John Paul Vann is the central character of Sheehan’s book, the character around whom the whole Vietnam War seems to turn. Fearless, misguided, Vann appears to stand for America itself. American ambassador and commanding general were informing the Kennedy administration that everything was going well and that the victory was theirs. Vann saw Vietnam War otherwise. In the end Vann was killed when his helicopter crashed and burned in rain and fog in the mountains of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, leaving behind a most extraordinary legend.
He succeeded in imposing himself as the real commander of a whole region in Vietnam, and the Pentagon, in an unprecedented move, gave him authority over all U. S. military forces in his area. He commanded as many troops as a major general. Vann never hesitated to use whatever level of force was necessary to achieve his ends, but considered it morally wrong and stupid to wreak violence on the innocent (another reason for his popularity with the anti-war people). The influence he wielded both within the U. S.
civil-military bureaucracy and the Saigon government made him, by general agreement, the most important American in Vietnam after our ambassador and commanding general, a position recognized at his Arlington funeral, attended by the entire Washington military establishment. Neil Sheehan’s book is now popular with both critics and public, and Hollywood would even think of making a film portraying an American military hero from the Vietnam War with such sympathy. DEVELOPMENT OF THEME Both John Paul Vann and Neil Sheehan went to Vietnam in the early 1960s, Vann as a military advisor, Sheehan as a reporter for United Press International (UPI).
As the months passed, Vann’s disillusionment with the war’s progress eventually led him to share his frustrations with Sheehan and other reporters, and the advisor became one of the correspondents’ most valuable sources of information on the true dynamics of the situation out in the countryside. In the mid-1960s Sheehan left Vietnam for assignments in the United States, but Vann remained and, after assuming a civilian position, rose to become one of the most powerful Americans in the country.
In 1972, a short time after Vann’s death in a helicopter crash, Sheehan began work on a biography of the soldier. Sixteen long years later, the book was finally published to a chorus of critical praise. John Paul Vann went to Vietnam in March 1962 at age thirty-seven. A lieutenant colonel in the U. S. Army, he served as senior advisor to the South Vietnamese Army’s 7th Infantry Division, which was headquartered at My Tho in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. An intelligent, fearless man possessed of terrific stamina and a deeply held belief in the legitimacy of U.
S. involvement in Vietnam, Vann was an ideal advisor in many respects. Sheehan wrote in A Bright Shining Lie that the military man’s character and education had ‘‘combined to produce a mind that could be totally possessed by the immediate task and at the same time sufficiently detached to discern the root elements of the problem. He manifested the faith and the optimism of post–World War II America that any challenge could be overcome by will and by the disciplined application of intellect, technology, money, and, when necessary, armed force. (134)’’
But as the months passed and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops that he was advising continued to flounder, Vann’s frustration grew. South Vietnamese commanders proved reluctant to commit troops to confrontations because of political concerns back in Saigon and their own instinct for self-preservation, and the rosy forecasts of American policymakers troubled him as well. Moreover, Vann felt that both the South Vietnamese government and U. S. officials did not appreciate the significance of the social problems plaguing the country, and he argued that U. S.
bombing policies and the Strategic Hamlets program (in which peasants were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in group encampments) were eroding already tenuous support for the Diem regime out in the countryside. By the end of his first year in Vietnam, wrote Sheehan, ‘‘Vann saw that the war was being lost. The ambassador and the commanding general in South Vietnam were telling the Kennedy administration that everything was going well and that the war was being won. Vann believed then and never ceased to believe that the war could be won if it was fought with sound tactics and strategy” (102).
Sheehan and the other members of the Saigon press corps bucked attempts by U. S. and Vietnamese officials to spoon-feed the media information on the war’s progress, and relations between the camps quickly deteriorated. Within a matter of months, however, the adventurous UPI reporter had developed an effective network of independent sources and established a productive partnership with David Halberstam of the New York Times. One of the correspondents’ best sources in the U. S. military was John Paul Vann.
Writing in A Bright Shining Lie, Sheehan described the relationship between Vann and the reporters in similar terms: ‘‘Vann taught us the most, and one can truly say that without him our reporting would not have been the same…. He gave us an expertise we lacked, a certitude that brought a qualitative change in what we wrote. He enabled us to attack the official optimism with gradual but steadily increasing detail and thoroughness’’ (254). Sheehan noted that he and most of the other correspondents initially supported America’s presence in Vietnam.
‘‘We believed in what our government said it was trying to accomplish in Vietnam, and we wanted our country to win this war just as passionately as Vann and his captains did,’’ (211) Sheehan said. But the reports of Vann and other sources, coupled with their own firsthand observations out in the field, convinced the press corps that the U. S. prosecution of the war was fundamentally flawed. While attending the funeral for John Paul Vann in 1972, Sheehan was struck by the stature of those in attendance (from General William Westmoreland, who served as a pallbearer, to Ellsberg, who had been one of Vann’s closest friends).
