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March/April 2007

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Books In review
The Generation Gap and
the War’s Continuing Legacy


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.

“Sometimes 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.”

Tom Bissell 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 Westmoreland’s leadership 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 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.

The plot: 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.

Corey—a 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.

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.”

McCarthy, 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!”

Harry 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.

Ed Murphy 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

Reissued 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.

Robert 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.”

Soul 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.

Edward 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.

Retired 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).

Retired Army 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.

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