Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Vietnam Revisited

Daniel Ford (Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2007)

The Father of All Things When Tom Bissell pondered his father's war, having heard about it in family conversation over the years, the Vietnam conflict seemed the stuff of poetry: "For all its dreads," as the younger man imagines service there, "in Vietnam you never lost the simple human awareness of being alive. It was a young man's land, covered in a dew of terrifying possibility."

But when Mr. Bissell and his father, John, actually tour Vietnam in 2003 at the behest of Harper's magazine, poetry gives way to outrage. The war was an atrocity! Bissell Jr. simply cannot get over the crimes of his own country, especially as he has gleaned them from his pre-trip research and a searing visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Since he shares some of his father's genes, he seems to worry that he shares some of the guilt as well.

The Father of All Things purports to be a meditative travelogue and a portrait of father-son bonding. But politics is nearly everywhere in the book, intruding on the past. One of the rare unpolitical moments comes when Tom asks his father if he had a Marine Corps nickname. Yes: "Nice Guy." It was earned when Bissell Sr. stopped to compensate a Vietnam peasant for a water buffalo, accidentally killed by his patrol, while a general overhead in a helicopter demanded that the Marines keep moving. His son seems astonished by the paradox of kindness in the killing fields. Yet such moments are part of every war, including Vietnam's, as I saw during my own months as a reporter there. For the most part, American soldiers are kind.

Mr. Bissell has less difficulty believing his own country's crimes, of course: They were, by his reckoning, continual, awful and unforgivable -- and we're repeating them today in Iraq! He doesn't make the connection explicitly; instead, when he tallies Lyndon Johnson's mendacities, for instance, Mr. Bissell likens them to those of "another president," not named. For the sins of Vietnam he especially blames LBJ adviser Walt Rostow and Nixon adviser Henry Kissinger -- largely, it seems, because they never apologized for their crimes. "A disgustingly evasive book," the bibliography says of Mr. Kissinger's "Ending the Vietnam War," "by a thoroughly disgusting statesman." Well, at least we know where our chronicler stands.

Mr. Bissell blames fools as well as criminals for Vietnam, such as the Washington bureaucrat who said that he believed himself better off without military experience, since the omission freed him to think creatively. I take Mr. Bissell's point. But what is true for bureaucrats is also true for reporters: Some first-hand knowledge really does come in handy. The lack of it leads, for instance, to Mr. Bissell's thinking that U.S. Special Forces conducted "unconditional warfare" in Vietnam, when their specialty was unconventional warfare. Does it make a difference? I think so.

In the end, I found myself liking the father more and the son less. Mr. Bissell writes well, and he has read widely, from Bernard Fall's prescient "Street Without Joy" to David Butler's affecting "The Fall of Saigon." And he did go to the trouble of walking the ground, even if it was long after the shooting stopped. But Mr. Bissell's disgust is so pervasive that I wearied of it. Wasn't there one decent human being in the U.S. war effort -- military or civilian, Democrat or Republican, in Saigon or Washington? Was every motive sinister? Was nobody ever simply mistaken? Most important: Was there no cause worth fighting for? Mr. Bissell could have spoken to a few of the Vietnamese boat people who fled the communists after the war. They might have shown him a different perspective.

The Bissells' visit to Hue -- the city near the Demilitarized Zone where, during the 1968 Tet offensive, the U.S. Marines won the battle but lost their country's support -- captures the flavor of "The Father of All Things." When the two men arrive at the Citadel, an imperial palace complex, Bissell Sr. pronounces the enclave "neat." That's not good enough for Bissell Jr., who prods his father throughout the trip for therapeutic exchanges that never come.

At Hue, Bissell Jr. chides his father ("Come on, 'Neat'?") and then launches into a description of how the French, who once ruled Vietnam, found it "humbling" that Vietnamese culture was "hundreds of years older than French culture." Thus, Bissell Jr. says, the French were willing to negotiate once war started. He asks his father repeatedly whether he is "bitter" that the Marines didn't train him in cultural sensitivity. Bissell Sr. won't confess to bitterness on that score, but after sucking his teeth and thinking a bit, he allows that the U.S. could have accomplished a lot with humanitarian aid in rural areas if we had understood the country better.

The author might want to improve his own grasp of Vietnamese culture: He tells us that the Citadel is "ancient," but in fact construction on it started in 1804. Besotted with the setting's beauty and supposed antiquity, he finds himself envying the simple pride shown by Hien, their guide. "Soon Hien was no longer leading us. Instead he seemed pleased simply to stand amid the astonishments of such a storied place." Mr. Bissell himself, he confesses, has never felt a similar awe at any of his own country's cultural monuments -- the Lincoln Memorial, say. He asks his father: "Why is that?"

"Because you're an ungrateful little prick," replies John (Nice Guy) Bissell.

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