Upon returning home, Sheehan secured a two-year leave of absence from the New York Times, along with a contract from a publisher, and began work on a biography of Vann. The writer felt that by studying Vann’s life, he would also be able to examine America’s role in Vietnam. As he wrote in A Bright Shining Lie, ‘‘The intensity and distinctiveness of his character and the courage and drama of his life had seemed to sum up so many of the qualities Americans admired in themselves as a people. By an obsession, by an unyielding dedication to the war, he had come to personify the American endeavor in Vietnam.
He had exemplified it in his illusions, in his good intentions gone awry, in his pride, in his will to win” (325). As the 1970s blurred into the early 1980s, Sheehan’s obsession with Vann’s story grew. Month after month passed by as the writer tried to reconcile Vann’s dark secrets (a troubled childhood, a sexual appetite that doomed his army career) with the honorable soldier he had known in the Mekong Delta. And over it all lay the shadow of the war itself, the contradictions of which Sheehan continued to see encapsulated in Vann. Sheehan fell into a reclusive routine in which his waking hours were dominated by the book.
In August 1986 Sheehan finally completed the manuscript for A Bright Shining Lie. Over the course of the next year, the author pared the book down to 360,000 words, still a massive work. In 1988—sixteen years after Sheehan began work on the Vann biography—A Bright Shining Lie was finally published. Paralyzed by our own Newtonian paradigm, we defeated ourselves by persistently viewing the Vietcong as being different from us in degree, when in fact they were different in kind. Underestimating them as being different only in degree, the U. S.
military often contemptuously referred to them as “those raggedy-assed little bastards” (205). To Americans, the Vietcong simply had less technology to fight with; but the Vietcong knew they had a different kind of technology – the land, and they used it to great advantage against U. S. technology. In his A Bright Shining Lie, Sheehan relates a story that perfectly expresses how the Vietcong used nature in concert with their kind of technology. A Captain James Drummond is told by a prisoner that “the most important Vietcong training camp in the northern Delta is located in clumps of woods above a hamlet.
When he gets there, Drummond finds . . . four thatched-hut classrooms furnished with blackboards under the trees . . . ” (88). The very idea that “blackboards under the trees” – a virtual oxymoron in American thinking -could be used to defeat the United States, is, once again, “unthinkable. ” It represents what psychiatrist Charles J. Levy calls “inverted warfare,” which Gibson explains as “the sense in which American common sense on how the world operates was reversed or inverted in Vietnam”.
A Bright Shining Lie confirms, that the core of the U. S. news operation in Vietnam during the crucial years from 1961 to 1963, came under the influence of a mid-level U. S. Army adviser, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, who was convinced that he had solved the riddle of how to galvanize what was essentially a fifteenth-century South Vietnamese army into a twentieth-century fighting force: Get rid of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, and have the United States take over the war, in toto.
On January 2, 1963, the ARVN 7th Infantry Division, which was under the command of General Huynh Van Cao, carried out orders to destroy a Vietcong radio transmitter located in the hamlet of Tan Thoi in the Mekong Delta. Acting on intelligence that indicated that the transmitter was protected by a force of about one hundred Vietcong in nearby Ap Bac, Vann and his staff settled on a plan of attack that featured his usual precise calculations. ‘‘Vann saw an opportunity to use the ARVN’s advantages in mobility, firepower, and armor to destroy a Viet Cong unit,’’ noted Harry G.
Summers, Jr. in the Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. But instead of wreaking havoc on the guerrillas (whose hit-and-run tactics had frustrated the American advisors over the preceding months), the operation proved disastrous for Cao’s troops. Larger-than-expected Vietcong forces at Ap Bac and Tan Thoi were ready for the attack, having intercepted radio messages concerning the upcoming operation. When the raid’s first helicopters arrived, they were met with withering ground fire, and three of the H-21 helicopters and one Huey (UH-1) gunship were promptly downed.
The first few minutes of the battle set the pattern for the rest of the clash. As the hours dragged by, ARVN forces committed a series of strategic blunders—some over the objections of Vann and his staff—that served to further deteriorate their position. Finally, Vann felt that Cao’s forces showed little appetite for battle, a factor that further contributed to the debacle. By the next morning the Vietcong guerrillas had slipped away, leaving behind eighty ARVN dead and another one hundred wounded. Significantly, three Americans had been killed as well.
Later in the morning, Cao ordered a fraudulent air strike on the area, nearly killing Sheehan and two other Americans who were surveying the long-abandoned battlefield. In the battle’s aftermath, U. S. and South Vietnamese officials tried to call the clash at Ap Bac a victory, but Vann and his staff quickly disabused the press corps of any such notions. Enraged by the whole operation, Vann called the ARVN effort ‘‘a miserable damn performance,’’ and even though correspondents who used the quote did not reveal his identity, U. S. officials familiar with Vann knew whose voice it was.
