Saturday, December 01, 2007

War, of all things

With 30,000 books on Vietnam, why write another? Tom Bissell, born in Escanaba, Michigan, after America’s involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973, says about his 2007 memoir The Father of All Things:

“I bring to the Vietnam War only this: I have spent most of my life thinking about it.”

His father served along with 3 million other Americans in Vietnam and saw combat along with 800,000 of them.

Some years ago Tom and his father John traveled to Vietnam together, and Tom wrote a magazine article about it, not realizing at the time it would develop into an obsession and a book. Tom’s father was deeply troubled after his Vietnam experience, which affected his struggling marriage and the raising of his boys. The trip to Vietnam drew Tom into a consuming exploration of the country, the war, and his own feelings about having a father who served there.

The flyleaf says:

. . . he “explores the many debates about the war, from whether it was winnable to Ho Chi Minh’s motivations to why American leaders lie so often. Above all, he shows how the war has continued to influence American views on foreign policy more than 30 years later.”

He wanted to interweave his emotional experience with the historical facts. He didn’t intend to write about “war’s endless legacy,” but it ended up being inevitable that he did so.

This is Tom’s fourth book, you can read the NYTimes book review here, and I posted about it in March. Back in 1993 I took ENG 453 Contemporary American Poetry with Tom, and our instructor was Professor Diane Wakoski, who became my poet mentor and has remained good friends with Tom. The three of us will have lunch together Monday, along with a couple of students and a fiction writing professor.

My department invited Tom to come back for a visit to talk with current English students about his life in writing. I get to truck him around campus Monday and Tuesday to meet with folks.

I started reading The Father of All Things yesterday. Nothing like cramming before the exam, er, I mean visit.

In the Introduction, Tom writes:

“War is a force of influence above all else—the most purely distilled form of partisanship ever devised. Yet war’s energies and dark matter are too complicated to allow anyone the certain physics of right and wrong. When war begins, leaders inevitably frown as they promise courage and bravery, guarantee tragic sacrifice, yet vow, all the same, to see it through. What any war’s igniters rarely admit are the small, terrible truths that have held firm for every war ever fought, no matter how necessary or avoidable: This will be horrible, and whatever happens will scar us for decades to come. Indeed, even necessary wars can destroy the trust of people in their leaders, just as war destroys human beings on both sides of the rifle.

War is appetitive. It devours goodwill, landscape, cultures, mothers, and fathers—before finally forcing us, the orphans, to pick up the pieces. These pages are, I hope, a few such pieces.”


Loring Wirbel said...

Sounds great. Tom's newest reminds me of Chris Hedges' "War is a Force that gives us Meaning." Will have to look for it. Enjoy the visit!

Ruth said...

Thanks, Loring. I do hope you'll read it. And I'll ask him about Hedges' book too. He did wide research on Vietnam, so I'm guessing he's read it.

Ginnie said...

That war was so much a part of "my era," Ruth, since so many of my collegemates went off to it. One of them, Barkley Bowman, whom I dated once, died there. I have also worked in assisted living (of all places) with men my age who served in Vietnam and are scarred for life. Some are now living with our senior citizens!

I can only imagine what Tom's book is like! Maybe one day I should read it!

freefalling said...

War stuff is seeping into my life everywhere!
Just last night:
The novel I am reading has war threads right through it (The Robber Bride-Margaret Atwood), ie battles through history, the Vietnam War.
I watched a doco last night (BBC-"who do you think you are"), tracing Stephen Fry's ancestry and much of it ended in concentration camps of WWII, but WWI also featured.
Then I watched a drama about Ireland/England - the Troubles, the IRA.
I'm strangely drawn to Huffing and its politics and talk of war.
I feel the universe is bombarding me.
The must be a reason in there somewhere?
I'm starting to feel decidedly uncomfortable!

Ruth said...

Ginnie/Boots, yes, it held over to mine too, obviously. And I remember a young man whose legs were blown off and when he came back to G.L. he drove around town in his custom van that was all hand operated. I wonder if Loring remembers him.

Ruth said...

O Freefalling. I am being bombarded too, and that's why I'm bombarding at Huffing. Maybe along with Tom, we and lots of others are being drawn in to learn from these wars, even though we didn't live through all of them. I'm so ready for war to be an anachronism, really outdated. It seems that ours is the first real generation to feel this way (?), and I hope to God change will happen more quickly than it has up to now.

Loring Wirbel said...

Wow, Ruth, the memory is very clear, but I can't remember who it was. Friend of Keith Popham or Tom Bennett, but older, I think.

Rauf said...

FREEFALLING, We play Chess, which is war.
Greed is not the only reason for war. Some wanted to show their might, some pushed their ideology.
War on fellow humans attracted our attention, but war on nature was never felt until recently.

i cannot alienate myself from the human race, though i wish i was a monkey. We have been stealing milk from the mother cow for ages and never felt guilty about it. Bees store honey for the rainy day and we humans have been stealing it but never felt guilty, we have studied understood and appreciate how organised these bees are.
Humans are the only species which has completely alienated from nature. The only weak link is food
oxygen and water. Food is patented, soon water and oxygen will not be available for the unfortunate.

Along with Darwin, many scientists like Herbert spencer, Russel Wallace were thinking and working on the same lines. Herbert Spencer chose a wrong title, 'the survival of the fittest' which is unfortunately is proving to be right about us humans.

Rauf said...

recently, i watched a youTUBE video
where an Australian TV anchor chap goes about asking questions on the streets of some American town. One of the questions was who won the Vietnam war. the lady says 'we did'

oh yes you wrote about it i wondered why 30,000 books. Have they helped ?

Not a pleasant subject Ruth.

Is war a necessary evil ?

Are we improving as a human race ?

Is intelligence taking us in the right direction ? It is wise and the most intelligent who wage wars.

Is it those who are civilised who wage wars or the most uncivilised ?

We all know the answers Ruth, This is why we have failed as a human race. Philosophies failed, religions failed, political systems failed.
We failed for only one reason, we humans never understood how small we are.

mystic rose said...

I am interested in how his visit goes, and what you think.

Most of us are far removed physically and emotionally from war, that is the problem... it is not a reality we have to deal with everyday, even when we campaign for or against it.

But where would the world be, if wars ahdnt happened when they did, liek India for example,. if the British hadnt taken over from all the innumerable rajahs and their squablles, (which in turn united all peoples under the one banner of Indian Freedom movement)made it into one country would it still be as it is now?

everybody aggresses one time or the other, and then the suppressed rise up in revolt, I guess. ..
It is a complicated issue, this human nature and collective nature.

'Through JoAnn's Digital Eyes'NL/Eng. said...

Hi ruth,
Talking about war...huuummm books about it hmmmm, The Netherlands just dicided to let our "boys" untill the end of 2010 in Uganistan, that should be 2 years now 3 years, my dad was in the war, most man were... I JSUT WONDER ALWAYS WHERE WARS ARE GOOD FOR, FOR WHO? Its the money, the power whatever..... I look at Israel and the Gaza, a war what never ends...Wra destroys everything good, I cannot find a clu, an answer, just my personal answer is STOP ALL the Wars, use the money to help everyone with food and good medicine....

I wish it was that simple....

freefalling said...

I wonder why RAUF would choose a monkey specifically?
And yes, we forget how small we are.
How do we keep that idea with us as we walk through life?

Ruth said...

rauf, I never thought about food being patented. So right. I've also thought about the day water will be distributed to those who can pay.

Yes, Freefalling showed me those links to the Aussie TV guy interviewing stupid Americans. Very disturbing, I don't even find them funny. Gosh, I need to learn to laugh at this stuff!

I started Bissell's book, and I appreciate the personal perspective. In our talks these last two days, he's told us what a wonderful place Vietnam is, and he'd like to live there again.

The saddest part of the book for me so far is that the U.S. pulled out of the conflict and South Vietnam was left to eventually be brutally defeated by the North. I have always wished we could get the hell out of Iraq, but when you see what happens when you just leave, you realize we can't just do that.

Ruth said...

Mystic Rose, there sure have been some necessary conflicts. I'm a terrible history student, and like Swedehart, I remember war after war after war.

I have to say, I believe in revolt. That is one form of war I can see. I mean if you are so abused and desperate, devoting yourself to fighting to change it is a cause I can see myself doing. Why don't I do it here? As Loring (I think) said over at huffing, people in a comfy society aren't likely to revolt.

During Tom's visit we haven't talked much about war. It's been more of a chance for students to hear about writing as a career, and that has been very helpful. I wish I had more one on one time to hear him talk about Vietnam.

The book he's currently researching is a travel book on the burial sites of the 13 apostles. We had a nice time talking about Turkey, which is where St. John is buried (supposedly; I think all the apostles probably have 25 arms and legs a piece around the world).

Ruth said...

JoAnn, yes some geographical locations have had war for millenia. Doesn't it make you wonder?

Reminds me of Edwin Starr's song War (What is it Good For - absolutely nothin').

Ruth said...

rauf, why the monkey?

Freefalling, I'm guessing something in the human gene reads "dominance" for survival.

Ruth said...

Loring, I mentioned Hedges by name and he quoted the title of the book, but the conversation took a turn, and we never talked about it.

Loring Wirbel said...

Ruth, regarding 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War, it wasn't as though the U.S. troops left and everything just collapsed. First Nixon, then Ford, were hoping that the concept of "Vietnamization" would allow the White House to funnel funds through other states to keep the NVA from just invading the South. It wouldn't have taken much to set up a temporary bulwark, but Ford put Kissinger in charge of drumming up money, and Congress had had enough of Kissinger. Even if they had agreed to fund more money for the ARVN (SV Army) itself, the army and the civilian leadership was so corrupt, it wouldn't have lasted long. The thing about a direct NVA invasion in April 1975 is it made the Vietcong claim of a "genuine local uprising" look silly - this was stage-managed by the North pure and simple. But Congress had its reasons for rejecting everything Ford and Kissinger said and did. Lots of good books on the final days, Snepp's "Decent Interval," Neil Sheehan's "Bright and Shining Lie", etc. I'm not sure what we could have done, but putting more money in around late 1974 would only have held the dam up until about 1976 or 1977 or so....

Ruth said...

Yes, Loring, oh I'm so pitifully uneducated about this. Quoting Tom:

"On April 10 [1975], President Ford made a final attempt to convince Congress to appropriate $1 billion in emergency military assistance to South Vietnam, saying in a speech before the House that the 'situation in South Vietnam . . . has reached a critical phase . . . and the time is very short.' At least two members of Congress stood and walked out in the middle of Ford's speech in what was (then) an unprecedented display of contempt for a sitting president."

Loring Wirbel said...

I hope that Tom doesn't take TOO empathetic a position toward the executive branch. Congress definitely did many dumb things in the mid-70s, but the "Ford and Kissinger Show" was an absolutely wretched mini-series, particularly the East Timor episode.... oh, and the Angola episode ... oh, and the classify-the-CIA-report episode... oh, and the Mayaguez episode... oh, and the Kurdish rebels vs. the shah episode..

MedaM said...

My grandmother was four years old girl when the WW1 began. During her period of life she went through 3 wars.
My mother was 3 years old little girl when the WW2 began. She was only 5 yrs old the last time she and her one year younger sister saw their father (my grandfather) was when he told them to go into the house and that he would come back soon. But he never did.He was killed in some of battle. Nobody knows for his grave. My grandmother left alone with two little girls. I still remember of her sad stories from that period of her life.
I was 12 years old when the war in Vietnam ended. Everybody was happy. I remember that I was happy too.
I was 31 yrs old and my sons 6 and 8 yrs old when in the middle of the Europe the war in my country began. I had happy childhood but my sons were suffering hungry and thirsty for almost 4 years. My brother was killed in this war. He was only 33 yrs old. I could tell you novels and novels on this topic but there is no any use of it. Nobody can bring back all the youth from their graves now. And the main criminals are still free. They who have never felt all the horror of the war can never know how it is really look like. I learned about the ex wars from the books and also listened the stories from those who survived WW1 or WW2 and I used to be very sorry and sad because of that but listening about it and go through that horror isn't the same. And, it is only the innocent people who suffer the most in all wars but not those who create them.

swedehart said...

I am so thankful to have this forum of diverse people to learn from. And thank you Aunt Ruth for asking the questions. I suspect wars are easily perpetuated because the young fight them, and the young have no past experience, no nightmares, no flashbacks. And the war creators cash in on their ignorance. But, it's a good question, why don't the ones who have experienced the horrors of war unite and say NO! I am not criticizing, just wondering about my own human nature. So many ironies of life.