Two stories of how Vietnam came home to the family
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.
There had been a close but sometimes uneasy relationship between the two ever since Tom Bissell's parents divorced when he was still a young child in northern Michigan. That prickliness flared now and then on the trip. But there was also an opening up between father and son.
" 'Look at these hills,' my father said, pointing at the slopes and rises all around us. 'How we fought and scratched for them.'
"Some brief, terrible recognition in his voice and eyes – some distance closed too quickly, some unexpectedly recovered past – spooked me deeply. My father was softly shaking his head."
Having studied the war in great detail (which he analyzes quite convincingly in "The Father of All Things"), the younger man finally asks his father:
" 'Dad, forgive me, but how the hell did you guys manage to lose? You had every imaginable advantage.'
" 'Funny,' my father said, looking away. 'I was just thinking the same thing about that myself. What can I tell you?.... We had a lot of advantages, that's certainly true. But this wasn't our country. We were all a long way from home.' "
His father's response, Tom Bissell writes, was "perhaps the most human sentiment I had every heard my father utter about the war."
My Lai happened two years after Lt. Bissell's tour. But the half dozen pages or so devoted to that horror – what happened that day and one combat vet's agonizing visit to the site – are excruciatingly told and revealing of both men.
"I walked toward the ditch," the younger Bissell writes, "less sad than emotionally excavated .... my father rubbed his chest through his shirt and said, 'My heart hurts.'
"I imagined him – I imagined myself – here ... during those first moments that saw the day's terrible momentum gather, the evil freedom of the trigger availing itself upon the minds of friends and comrades, the various ecstasies of murder, and I did not like the range of possibilities that I saw."
Will such realizations, clear or cloudy, come to some child of an Iraq war veteran 20 or 30 years hence? Very likely.
"Part of me is shaped forever by the years my father spent in Vietnam, and how those years shaped him, and then, all our family," Zoeann Murphy writes. "It's not easy for me to make sense of this."
Books like hers and Bissell's are a very good start.
• Staff writer Brad Knickerbocker is a Vietnam veteran.