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 by his father in the family home in Escanaba, Michigan. He himself was only one year old at the time but he has learned enough since to try to reconstruct what happened, while admitting that he has had to imagine parts of the story. Former Marine John Bissell has become a banker in Escanaba with a troubled family life and something like a weakness for the bottle. He gets drunk on the day of the fall of Saigon and speaks on the phone with some of the men he fought beside in Vietnam. (One of his wartime comrades is the writer Philip Caputo, author of another Vietnam classic, A Rumor of War.) April 29, 1975, was a very bad day for the former Captain Bissell and his friends.
Many years later father and son travel to the scenes of John Bissell’s recollections. In the company of a moody Vietnamese guide and a driver they travel around the country, seeing Danang, Nha Trang, and the Citadel at Hue among other places that figure in the history of the Marine Corps’ Vietnam deployment. Tom Bissell evokes the two men’s contemporary adventures with some memorable descriptions—frequently all the more powerful because they confront the limits of description. “We passed through the rural sprawl of several villages,” Bissell writes:
I saw women wearing conical peasant hats, huge vase-shaped wicker baskets full of rice, all the stage-dressing clichés of the Vietnam War. Yet these were not NLF women, no GI would be along to bayonet the rice baskets in search of hidden ordnance, and the sky was absent of any steel dragonflies whooping overhead. The clichés meant nothing. They were not even clichés but rather staples of Vietnamese life. I had discerned already that the war informed much here but defined little, and it suddenly seemed very strange that we referred to the Vietnam War, a phrase whose adjectivelessness grew more bizarre as I pondered it. It managed to take an entire nation and plunge it into perpetual conflict.
Bissell’s somewhat awkward title is drawn from Heraclitus, the first philosopher of the dialectic, who might be said to have argued against peace and love and the sublime oneness of all. For him, war was the “father of all things” and history advanced through ruthless change, chaotic violence, and the internal contradictions of the world’s structure. It was Heraclitus who told us that no man steps into the same river twice because it is never the same river and never the same man. He also wrote that a beast moves only in response to blows and, hauntingly, that “the kingly power is like the power of a child.” Perhaps he meant that struggle is at once inevitable and ultimately ineffectual, a pessimism that we have all been admonished to resist.
The title is also a play on words because Bissell’s relationship with his father is one of the principal themes of the book; and the journey to Vietnam is a return for the elder Bissell and a reflective personal exploration for the author. The book is also a family memoir and an elegy for the marriage of Bissell’s parents, which ended in 1977. “Of course,” he writes, “I do not intend to equate the destruction of my parents’ marriage with the collapse of South Vietnam, yet in my mind they are endlessly connected, just as the largest house can be entered through its smallest door.”
There are also some extraordinary interviews with survivors of the war generation and their children. The child of a drafted South Vietnamese soldier tells Bissell:
I think my father doesn’t tell me much about the war because of all the difficulty he had after. The Communists were very bad to him. When I was ten, he beat me because of the stress. He even beat my mom. But you should know that I think Ho Chi Minh was a great man. So does my father. It’s very complicated.
Alongside such direct testimony is a most scrupulously researched history of the war itself. Older readers will remember how much moral coin has been expended on the subject of Vietnam and may have developed some after-the-fact resistance to pondering the American role further. To most people it is simply regrettable, either too guilt-inducing or too bitter a blow to patriotic pride. However Bissell’s observations and comments seem fresh. He has absorbed a vast literature on Vietnam and is able to distill it, imagining the motivations of individual soldiers:
One characteristic of proxy wars is their tendency to erase questions of motivation on one side while horrendously complicating the same questions on the opposing side. A US soldier had to work through the logical calisthenics of fighting the Vietnamese because the Vietnamese were Communist, which was necessary because Soviets and Chinamen were Communist, trying to take over the world, and using Vietnam as a staging ground. The average Vietnamese—who in John Kenneth Galbraith’s words “understood the intervention of a seeming colonial power much better than they understood the difference between Communism and democracy”—had a far shorter psychic path to travel before pulling the trigger.
Although he writes with considerable passion, one thing he emphatically does not do is sentimentalize that war as a uniquely American tragedy. He makes plain the fact that in spite of the grief inflicted on many families here, the results of our involvement were primarily a catastrophe of Vietnamese history, another—and perhaps the worst—of the many foreign attempts to subdue that nation. Over a million Vietnamese were killed. It is referred to there as “The American War.”
The early sections about the troubled lives of the Bissell family are the least arresting part of the narrative. Maybe unhappy families are, contrary to Tolstoy, all alike. On the other hand father and son are convincingly characterized in reconstructed dialogue on the trip to Vietnam, and Bissell brings together a history of the war, interviews with Vietnamese, and his own observations with the force of a novelist. A contemporary visit to Hue, for instance, leads Bissell to give a powerful account of the battle that took place there:
The battle for Hue marked the first time US Marines had engaged in close urban combat since the fight to retake Seoul from the North Koreans in September 1950. Often Hue’s fighting was less house-to-house than room-to-room. Marines have spoken of their unwillingness to pass through any doorway without first rolling a hand grenade into the adjoining room, which goes some way toward explaining why 10,000 civilians died during Hue’s recapture.
