A penetrating look back at the Vietnam conflict, with Bissell (Chasing the Sea, 2003, etc.) alternately guiding and following his veteran father.
It took Bissell a little doing to convince his father to travel with him to Vietnam in 2003. A Marine junior officer who served in-country in 1966, before things turned definitively bad, the elder Bissell rides with a few ghosts. His son worries that, like so many veterans, he is haunted by failure. “You sought to counter an insurgency and wound up activating a larger insurgency,” the author writes in a passage he would never have addressed directly to Dad, voicing worries that run strong today. Father and son travel to Hue, My Lai, Chu Lai, Saigon and other key locations of the war, making discoveries about the past and about each other. Along the way, Bissell delivers a riveting, you-are-there account of the fall of Saigon—not just the dust-kicking helicopters and hands poking through embassy gates, but the behind-the-scenes activities of the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger, worried then, as always, about his image. He had to be reassured that the North Vietnamese would permit the evacuation of American citizens and would not use this embarrassing retreat as a propaganda tool. “In those final words stands the colossal folly of the Vietnam War,” Bissell unsparingly concludes. “The most powerful nation in the world, hotfooting it out of one of the poorest, being assured that no one intends to ‘damage’ its reputation.”
Big-picture politics take second place to the achingly personal in Bissell’s heartfelt book.