation not yet born when America pulled out of Vietnam. He scrutinizes the oft-repeated historical facts and holds them up to the light, illuminating them in the process. The complexities inherent in the Vietnam War are difficult to understand. And, although Bissell obviously loves his father, their relationship is fraught with sadness and uncertainty. “The Father of All Things” displays the kind of hard-won comprehension and insight that develops only over time and with much thought. In a nation’s history, and a family’s saga, this understanding is both painful and necessary.
Patricia Conover is a writer and editor who lives in Paris.
This article appeared on page E – 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle