From The New York Review of Books:
The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the whole army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.
The moral of this verse (echoing the title of Tobias Wolff’s great war memoir (In Pharaoh’s Army) is that nobody completely returns from a war, especially a lost one. Bissell goes on to show how the whirlwind of Vietnam separated its combatants from the reasonable expectations of human experience. At a later point he invokes the words of the writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, who knew quite a bit about wars:
A person who has lived through a great war is different from a person who never lived through any war. They are two different species of human beings. They will never find a common language, because you cannot really describe the war, you cannot share it, you cannot tell someone: Here, take a little bit of my war.
Bissell begins his story by reconstructing the April day in 1975 when Saigon fell to the Communists as it was experienced by his father in the family home in Escanaba, Michigan. He himself was only one year old at the time but he has learned enough since to try to reconstruct what happened, while admitting that he has had to imagine parts of the story. Former Marine John Bissell has become a banker in Escanaba with a troubled family life and something like a weakness for the bottle. He gets drunk on the day of the fall of Saigon and speaks on the phone with some of the men he fought beside in Vietnam. Many years later father and son travel to the scenes of John Bissell’s recollections. In the company of a moody Vietnamese guide and a driver they travel around the country, seeing Danang, Nha Trang, and the Citadel at Hue among other places that figure in the history of the Marine Corps’ Vietnam deployment. Tom Bissell evokes the two men’s contemporary adventures with some memorable descriptions—frequently all the more powerful because they confront the limits of description.