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A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam [Paperback]

Neil Sheehan
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Oct 1998

Outspoken, professional and fearless, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann went to Vietnam in 1962, full of confidence in America's might and right to prevail. He was soon appalled by the South Vietnamese troops' unwillingness to fight, by their random slaughter of civilians and by the arrogance and corruption of the US military. He flouted his supervisors and leaked his sharply pessimistic - and, as it turned out, accurate - assessments to the US press corps in Saigon. Among them was Sheehan, who became fascinated by the angry Vann, befriended him and followed his tragic and reckless career.

Sixteen years in the making, A Bright Shining Lie is an eloquent and disturbing portrait of a man who in many ways personified the US war effort in Vietnam, of a solider cast in the heroic mould, an American Lawrence of Arabia. Blunt, idealistic, patronising to the Vietnamese, Vann was haunted by a shameful secret - the fact that he was the illegitimate son of a 'white trash' prostitute. Gambling away his career, Vann left the army that he loved and returned to Vietnam as a civilian in the pacification programme. He rose to become the first American civilian to wield a general's command in war. When he was killed in 1972, he was mourned at Arlington cemetery by leading political figures of the day. Sheehan recounts his astonishing story in this intimate and intense meditation on a conflict that scarred the conscience of a nation.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 896 pages
  • Publisher: Pimlico; New Ed edition (1 Oct 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0712666567
  • ISBN-13: 978-0712666565
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.2 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 229,016 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

This passionate, epic account of the Vietnam War centres on Lt Col John Paul Vann, whose story illuminates America's failures and disillusionment in Southeast Asia. Vann was a field adviser to the army when American involvement was just beginning. He quickly became appalled at the corruption of the South Vietnamese regime, their incompetence in fighting the Communists and their brutal alienation of their own people. Finding his superiors too blinded by political lies to understand that the war was being thrown away, he secretly briefed reporters on what was really happening. One of those reporters was Neil Sheehan. This definitive exposé on why America lost the war won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1989.


"If there is one book that captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it... A dazzling montage: vividly written and deeply felt... The dramatic scenes of lonely men locked on combat...the clash of wills and egos...all these combine in a work that captures the Vietnam War like no other... An impressive achievement" (New York Times Book Review)

"I have never read such a book and never expected to... It's not just about John Paul Vann. Not just about America and all of us. Not just Vietnam and all the Vietnamese. It is tragedy and comedy and I don't care how many pages it is. I'll never tire of reading it again and again" (Harrison E. Salisbury)

"It will stand as the definitive account of the passions, loyalties (guided and not), inspirations, follies and tragedies of the Vietnam War" (Sunday Times)

"Probably the book on the Vietnam War...sophisticated, humane. It contains some of the best military reporting ever written" (Francis Fitzgerald)

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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Bright Shining Lie 26 July 2003
Sheehans book is a huge work not to be contemplated by the light hearted. As an accesible history of Vietnam it has little competition. It is the story of John Vann, a US military officer who enters the war full of belief in the way it is run yet quickly becomes cynical about his superiors and their tactic. He leaks the truth to the press and is vilified as a result.
As a biography one would expect support for the main character. However Sheehan presents a harsh portrait of his "hero." He is portrayed as a deeply flawed man beset by depression, cynicism and a womaniser. We are not made to like Vann but Sheehan presents the facts and lets the reader decide how they feel. This book does not leave the reader feeling warm and comfortable; if anything we are left more confused about the whole war than before opening the book. Questions are asked but not answered, moral issues raised but not resolved. Maybe this sums up the whole war?
The book also acts a comprehensive work of history with accessible descriptions of the key battles and political intrigues that made up Vietnam.
This book is not pretty or fluffy. At the end I did not feel happy or pleased with its closure-it however is about reality and reflects this well. Sheehan has written a powerful book which should be read by anyone wanting to understand Vietnam and more widely the impacts of war on people.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remember the war. Read this book 29 Oct 2007
By Mr. Tristan Martin VINE VOICE
Former United Press International and New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan (who, apart from writing this spectacular volume, also obtained the Pentagon Papers via Daniel Ellsberg) has written perhaps the book on the U.S. war in Vietnam. Sixteen years in the making, A Bright Shining Lie, is a truly impressive achievement, though `impressive' is to understate the awesome scope and depth of such a massive and ambitious piece of work.

A Bright Shining Lie tells two intertwining stories - Lt Colonel John Paul Vann's biography: an idealistic soldier who in 1962 believes in the United States' military supremacy and moral certitude, that to intervene in Vietnam was the right thing to do, that it was `winnable'. The second narrative details the war and the country itself - the key battles, the evolving corruption and the military incompetence at all levels, all of which led a disillusioned Vann to leak his pessimistic - and ultimately accurate - assessments of the U.S. chances of `success' to the press, one of which was the author Sheehan himself.

