The Unconscionable War

In 1989, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie presented a brilliant weaving together of one American soldier’s personal history and his country’s fateful efforts in Vietnam. With great sensitivity and originality Sheehan demonstrated how the story of Colonel John Paul Vann’s life may be read as a succession of events behind which the dragon shape of the Vietnam conflict could be discerned. Vann’s influence on American press coverage in the early days of the fighting was extensive and complex. Sheehan, like a good novelist, subtly led readers to the insight at the heart of the tale—that Vann was indeed “the personification of the American war,” a man with a way of turning his considerable gifts against himself. His life, with its weight of self-deception, egotism, and rash energy, uncannily fit the war that eventually consumed it.

Tom Bissell is a writer whose previous work includes Chasing the Sea, a lively memoir of his travels in Uzbekistan, a country he had first discovered as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1990s. He traveled to Afghanistan during the invasion after September 11 and was embedded with the Marine Corps in Iraq. Like Neil Sheehan, Bissell writes in his new book about a convergence of the Vietnam War and the lives of American soldiers. In Bissell’s case the soldiers are seen in first and second person, close at hand. They are his father, John Bissell—a former Marine Corps officer wounded in Vietnam whose subsequent years were shadowed by his combat experience—and Tom Bissell himself. A younger son, Bissell describes a difficult, strained, but finally loving relationship with a tough but highly intelligent, emotional parent. From his commentary, readers can infer that the author himself is a complicated man, attuned to nuance, subtly self-observing but also possessed of considerable sensitivity to the experiences of others.

Bissell begins The Father of All Things with an epigraph from Exodus:

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the whole army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.

The moral of this verse (echoing the title of Tobias Wolff’s great war memoir In Pharaoh’s Army) is that nobody completely returns from a war, especially a lost one. Bissell goes on to show how the whirlwind of Vietnam separated its combatants from the reasonable expectations of human experience. At a later point he invokes the words of the writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, who knew quite a bit about wars:

A person who has lived through a great war is different from a person who never lived through any war. They are two different species of human beings. They will never find a common language, because you cannot really describe the war, you cannot share it, you cannot tell someone: Here, take a little bit of my war.

Bissell begins his story by reconstructing the April day in 1975 when Saigon fell to the Communists as it was experienced …

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