It would be nice to think that the sharp and sometimes horrific impact of a war fades with time and the demise of those old soldiers who fought in it. But for the generations that follow – especially the children of those soldiers – the war is never completely over.
They must deal with knowing – or not knowing – what their fathers (and, increasingly, their mothers) saw and experienced.
This unfortunate truth is beginning to show itself in the literature of the Vietnam War as the young adult children of veterans confront their parents' experiences and the way it has affected their own lives, looking for some kind of reconciliation and perhaps redemption.
"Vietnam has always been in my parent's house like a family member," Zoeann Murphy writes in Vietnam: Our Father Daughter Journey, the slim volume of essays and photos written with her father, war vet and peace activist Ed Murphy, following their trip to Vietnam together. "Sometimes it was heavy, sometimes remarkable. Its presence was never easy. When I asked my father how the war affected him, he always said, 'Vietnam lives in my soul.'"
Tom Bissell was not yet born when his father, Marine Lieutenant John Bissell, spent his combat tour on the battlefields around Danang. He was barely out of infancy when Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to communist forces in 1975 – itself an event that was highly traumatic for many returned war veterans like the elder Mr. Bissell.
The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Tom Bissell is a highly ambitious and ultimately successful work by a very talented young writer.
Part history, part travelogue, part painful family biography, it centers on the two men's 2005 trip to Vietnam.
For the father, it was a return to a much-changed country now filled with the capitalistic flash and dazzle of the West. For the son, it was a sometimes-surreal first glance at the place where his father fought, saw a lot of killing, and lost a lot of friends.
Yet it's also a land where the rust and jungle have not completely obliterated the American military presence, whether it's the runway where fighter jets and helicopters launched from Danang and Chu Lai or the ditch where some 500 Vietnamese civilians were gunned down in what's come to be known as the My Lai massacre.