"When I came here we were...we were like crusaders! We were going to help people. We were going to make their lives better, give them democracy."
- John Bissell, at the Son My (My Lai) Memorial, commemorating the bestial slaughter of 504 Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers.
This is a war story, a history, a father-son encounter, at times, strangely, a rather droll travelogue. It is analysis, opinion, factual record-keeping and emotional mapping. It is about dysfunction, anger, hatred, affection and guilt. It does not forgive and it does not forget, but there is a kind of catharsis within it. It is a book about memory, sorrow, shame and defeat. It is about Viet Nam.
Often called "the Viet Nam conflict" but commonly referred to as a war, the events in southeast Asia that began sometime in the 1950s and for American historical purposes ended in 1975 are a chapter in time that most Americans who lived through it would choose to forget
- including John Bissell, one of the two protagonists in this memoir. But now there has been a whole generation between us and that national trauma, and some of us grew up with no knowledge, no direct feel for Viet Nam and the war that was waged there
- including Tom Bissell, the author of this book, who decided to take unresolved feelings and unanswered questions back to the source. He and his father, a man who had distanced himself from the war and from his family, traveled together to Viet Nam to seek that ephemeral comfort we call closure.
Bissell, who is a skilled writer (Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg) is not immune to attachment and sentiment. He had a fractured childhood with a soldier-father who drank too much and couldn't hold his family together. He wants to know why that happened, and he knows that Viet Nam - the conflict, the country, the concept - holds some of the answers.
But he tries to temper the frustrations of his personal quest with factual underpinnings. He begins the book with a brief but harrowing account of the "the fall" - the end of
the conflict. He pauses often in the narrative of his father-son jaunt to southeast Asia to remind us of essential facts about how the war was fought and pose thought-provoking questions. Central to his personal theme are the lies that were told to Americans about the conflict - not just to the public, as that is common enough, but even to the higher echelons, even to the CIA itself, that promulgator of subterfuge. The extent of the spread of untruth (denial?) among the U.S. politicians and military caused the North Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong to say with bemusement, "Surely the American generals cannot be that naive." Bissell fairly points out that once the lies were revealed, the "U.S. belief system" sought to get the whole truth told, whereas "the Communist belief system" kept the truth suppressed. "That the United States in defeat...has proved less evasive than the victorious heirs of Pham Van Dong is, surely, a kind of victory."
Tom Bissell is seeking the answer to the question, "What does real war do to people?" The responses he gets, piecemeal, from his Marine colonel father, are not complete and not always the ones he wants to hear. The book does not find a conclusion set in amber. The strongest statement John can make to placate his son on their last day in Viet Nam is that "it's best that everything turned out the way it did." Tom would have liked more, but he expresses an almost childlike astonishment that his father has given him even that much. The Marine has stanched the flow of his most painful memories, and the son has had a window opened onto wisdom. Both, one feels, have to make the best of that.