Excerpt from The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Father of All Things

A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

by Tom Bissell

The Father of All Things
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 432 pages
    Mar 2008, 432 pages

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Vietnam is a dream to you. It has been eight years since you took in its scents, felt its Asian sunlight on your white skin. The war comes to you now not as whole memory but in pieces and fragments as ragged and drifty as ash. Up half the night, turning in the wet-flannel heat, checking on sentries, checking on your gunner placements. Up early in the morning for patrols, still hot. Or sleeping all day for night patrols, hot again, these night patrols the worst, always the worst, feeling like four-hour-long panic attacks enacted within a nightmare. Your clothes rotting, your feet rotting. The ankle sores that never healed and remained as bright and wet as fresh raspberries. The sweat that was like another layer of clothing. Your smell, that deep swampy smell of your body. The mold you picked from between your toes and flicked lightheartedly at whoever was nearest. The smell of twenty Marines’ unwashed asses and unbrushed teeth all around you, the olfactory orchestra of the jungle itself, the warm, buttery smell of a cleaned M14, the firecracker stench of gunfire. You still smell it, sometimes, when you wake up sweating, Muff having been driven to the couch hours before by your kicking. You smell it when the remnant of the malaria banished to the depths of your cells catches you with a chill that almost takes you to your knees, when your limbs thrum with a ghostly soreness, when the shrapnel wound on your neck glows with a sudden inner fire.

You left Vietnam in late 1966, a time when the word “quagmire” was just abandoning Roget’s as its most natural habitat. The war then was still tenable, winnable—or so it was thought. But now it was la fin de la guerre, the real fin, not the “peace with honor” that extricated the Americans in 1973, only two years ago, but the final campaign. A headline you saw only seven days ago: HOPE THINS FOR MILLIONS ADRIFT ACROSS INDOCHINA. Your hope has thinned, too, and your very body aches of its thinning. You feel incomplete, as though within you some crucial girder of emotion has gone missing. That part of you is still in Vietnam. That part never left.


In late March 1975, the Saigon newspaper Chinh Luan published an article, now known as the “Fare Thee Well” dispatch, that had been written in the midst of fierce combat between the armies of North and South Vietnam as South Vietnam was unraveling. The author was the South Vietnamese war correspondent Nguyen Dinh Tu. Through “the outstanding initiative and very strong leadership of the United States,” Tu wrote, “the Paris Peace Agreement was signed on the 27th of January 1973 to international applause of our friends, especially in the United States, leading to ‘Peace with Honor’ in accord with the desires of former President Nixon, the present Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Congress, and the entire American people. The fact that these friends have been able to return to the warmth of their families is something for which I personally, with all my heart and soul, rejoice.” But Tu went on:

"Now, after two years of “Peace with Honor[,]” through the reports of newspapers, wire services, radio, and television all over the world, those friends are now observing the disintegration that is spreading daily across my homeland. Thousands of my country’s soldiers have continued to fall throughout the two years of “Peace with Honor.” Thousands of my people, including many children, have continued to die throughout these two years of “Peace with Honor.” Hundreds of thousands of my people are homeless, hungry, cold; and furthermore and even more important, without hope, without even the dream of a life worth living for these two years of “Peace with Honor,” and for the coming days, the coming months, and perhaps even the coming years. And everyone in Vietnam, including me, my friends, we now ask ourselves, how long will the “Peace with Honor” continue, and where will it lead? . . .[A]ll of my people, and I personally, have understood that our friends, especially our American friends, the American Congress and the American people . . . look upon the war in Vietnam from which they have drawn so far away, as if it were a nightmare that must be pushed completely away from their minds in order for them to live peacefully and happily in the warmth of their families. No one, in psychological terms or any other terms, can continue forever to retain the affection and assistance of the person next to them, be that a single person, a friendly country, or an ally in a desperate situation. The soldiers of my country, my people (please understand “people” here to mean the overwhelming majority, the poor, the war victims, and not the rich and fat minority in Saigon and a few other cities in Vietnam and in some foreign countries), and I myself, we understand all of this. . . . Out of a feeling of helplessness, because I cannot find any words of my own with which to express my deep gratitude and bid a respectful farewell to the allies, especially to the Americans in the United States Congress, in the United States government, to the American soldiers and the American people who cherish “Peace with Honor,” let me with a heart that is completely sincere quote a line of poetry from Lord Byron to send to all these friends:

Excerpted from The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell Copyright © 2007 by Tom Bissell. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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