Images and memories usually emerge in a tangled coil when Americans remember the Vietnam War. It's a time that refuses to take on the detachment that comes with becoming part of past history, and remains so unexamined and raw that it still haunts two nations. For many in the United States, the demand of "Peace now" that echoed through the sixties remains unfulfilled, and the issues that divided the country then continue to gape, unbridged, decades after the war came to an end.
Tom Bissell's family history, like that of many children born in the seventies, was intertwined with this war. His father was changed by it, his parents' marriage was destroyed by it, and Bissell grew up with Vietnam on his mind, struggling to learn about his father's time there.
Given the chance to travel to Vietnam with his father, Bissell finds that his carefully acquired abstract facts find a kind of uneasy alliance with the visceral recollections that the country pulls from ex-Marine Captain John Bissell. Skillfully blending military history with his father's memories, Bissell provides a picture of Vietnam, both in the past and during the present, that is harrowing, beautiful and at times surprisingly funny. (This is a family vacation after all, as well as an excavation of a soldier's past, and Bissell is an adult child with snake phobia.)
He shows the war from both sides, giving equal respect to U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers, without glossing over the horrors that were forced upon men and changed them forever. His father was a man known to his fellow soldiers as "Nice Guy," who found himself on a Vietnamese battlefield killing women who were shooting at him with Kalashnikovs. "War is its own country," Bissell reminds us, "and creates its own citizens."
These citizens, both warriors and noncombatants, are reflectively examined as Bissell and his father travel across Vietnam and witness the contrasts between the postwar landscape and the haunted terrain that lives in the memories of Vietnam veterans. The tunnels of Cu Chi and the Son My memorial at My Lai are emotionally taxing, but so are the beaches of Nha Trang or the French colonial memories and luxury of Da Lat. History is everywhere, and, as both Bissells weave the past into the present, it becomes clear that there are no easy answers when it comes to healing deep scars. But as they travel through the ever-changing powerhouse that is present-day Vietnam, they begin to understand that rather than representing the evils of war to people they meet their presence there as tourists means that "Vietnam is no longer alone."
The lessons of the Vietnam War have yet to be fully discussed, but while traveling through former battlegrounds, Bissell and his father learn how to talk about their opposing viewpoints and put their past ghosts to rest in a way that could be accomplished between Americans and Vietnamese as well as between fathers and sons. Not a history, a memoir, or travel literature, The Father of All Things stands alone in its well-realized attempt to reconcile the past's nightmares with tomorrow's dreams.
Reviewed by Janet Brown