This epic book succeeds on every level. The personal story of Vann himself is clear, his personality and ambitions are clearly revealed. Sheehan draws a portrait of a contradictory human, not an idealised cowboy in a white Stetson, nor the clichéd Ugly American but a flawed, caring, compassionate, deceitful individual. Vann's life is masterfully interwoven with the war in Vietnam. For this reader, A Bright Shining Lie excelled in its handling of the war itself, how for the first time, a key battle was detailed both with first-hand U.S. and Vietnamese recollections and after-action reports.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fiasco, again... 6 Jan 2011
By John P. Jones III TOP 500 REVIEWER
An absolutely essential book to read, and even with its length, to re-read again, since so many of the lessons that should have been learned were not, and the mistakes are being repeated, as Thomas Ricks has so well documented in his own excellent book on Iraq, entitled Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

Neil Sheehan, as a journalist, entered the Vietnam War in the very earliest phases of the American involvement, in 1962. Not long thereafter, he crossed paths with John Paul Vann, a Lt. Colonel, developed an admiration for him because of his frank assessments of the conditions on the ground, which were all too often at variance with his superior's desires and delusions. For the next ten years their paths would cross, and re-cross again, and finally Sheehan visited the grove of trees near Kontum, where Vann's helicopter crashed, killing him and all on board, in 1972. Sheehan correctly saw Vann's life as a meaningful framework for explaining the larger dimensions of the war. Sheehan spent years piecing together the missing and hidden parts of Vann's life before publishing this quintessential account of the war. It is a comprehensive, overall view, covering the historical, political, media, and military dimensions of the war, with an emphasis on the hubris and folly of the enterprise.

Sheehan draws the reader in with an account of the funeral of Vann, in Washington DC.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
It's too early to write an obituary of the Inc. Dynasty (our lifetimes' greatest empire) but Washington's imperial court has certainly seen better days. Maybe the shot from the bookstore was the single instant which blew the American dream as wide open as JFK's skull, but the dreadful and pointless war in Vietnam carpet-bombed and defoliated that dream and made sure it could never recur.
Ironically, "Vietnam" was one of a series of lessons which Europe's tired old empires had just about learned by 1960. France tried to recover from their humiliation at the hands of the axis powers by returning to the golden days of lazy colonialism in Indochine, but Ho Chi Minh proved that there was no going back. America's involvement in France's war was an attempt to show that a young, fitter, supposedly meritocratic empire could somehow do it better. The Americans succeeded only in dragging the war out almost interminably, and in the process they ended the Ameican Dream, by destroying their credibility even in their own eyes.
Ideas and dreams are dangerous, even if they're exciting too. Ideas are what cause the bombs to fall and the guerillas to fight it out in the hills. "Bright shining lie" tells what happened to the bombs and body counts, but it doesn't probe deeply enough into Vann's own failure to realise that the American war could never work because its starting idea was all screwed up. John Paul Vann's thesis - that the war wasn't working becaue the generals weren't doing it right - only holds water because he's an exceptionally talented soldier. (It also echoes what the Americans said to the French in the 1950s.)
Soldiers famously don't think about ideas ("I was just following orders") but bright young journalists are supposed to.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book that tells it like it was
A great book that tells it like it was. Recommend it to be read by all Americans, that illustrate all the lies that Governments
throughout the world tell in order to control... Read more
Published 16 days ago by James Neary
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential
Without doubt, the finest book on the Vietnam War. I picked up a copy while travelling in that country, 20 years after a friend had recommended it to me. Well worth the wait. Read more
Published 6 months ago by High Seas Drifter
5.0 out of 5 stars A towering history of the tragedy of two nations
This history of the tragedy of Vietnam is told from the perspective of Lt Col John Paul Vann who arrived in Vietnam in 1962, at the time when the US military were there as... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Mike in Sussex
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
If you only read one book about the war in Vietnam make it this one. No gloss just the truth
Published 15 months ago by gordon
5.0 out of 5 stars Biography of good soldier but a flawed private individual
There are some really good reviews for this book on the Amazon web site. So I won't begin to try and compete with these good reviews,I will do my best my giving my thoughts on this... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Sussman
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't let the book's size and scale daunt you
A very well written book about the folly of Vietnam. Memorable characters - tragic episodes - names and events that will haunt you - for me a guy called William Deal at the Battle... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Seoulprovider
5.0 out of 5 stars Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and where next?
This proves the military in the UK and US have not learned from their mistakes. They were fighting WWII in 1962. A fascinating book, huge in scope and fascinating in content. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Portlander
5.0 out of 5 stars THE book on USA's war in Vietnam.
This book is the story of an american officer and the war in Vietnam in the period of 1962 - 1969.
Mr. Read more
Published on 13 Jun 2012 by Olav
5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid book on the US war of aggression against Vietnam and why it...
Too many accounts of this war (and some other reviews on Amazon's pages) call the war an American disaster or an American tragedy. Read more
Published on 17 May 2012 by William Podmore
4.0 out of 5 stars A Bright Shining Lie; John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil...
A lengthy but involving account of the career of John Paul Vann, a US Army officer and latterly a civilian adviser with the Agency for International Development (AID), who died in... Read more
Published on 29 Oct 2010 by J. Southworth
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