The Father Of All Things – A Marine, His Son And The Legacy Of Vietnam, by Tom Bissell

(Pantheon Books, 2007; 432 pp., $25 – ISBN 9780375422652)

This book is the author’s “emotional facts of the Vietnam War,” and the war’s impact on his father, America and Viet-Nam. His father, John Bissell, a former Marine major, fought in Viet-Nam during the mid-1960s. The narrative is a blend of a family memoir, Viet-Nam travelogue and researched historical account of the war.

In the first section, the author alternates between the final phase of the Viet-Nam war and a reconstruction of his family life in Escanaba, Michigan, during the 1970s. The author was born in 1974, seven years after his father resigned from the Marine Corps.

The reader learns what it was like to grow up with a gruff, and also tender, combat veteran father who would wake his children in the night when his memories were too painful. The father the author “grew up with was no hero… He was too wounded in the head, too endlessly and terribly sad. Too funny, too explosive, too confusing.”

The second section, the major portion of the book, is when the father and son journey to Viet-Nam. As they travel the country and talk to the Vietnamese, the reader learns of war as the father experienced it, their visit to the site of his near-fatal wounding and how the war changed him and many of his generation.

In the final section, “The Children of the War Speak,” the author provides candid statements by the children of American and Vietnamese veterans and the war’s legacies for them and their families. He leaves us with these words: “What any war’s igniters rarely admit are the small, terrible truths that have held firm for every war fought, no matter how necessary or avoidable: this will be horrible, and whatever happens will scar us for decades to come… War is appetitive. It devours goodwill, landscape, cultures, mothers and fathers — before finally forcing us, the orphans, to pick up the pieces.”