A BRIGHT SHINING LIE: JOHN PAUL VANN AND AMERICA IN VIETNAM
by Neil Sheehan
(Random House, 861 pages, $34.50)
The abiding image of former U.S. lieutenant-colonel John Paul Vann— the image that should abide—is of him zinging over the treetops in a little Ranger helicopter, antiaircraft machineguns blazing at him from below, flak shells bursting around him, as he tries to resupply besieged paratroops at a South Vietnam battle site. On that spring day in 1972, Vann and his pilot made six runs to Fire Base Delta, dumping out badly needed ammunition, water cannisters and medical supplies. Vann’s heroics kept the North Vietnamese army from overrunning the outpost. “No Vietnamese general would do that,” a South Vietnamese general observes in Neil Sheehan’s masterwork about the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie.
“Not even a U.S. general would do that.” In fact, Vann was not a general or even a soldier at the time. He had left the army in 1963 and returned to the war two years later as a civilian administrator. But then, Vann did a lot of things in Vietnam that no general ever dared to do, and he said a lot of things that his country’s leaders tried to stop him from saying. Author Sheehan—a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist—offers an exhaustive account of the remarkable soldier’s life, echoing one of Vann’s comments in the title. “We had also, to all the visitors who came over there, been one of the bright shining lies,” Vann said of his first Vietnam rotation in 1962 and 1963 as a military adviser to the South Vietnam army. He resigned his commission soon after, but he did not give up his conviction that his nation was backing a loser. The miserably corrupt regime in Saigon, he said, was driving the peasants into the arms of the Communists and directing an army of cowards and bootlick-
ers. History proved him right, but Vann does not emerge as an untarnished hero. In fact, Sheehan’s book depicts how the war in Vietnam corrupted even its greatest warrior.
Vann was not against the war; he just wanted to win it so badly that he broke all the rules— daring even to publicly criticize American strategy. In the summer of 1962, Vann went to the American correspondents in Saigon—including Sheehan—and convinced most of them that the official line of steady progress that was being fed back to the John F. Kennedy administration was the biggest of the bright shining lies. “He transformed us into a band of reporters propounding the John Vann view of the war,” Sheehan writes. Vann believed that the war was unwinnable unless, among other things, Washington imposed a real puppet government on South Vietnam and began “hiring and firing the Vietnamese leaders.” But Washington officials—whom Sheehan depicts as breathtakingly stupid about Southeast Asian matters—would not accept the idea that those “raggedy-assed little bastards” (as one U.S. commander called the Viet Cong) could challenge what Sheehan describes as the greatest imperial power in the history of the world.
Although Vann’s ideas would later gain him credibility with President Richard Nixon, the Lyndon Johnson administration ignored him— to its downfall. Instead, Washington poured arms (hundreds of thousands of which the Viet Cong captured and used), money ($33 billion a year at the war’s peak) and men (more than half a million by 1967) into a war of attrition.
Sheehan calls Vann “the one authentic hero of this shameful period,” but he stops well short of glorifying the man. He reveals how Vann did nothing to dispel the belief that he had sacrificed his military career on a matter of principle. Sheehan says that Vann knew in 1962, when he was boldly cultivating the press, that his army days were numbered. There was a stain on his record—an accusation of statu-
tory rape—that would prevent him from ever getting his general’s stars. “I guess you’ve learned your lesson now,” says his long-suffering wife, Mary Jane, when charges were dropped by the army. “I sure as hell have,” he replies. “Next time I’ll make goddam sure they’re old enough.”
Despite the “dark compulsions” that Sheehan ascribes to his friend’s personality, there
had been, in the early years, “professional honesty that was rigorous and incorruptible.” But it was a much less incorruptible Vann who returned to Vietnam in 1965 as a civilian administrator. Vann was such a consummate warrior that no real general could stop him when he assumed effective military command over all armed forces in his large central sector. By December, 1969, John Paul Vann was telling the White House that America was going to win this war after all.
Sheehan writes that the John Vann his old friends knew “had disappeared into the war.” He adds, “He had finally bent the truth about the war as he had bent other and lesser truths in the past.” In 1962, Vann had told a correspondent: “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane.” A decade later, in what would be his last battle— he died in a helicopter accident in early June, 1972—Vann had made the B-52 bomber his personal weapon of choice. “You can tell from the battlefield stench that the [air] strikes are effective,” Vann said of his earlier victory at Kontum.
Sheehan’s definitive book gives the Vietnam experience a personal context it has long needed. Vietnam was a test of moral courage for both John Vann and the United States. In the end, as Sheehan shows, both man and country failed.
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