The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
by Tom Bissell. Pantheon Books, New York, 2007, softcover $25.
This is a wonderfully readable and intimate portrayal of the author’s family woven into an insightful history of the Vietnam War. Tom Bissell (b. 1974), a travel writer and novelist, is the son and grandson of Marine officers who served in Vietnam. The destruction of South Vietnam was followed by the destruction of his parents’ marriage. Father of All Things is Bissell’s attempt to learn more about these events and the connection between them.
Part I is a lengthy account of the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975. It left this reader wondering how we could have fought so long and yet have been so ill-prepared for the end when it came. Part II tells of Bissell’s recent trip to Vietnam with his father. Some Vietnam veterans talk about the war; some do not. Marine Lieutenant John Bissell did. Tom wanted to learn about the man his father had been, before the war made him the man he knew, thereby allowing him insight into “the sheer insanity of growing up with him.” Although John chides his son for being too sympathetic to communism, Tom offers a very critical account of Communist incompetence in governing postwar Vietnam.
The narrative is interrupted by informed discussions of basic issues of Vietnam War historiography: Was Ho Chi Minh a Stalinist? Why was the South Vietnamese government so corrupt? Why did the United States lie so often about the war? What was the Soviets’ goal in Vietnam? Could we have won? Bissell is no historian, and is willing to sacrifice historical precision for the sake of a bold phrase (e.g., there were mountains of cold soda on ice at every U.S. base; only one ARVN officer was wounded in action during 1954-66; every Vietnamese barber employed by the 25th Infantry Division was a VC spy).
Traveling the long road from Chu Lai in 1965 to the present affords the opportunity for father and son to better understand both the war in Vietnam and their love for one another. It is clear that the father has come to terms with his Vietnam experience when he allows that “it’s best that everything turned out the way it did.”
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.