Books In review
REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON
Tom Bissell has done something nearly impossible in The
Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of
Vietnam (Pantheon, 448 pp., $25). He has created a nonfiction
book about the Vietnam War unlike anything else in the enormous
Nam lit canon.
How unique is the book? Try this out: The Father
of All Things is a modern Vietnam travelogue, a history of
the American war in Vietnam, and a rumination on the legacy
of that war in the psyches of a father and son. The father
fought in Vietnam and spent decades trying to come to grips
with that experience; the son has been emotionally affected
by his father’s wartime experiences since childhood.
it felt as though Vietnam was all my father and I had in
common and had ever talked about,” Tom
Bissell says. “Sometimes it felt as though we had never
really talked about it.” Bissell remedies that situation
in spades in his well-crafted, insightful book.
Born in 1974,
Tom Bissell graduated from Michigan State, served in the
Peace Corps in Uzbekistan, and went on to travel the globe
and to carve out a notable literary career. For one thing,
his previous book, God Lives in St. Petersburg, brought Tom
Bissell a Rome Fellowship from the American Academy of Letters.
John Bissell served as a Marine Corps captain in the Vietnam
War in 1965-66. His hazardous tour of duty has haunted him
ever since. That state of affairs led to a memorable 2003
father-son trip to Vietnam, the heart of this book. “I
was almost thirty years old, my father just past sixty,” Tom
Bissell writes. “It staggered
me, suddenly, how little relative time we still had together.
I knew that if I wanted to find the unknown part of my father,
I would have to do it soon, in Vietnam, where he had been
made and unmade, killed and resurrected.”
goes on to write eloquently and often humorously about what
happened on the trip to Vietnam. He paints vivid word portraits
of what the nation is like today. But he also provides a
surprisingly in-depth look at the history of the war. Tom
Bissell is not a historian, and this book should not be used
as the basis for a study of the war.
On the other hand, Tom
Bissell offers thoughtful passages on everything from General
to the performance of the ARVN and the South Vietnamese government.
Young Bissell weaves in his father’s family story,
as well as how father and son related during the trip throughout
northern and southern Vietnam. It all adds up to a unique
accomplishment that, astoundingly, stands alone among the
thousands of books written about the Vietnam War.
A dozen of Jeffrey Wolin’s evocative present-day photographs
of Vietnam veterans graced the front cover of the November-December
2005 issue of this newspaper. Back then, we were pleased
to report on a Chicago museum exhibit made up of those photographs,
along with in- country photos of the veterans and text taken
from extensive interviews Wolin conducted with them. We are
happy to report that Wolin’s work is between the covers
of a revealing book, Inconvenient Stories: Vietnam War
Veterans (Umbrage Editions, 112 pp., $40).
Wolin’s work is in
the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the
Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The
juxtaposed war and present-day photos speak volumes about
the war’s impact on the 50 veterans
who tell their stories in this excellent book.
Truth in reviewing:
Two of the veterans whose photos are in the book served with
the 527th Personnel Service Company in Qui Nhon in 1967-68:
the former XO, LT Claude Cookman, and one of its former redeployment
clerks, Ex Spec5 Marc Leepson.
NELSON DeMILLE’S BEST
Nelson DeMille gets better with age. His thirteenth novel,
Wild Fire (Warner Books, 519 pp., $26.99), is his best one
yet. And that’s saying something, because DeMille has
been cranking out first-rate, best-selling thrillers since
his Word of Honor was published in 1985. The new book, which
soared to the top of the best-seller lists when it was published
last November, offers a clever and intriguing plot that’s
powered by page-turning, dialogue-driven prose. I couldn’t
rest until I reached the final pages to see how DeMille wrapped
up this tour de force police procedural/thriller.
a mentally unbalanced American billionaire oil baron decides
to create nuclear Armageddon in order to wipe out every Muslim
nation in the world. Former NYPD detective John Corey, now
working for the federal anti-terrorism task force in New
York City, gets wind of the plot, which begins in two American
cities. Then the proverbial excrement hits the fan.
blunt, iconoclastic, hard case who has appeared in other
DeMille novels —immediately proceeds to get
into trouble with the feds, with his wife (an FBI agent),
and with police departments in at least two jurisdictions.
He breaks rules, stretches ethics, and wisecracks his way
into the lair of the madman, who happens to have been an
Army lieutenant in the 1st Cav in Vietnam (DeMille’s
old unit). But is it in time to save the world? You’ll
want to find out once you get started.
MEMOIRS IN BRIEF
Mike McCarthy’s Phantom Reflections: The Education
of an American Fighter Pilot in Vietnam (Praeger, 176 pp.,
$44.95) is a well-written memoir that centers on the author’s
1968-69 tour of duty with the USAF’s 433rd Tactical
Fighter Squadron (aka “Satan’s Angels”)
flying out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Base. One guess what two
countries McCarthy flew 124 combat missions over in his F4
Phantom. “I’ve tried to describe what it was
like to be there” flying in the skies of North Vietnam
and Laos, McCarthy said. “My intent was not to write
a book about the glorification of war, or showcase what fearless
heroes we were, but to show what it felt like.”
who retired as an Air Force colonel, succeeds well in evoking
what his war was like. He also shows well how his thoughts
about the Vietnam War changed. Characterizing himself back
in the day as a “young, hotheaded ideologue,” ready
to take on the North Vietnamese Army single-handedly, McCarthy
today believes the war was a mistake. “We should only
be willing to [go to war] if some major strategic interests
are truly threatened,” he says. “In Vietnam,
that was not the case, although we tried mightily to convince
ourselves that it was.”
