The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

by Tom Bissell

has been a generation since the last American soldier left Vietnam,
after almost 15 years of substantial involvement in the fight to
defeat the army of North Vietnam and insurgent forces. Some 3
million Americans served, 800,000 of them in combat. The names of
more than 58,000 of this country's dead are etched into the stark,
granite walls of Washington's Vietnam War Memorial.

In his compelling new book, THE FATHER OF ALL THINGS, journalist
Tom Bissell, born in 1974, brings that painful era to life in a
rich and emotionally resonant narrative constructed around the trip
he took to Vietnam in November 2003 with his father. John Bissell,
a Marine combat veteran, arrived in Vietnam in April 1965 and
served there until he was wounded in a booby trap explosion in late
1966. Acknowledging the humility that any writer must feel
approaching a subject that has been covered in more than 30,000
books, Bissell sets for himself the task of recounting "an
emotional experience interwoven with established historical facts
of the Vietnam War." It is, he writes, "a book about war's endless

The book is loosely and somewhat idiosyncratically organized into
three sections. The first interweaves an account of the last,
desperate days before the fall of Saigon with Bissell's imaginative
recreation of his father's dismay as he watches those events unfold
in his home in Escanaba, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The second,
and longest, section poses a handful of queries, such as "Could the
United States have won the war in Vietnam?" and "What was the
Soviet Union actually attempting to accomplish in Vietnam?" using
them as the framework upon which the book's main narrative
structure is constructed. The final section, entitled "The Children
of the War Speak," contains brief snippets of interviews with
Bissell's anonymous contemporaries on all sides of the conflict,
reflecting on the ways in which the war's legacy affected them and
their families.

Bissell is a gifted writer, whose prose is enriched by a talent for
selecting arresting details that will fix the scenes he describes
in the mind's eye. In one gripping section near the end of the book
he describes the visit he and his father made to Cu Chi, an area
that featured an elaborate network of tunnels from which guerrillas
launched fiendishly ingenious attacks against American soldiers
based there. Another emotionally powerful portion is Bissell's
terse recounting of the My Lai massacre in March 1968, which most
readers will find chilling in its harrowing detail.

Foregoing any attempt either to glamorize his father's service or
to demonize the vast majority of the soldiers who fought there on
all sides, Bissell nevertheless portrays his father as a
fundamentally decent man, reporting that John Bissell's fellow
Marines even nicknamed him "Nice Guy." Like most American soldiers,
he was compelled to fight by a sense of duty to his comrades rather
than to some at best vaguely understood mission to stop the spread
of Communism throughout Southeast Asia. If anything, Bissell is
much more judgmental about himself than he is of his father, subtly
questioning whether he would have had the courage to do what his
father did. One darkly comic scene describing Bissell's attempt to
fire an AK-47 at a shooting gallery is likely to have readers
wondering the same thing.

The book could have benefited from a map tracing the route of the
Bissells' journey, as well as some photographs in addition to the
few family snapshots sprinkled throughout the first section. These
shortcomings are counterbalanced by a useful bibliography featuring
annotations by Bissell on some of the secondary sources he relied
upon in this work.

At a time when the United States is embroiled in another unpopular
war, the temptation to draw facile parallels with the debacle in
Vietnam is almost too great to resist. For the most part, Bissell
doesn't succumb to that temptation, perhaps because most thoughtful
readers already will find themselves struggling to suppress the
echoes of incompetence and bravado from that era that haunt us to
this day.

THE FATHER OF ALL THINGS is an intensely personal book that expands
outward in concentric circles from the intimate relationship
between father and son to the broadest concerns of historical and
geopolitical thought. "War is appetitive," Bissell writes. "It
devours goodwill, landscape, cultures, mothers, and fathers ---
before finally forcing us, the orphans, to pick up the pieces." If
this book finds the audience it deserves, it will remind those who
lived through that era of the price war exacts, and may help
educate those who did not to that grim and timeless reality.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( on January 21, 2011

The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
by Tom Bissell

  • Publication Date: March 6, 2007
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 037542265X
  • ISBN-13: 9780375422652