Even with this harsh caution, the Marines took approximately one casualty for every meter they were able to advance through the city. During the first days of combat, the Marines were under orders to preserve the Citadel’s architecture—which must have been like staging a gunfight in the Louvre—but the tight streets, dense hedges, and courtyard walls made fighting effectively impossible. Tanks, for instance, could not fit through numerous Citadel streets unless many buildings were destroyed. Throughout the city NLF mortar shells descended with perfect silence and exploded in dirty flameless bursts.
These historical passages reveal so much of the author’s sensibility that we might have done without some of the details of family history.
The most successful combination of the book’s several elements—and the most harrowing—is the section that records both Bissells’ visit to the hamlet of Tu Cong, notoriously misidentified by the US Army as My Lai, in Quang Ngai province. As “My Lai” it became and remains one of the famous atrocities of war and “an ethical catastrophe,” in Tom Bissell’s words, for the United States.
The journey is a kind of pilgrimage for both men, though a reluctant one for John Bissell, complicated by his long friendship with Captain Ernest Medina, the officer whose orders were arguably at the root of the mass killing though there was plenty of responsibility to share up and down the chain of command. (John Bissell had been out of the country for two years at the time of the Tu Cong/My Lai incident.) Between four and five hundred civilians were killed at Tu Cong/My Lai. Quang Ngai province and its hamlets were generally pro-Vietcong in sympathy, but “My Lai” had only ten NLF activists. At least a hundred of the victims were children under five years old.
On the morning of March 15, 1968, Task Force Barker, comprising three companies of the 11th Brigade of the Americal Division, were landed by helicopter near Tu Cong. The first platoon of Charlie Company was under the command of a grossly incompetent and despised officer named William Laws Calley Jr., known to his company commander as Lieutenant Shithead. Contrary to the impression of many, Calley was not a hard-charging post-Confederate and not at all a rigorous officer on the Prussian model. He was more the shy serial killer sort of young man, though if he had not found himself in Vietnam he might have remained a lifelong serial killer manqué. A feckless graduate—almost—of Palm Beach Junior College, Calley represented the bottom of the bottom of the barrel that is an army.
“The US Army’s dearth of suitable officer material by 1968,” Bissell writes,
caused in no small way by the draft deferments university students were given in order to avoid alienating their middle-class voter parents, helped lead to the human nadir that was Calley. Lieutenant Shithead graduated from Officer Candidate School not knowing how to read a map. Compasses baffled him. In one assessment Calley displayed “absolutely zero leadership ability” and before and after My Lai his mistakes in the field led to the death and injury of several of his men. (The 1st Platoon would eventually put a bounty on his head.)
Bissell draws on Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim’s Four Hours in My Lai and provides his own memorable commentary on the appalling atrocities visited by Americans on the hamlet. Though they are not presented as exculpatory, Bissell also describes the humane actions of some US soldiers there. One American pilot landed his helicopter between the soldiers and some wounded villagers. The pilot, an officer named Hugh Thompson, ordered his door gunner to open fire on American troops if they kept killing civilians. Thompson confronted Calley, “who, true to gutless form, stood down.” Bissell reminds us that while Charlie Company was murdering the civilian population of Tu Cong/My Lai, Bravo Company of the same outfit, led by Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, was killing and raping in nearby My Khe. Hugh Thompson intervened again, ordering the door gunner to fire on rapists and murderers. This time his orders were transmitted on a frequency monitored at Thompson’s base and overheard by his superiors. The men of Bravo Company clammed up about what they’d done and not one was prosecuted.
On the way to Tu Cong/My Lai, its memorial and museum, John Bissell tells his son: “What you don’t understand is that things like My Lai happened all the time on a much smaller scale. All the time.”
Tom Bissell considers the events at the place and his father’s friendship with Captain Medina:
“Things like My Lai happened all the time?” I asked my father now.
“All the time, yes. Just not so severe.”
“They did. All the time.”
“Unfortunately, yes, That’s the reality.”
I looked at him, astonished. I knew what he meant, and he knew that I knew what he meant, but to hear him say these words—their buried tolerance for murder—was very nearly too much. I could have asked and almost did: Did you ever do anything like that? But I did not because no father should be lightly posed such a question by his son. Because no father should think, even for a moment, that his son believes him capable of such a thing. Because I knew my father was not capable of such a thing. So I was telling myself as we pulled up to [My Lai].