Robert L. Tonsetic’s Days
of Valor: An Inside Account of the Bloodiest Six Months of
the Vietnam War (Casemate, 304 pp., $32.95) looks at the
period beginning with the start of the Tet Offensive at the
end of January 1968. In this, his first book, Tonsetic focuses
on the battles fought by his unit, the U.S. Army’s
4th Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 199th
Light Infantry Brigade. Tonsetic, who commanded an infantry
company, relies heavily on first-person testimony from his
fellow infantrymen to paint a picture of almost non-stop
combat action from late January to May 1968, primarily in
and around Bien Hoa, Long Binh, and Saigon.
Retired Army Brigadier
General Bahnsen (West Point class of 1956) offers up his
war memoir with the help of Wess Roberts in American
Warrior: A Combat Memoir of Vietnam (Citadel, 448 pp., $24.94). The
book consists primarily of Bahnsen’s
first-person recollections of his two Vietnam tours in 1966-67
and 1968-69 with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, the
11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the 1st Armored Squadron.
There also are oral-history-like interviews with the general’s
former colleagues, along with a few italicized passages,
several of which refer to the author in the third person.
Bahnsen, whom Roberts says fought in Vietnam with “nonstop
heroism,” remains a true believer. “My only regrets,” he
says, “are the men killed and wounded and the fact
that we did not kill more of the communist bastards!”
Spiller’s well written Vietnam: Angel of Death (Southeast Missouri State University, 186 pp., $14, paper)
is an often-harrowing memoir that focuses on the dozens of
visits the author made delivering death messages during the
war. Spiller had served with the 4th Marines in Vietnam in
1965, but his time in the war turned out to be less stressful
than his years of being the titular Angel of Death.
served as an Army intelligence analyst with the 4th Infantry
Division in 1968-69 in the Central Highlands. The war and
his part in it have affected much of his life since then.
Murphy, along with his daughter Zoeann, document the war’s
personal legacy in Vietnam: Our Father Daughter Journey Philmark
Press, 103 pp., $14.95, paper), a slim but powerfully written
volume in which the Murphys offer their thoughts on the war.
The book also contains dozens of terrific photos, most of
them taken in Vietnam by Zoeann in 2001 and by Ed in 1968,
1969, and 1993. For more info, email email@example.com
in paper: Michael Lee Lanning’s well-regarded
1987 opus, The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s
Journal of Vietnam (Texas A&M, 304 pp., $19.95), which
chronicles the author’s 1969-70 tour leading a platoon
in C Co., 2/3rd of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.
P. Dodd’s Dragon in the Bamboo (AuthorHouse,
135 pp., $15.50) is the memoir of the author’s tour
with the 1st Marines in Vietnam in 1968-69. Charlie Morris,
who was severely wounded in Vietnam when the Navy helicopter
he crewed on was hit by snipers in 1971, tells his war and
postwar stories with the help of Dean Siegman in Just
a Regular Guy (iUniverse, 197 pp., $17.95, paper). Ed Swauger’s
Earning the CIB: The Making of a Soldier in Vietnam (Whitehall,
171 pp., $17.95, paper) is the story of the author’s
tour of duty in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne.
Retired British Army Gen. Rupert Smith includes a brief analysis
of the American war in Vietnam in The Utility of Force:
The Art of War in the Modern World (Knopf, 430 pp., $30), which
examines the use of military force in political wars. Smith,
who commanded a UK division in the 1991 Gulf War, says that,
in essence, the United States did not achieve victory in
Vietnam because we “failed to break the trinity of
government, people, and military that held the Vietnamese
enemy together whilst its own was put at peril.” The “main
lesson” of that war, he says, “is that it is
rarely possible to predict the outcome, especially on the
bases of the known forces that entered it, or their inventories.”
Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era (Senator
John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, 218 pp., $19.95,
paper) is the companion book for the well-received museum
exhibit of the same name currently running at the History
Center. The book, ably edited by Samuel W. Black, contains
four essays on various aspects of the main subject, two family
reminiscences, poetry by two of the Vietnam War’s most
accomplished veteran-poets, Yusef Komunyakaa and Lamont B.
Steptoe, and dozens of evocative war and postwar photographs.
Hume’s Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed
the American Dream Harcourt (319 pp., $26) is a well-done
treatise on the history of the G.I. Bill, focusing on the
sweeping ramifications of the WWII version which L.A.
Times reporter Humes calls “the most successful piece of
socially uplifting legislation the world has ever seen.” Humes
also shows how the Vietnam War G.I. Bill was a “tightfisted
shadow” of its Greatest Generation predecessor.
Navy Commander Art Schmitt and AVVA member Marie LeDuc’s
The Man I Didn’t Know: The Stories of
Veterans Who Suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (Book
Surge, 170 pp., paper) comes with a ringing endorsement from
VVA National Chaplain Father Philip Salois, who calls the
book “required reading for all spouses of war veterans.” VVA
member Robert Williams and Anthony Luparelli offer their
version of the history of the Vietnam War in The Vietnam
Wars (Dorrance Publishing, 81 pp., $10, paper).
Col. Robert M. Bayless, who served in Vietnam in the early
1960s, offers his views on the reasons the Vietnam War ended
as it did in Victory Was Never an Option (Trafford, 273 pp.,
$20.95, paper). Retired USAF Lt. Col. James Rothrock, also
a Vietnam veteran, postulates that disunity, “incited
and fueled by the antiwar movement,” was the main cause
of the war’s outcome in Divided We Fall: How Disunity
Leads to Defeat (AuthorHouse, 519 pp. $24.95). Karen Ross
Epps’s With Love, Stan: A Soldier’s Letters from
Vietnam to the World (AuthorHouse, 329 pp., $15.99, paper)
is a moving tribute to her brother, Army Spec4 Stanley D.
Ross, who was killed in Vietnam in 1969. She makes excellent
use of his wartime letters and photos.