‘‘As a battle it did not amount to much, but Ap Bac would have profound consequences for the later prosecution of the war,’’ wrote Summers. ‘‘Prior to Ap Bac,’’ Sheehan pointed out, ‘‘the Kennedy administration had succeeded in preventing the American public from being more than vaguely conscious that the country was involved in a war in a place called Vietnam…. Ap Bac was putting Vietnam on the front pages and on the television evening news shows with a drama that no other event had yet achieved’’ (421). Vann retired from the army several months later.
When those who knew him learned of his departure, many assumed that he had selflessly sacrificed his military career so that he could comment on the war with greater freedom, and his reputation was further enhanced. His admirers were unaware that Vann’s myriad sexual indiscretions (including a valid statutory rape charge that he ultimately beat) had permanently scarred his record, effectively limiting his advancement anyway. In 1965 Vann returned to Vietnam as a civilian, serving as a provincial pacification representative for AID (the Agency for International Development).
As American involvement in the war expanded, Vann’s authority increased, even though he continued to be an outspoken critic of some aspects of the war’s prosecution. ‘‘His leadership qualities and his dedication to the war had assisted his promotion, as had a realization by those in power in Saigon and Washington that his dissent over tactics or strategy was always meant to further the war effort, not hinder it,’’ wrote Sheehan (436). In May 1971 Vann was promoted to an advisory position that gave him authority over all U. S. military forces in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and adjacent provinces along the central coastline.
The unprecedented arrangement gave Vann more power than he could have ever wielded had he stayed in the army. By this point, some people who knew Vann felt that the years of involvement in the war had changed the man, and not for the better. They noted that Vann had adopted a much more lenient philosophy about appropriate methodologies for winning the bitter war. Those who recalled his harsh criticisms of bombing strategies earlier in the conflict for the toll that they exacted on civilians found that he had become an enthusiastic proponent of intensive bombing campaigns.
Sheehan wrote about an exchange between Vann and Washington Post reporter Larry Stern that dramatically reflected Vann’s change of heart: ‘‘Anytime the wind is blowing from the north where the B-52 strikes are turning the terrain into a moonscape, you can tell from the battlefield stench that the strikes are effective,’’ (365) Vann reportedly told Stern. In March 1972, North Vietnamese forces launched the three-pronged Easter Offensive, a bold effort to overwhelm South Vietnam by attacks on three strategic regions.
All three thrusts were ultimately turned back, however, as the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) was handed a major setback. Vann was widely credited with being a key figure in the defense of An Loc, a site seventy-five miles north of Saigon that had been one of the NVA’s primary targets in the offensive. In June of that year, however, Vann was killed in an air crash when his helicopter, flying low over an otherwise treeless valley at night, hit a small group of trees standing over a primitive Montagnard cemetery (Montagnards are aboriginal tribespeople who make their homes in some of Vietnam’s more mountainous areas).
EVALUATION OF THE THEME AND BOOK PRESENTATION As the months passed, and disastrous events such as the Ap Bac debacle and the Buddhist uprising erupted, Sheehan emerged as one of the war’s finest—and most controversial—correspondents. He did so despite struggling with an almost paralyzing certainty that death would claim him when he went out into the field. When he first arrived in Vietnam, Sheehan had been exhilarated by violent, dangerous excursions out in the countryside, but the events at Ap Bac changed his attitude in dramatic fashion.
While surveying the scene of the battle, Sheehan and two others (reporter Nick Turner and Brigadier General Robert York) had nearly been blown apart by General Cao’s fraudulent attack against the abandoned Vietcong positions in the area. In June 1964 Sheehan left UPI for the New York Times. A year later he returned to Saigon, where he stayed until 1966, when he was transferred to Washington, D. C. That same year he wrote an article, ‘‘Not a Dove, but No Longer a Hawk,’’ that reflected his growing disillusionment with America’s involvement in Vietnam. In the late 1960s he served as the newspaper’s Pentagon and White House correspondent.
By 1971 Sheehan had come full circle; he emerged as a critic of the war. In 1971 Ellsberg’s disenchantment with U. S. policies led him to give Sheehan a massive collection of confidential government memorandums and reports on the war that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. To opponents of the war, the records in this archive—commissioned by Defense Secretary McNamara back in 1967, they included reports dating back to the 1940s—provided stark evidence that U. S. involvement in Southeast Asia had too often been characterized by deceit, misjudgments, and bureaucratic arrogance.
Sheehan’s massive tome garnered many awards (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award for nonfiction, Columbia Journalism Award, Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and others) and laudatory reviews in the months following its publication. Boosted by the recognition, the book became a best-seller. Reviewers were almost unanimous in their praise for Sheehan’s work (the harshest dissent with the critical consensus appeared in the National Review). New York Times Book Review critic Ronald Steel commented that if there is one book that captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it.
Indeed, reviewers recognized that the book worked in large measure because of its choice of subject matter. Critics felt that, in John Paul Vann, Sheehan had found a larger-than-life figure whose experiences in Vietnam offered valuable insights into the character and nature of American involvement in the conflict. Making more sense of what happened in the conflict than most books, this is a thoughtful, well-made work. References Sheehan, Neil. (1988). A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House.
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