At the memorial that has been built at My Lai, Bissell finds groups of mostly older European tourists, of a generation who would have come of age on reports from Vietnam. In the visitors’ book he finds many German entries justly condemning American barbarity. Some of their comments grated on Americans who came of age hearing of European barbarity. For Tom Bissell too:
…I heard a heavily accented German voice declaim, “I have been to Auschwitz, and it is moving but this is so much more moving, ja?” I turned….
“Excuse me?” I less said than heard myself say.
She looked at me unapologetically. She was wearing a chunky jade necklace I had seen being sold on the streets. “More moving. Because of the life. The life around this place….”
“Are you,” I asked, “honestly comparing this place to Auschwitz?” My voice italicized each word differently. Auschwitz? This place? You?”
In recounting the history of the American War, Bissell poses some questions. His careful way of addressing these questions is, I think, the most telling aspect of his book. He asks, for example: “Could the United States have won the war in Vietnam?”
As with the present bloody confusion in Iraq, the next and unavoidable question is: Just what do you mean by win? This is the question that remains unanswered and leads back toward a principle—that you cannot perform a task that exists purely as a rhetorical construct. Achieving “victory,” as in the cases of Vietnam then and Iraq now, is an example. The corollary by default is that you cannot do something if you do not know what it is. As Bissell writes:
The major problem confronting US war planners was the hydralike nature of Vietnam’s unrest. It was a political struggle, a proxy fight, a revolution, a civil war, a conflict thick with colonial residues, and the attempted hostile takeover of one nation by another all in one. This was difficult enough for the Vietnamese themselves to parse, much less a foreign force with a dewdrop of historical experience in the region.
Similarly, in Vietnam as in Iraq, you cannot do something by hoping to learn, after trying a lot of things at great human cost, which one of them it was that you wanted to do in the first place.
In resolving questions about whether an American victory was possible, Bissell presents his own opinion, which is yes: if we had been ready to inflict destruction on South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China, and much else. In other words he says no, though he actually deals respectfully and not at all facetiously with various revisionist theses, permitting himself some very pertinent irony:
…One must wonder whether functioning, unnaturally divided states were truly the most preferable outcome of the Vietnamese War. South Korea today is independent, after all—home of the world’s largest Starbucks, its twelfth largest economy and the popular song “Fucking USA.” North Korea, on the other hand, is currently the single largest source of potential global destabilization. This is the war America “won.” Vietnam, home to the war America “lost,” is today independent, unified, a member of the global community, and a threat to no one. All available evidence indicates that the Vietnam that will exist even a decade from now will be a better and, most likely, freer Vietnam than the one that exists today. Vietnamese people will be the reason for this. That is why young South Koreans sing “Fucking USA” in the cafes of Seoul while in the cafes of Hanoi any attempt to plumb the depths of anti-Americanism among young Vietnamese is met with quizzical stares….
Bissell introduces the last section of The Father of All Things with the quotation from Kapuscinski. This part of the book consists of recollections and thoughts of the children of soldiers who fought in Vietnam, alternating between Americans and Vietnamese. The selections are another demonstration of what a fine and wise book Bissell has written and why it belongs with the best of Vietnam meditations. Its wisdom ought to be a guide for the future. However, as they used to say in Vietnam, good luck with that.
Two of the most unforgettable quotations in the book concern a couple of war veterans, unforgettable because they say so much about human hopes and aspirations. Maybe they also illustrate the tragedy at the core of Heraclitus’ dialectic.
At Tu Cong/My Lai, a shaken John Bissell tries to talk about what he himself has seen:
I’ve seen American Marines take revenge, but they killed men, not women and children. It’s horrible. When I came here we were…we were like crusaders! We were going to help people. We were going to make their lives better….
In one of the interviews at the end, Tom Bissell speaks to the daughter of a Party veteran who nevertheless has worked for an American NGO. “I was born in Hanoi,” she tells him,
on the first night of the Christmas bombings in 1972, and my dad was a very traditional Communist….
Does my father know about the Communist abuses? Sure, he knows. One day I brought home a banned book, and I showed it to him. I asked him if he wanted to read it. He read some pages and gave it back to me and told me, “I know. I know all of this. There’s nothing new in this. Everyone knows. And no one cares. I don’t care. You shouldn’t read this—it’s too dangerous.” If you lived in the North and you didn’t want to be a Communist and you didn’t follow the Party, then what did you do? If you wanted to survive, then you needed your monthly Party ticket. Tickets for meat, for milk, for bicycle tires. Everything was in the Party’s control…. And they controlled the war. They still control it.
I have this very old friend in Hanoi. He’s eighty now, and he has red blood, just like my father. He’s red. Totally red. I asked him once about the Party, the war, and everything that happened afterwards, and he said, “From the bottom of my heart, we didn’t want to do any bad things. We tried to be good. But it all became such a mess.”
November 22, 2007