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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Bright Shining Lie, 26 July 2003
This review is from: Bright, Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (Picador Books) (Paperback)
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 
Cornyman (Hertfordshire, UK) - See all my reviews
(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. This is not some Black Hawk Down-style glorification of the American war machine but an honest accounting of a bloody, terrible slice of authentic history.

Many books have been written about this war; some, like the superb Chickenhawk, written by those who actually participated, others, such as JFK by Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, provide a great insight into the early planning stages of such a violent intervention. A Bright Shining Lie, however, encapsulates nearly everything. It is the personal involvement of one man's life; it is American corruption and self-delusion; it is random slaughter of civilians; barbarity and personal sacrifice. Many books have been written on the subject. Some will endure. This one stands as a masterpiece.
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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 (Albuquerque, NM, USA) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
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. The attendees underscored Vann contacts, and personification of the war, and these including the journalist Joseph Alsop; an old friend, and now a person with opposite views on the war, Daniel Elsberg; General Edward Lansdale, thinly disguised subject of the novel THE UGLY AMERICAN Senator Edward Kennedy; General William Westmoreland; William Colby, former head of the CIA, William Rodgers; former Sec. of State, and Melvin Laird; former Sec. of Defense. A grouping of the "Best and the Brightest" as fellow journalist David Halberstam would sardonically dub them. As an indication of the shift in the popular culture, the classic anti-war song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" was played. Afterwards there would be a medal-awarding ceremony at the White House, and Sheehan describes the dissension in Vann's own family to this event.

On Sheehan's arrival in Vietnam in 1962 he readily admits that he believed the "party line" of the political establishment of the time, that the struggle in Vietnam was all part of the global anti-communism crusade and a defense of freedom. Although a journalist, and unlike many of his colleagues who viewed themselves as needing to place the proper "spin" on events, when he went into the laboratory, and noticed that the facts were often at variance with the theory, like a good scientist, he decided the theory was faulty.

Concerning the events in the laboratory that changed his outlook: Diem, the South Vietnamese Prime Minister won 98% of the vote; the memorials to the Vietnamese communists who were killed in '55 and '56, allegedly during a time of peace, awaiting the upcoming election that would re-unify the country, sine the Geneva conventions of '54 specifically stated that the division was only temporary; the casual attitude of the American military hierarchy to Vietnamese civilian deaths, as well as the torture of prisoners ("Yeah, war is hell"). One of the biggest specific events that changed his mind was the Battle of Ap Bac, in 1963, two years prior to the commencement of the American buildup. The Viet Cong had, though outnumbered, bluntly whipped the South Vietnamese Army forces. Like Bernard Fall before him, making the observation about Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese on the Communist side had been better motivated, and fought harder than the Vietnamese on the non-Communist side. Sheehan was likewise appalled by the detachment and self-delusion of the American commander, General Harkins. On p 285 he summed it up by saying that: "the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity." Furthermore, Sheehan examines the various structural deficiencies of the leadership's mindset, noting that there were only "progress reports," never "lost way reports." Jonathan Schell noted the same phenomenon in his book, "The Military Half." On the after battle action forms there were no blanks for "civilian homes destroyed." Sheehan reserves a particular animus for Defense Secretary McNamera, a Rumsfeld precursor, who personified hubris. One of my favorite sections has always been when Sheehan tried to see him during one of McNamera's brief visits to Vietnam, and was brushed off with a: "Every quantitative measurement we have shows that we're winning this war."

In the section on "Antecedents to the Man" Sheehan does an excellent job in writing the biography of a profoundly flawed man, John Paul Vann, who was illegitimate, unloved by his mother, and obtained the most affection in his young life from a pedophile. For Vann the Army was the path towards respectability, and Sheehan documents his career from Korea, through Germany to eventually the battle of Ap Bac. Troubles with his superiors over his philandering, and a statutory rape charge were the real reason Vann resigned from the military. There is a wonderful line in the movie Dr. Zhivago that "happy men don't enlist" as others are swept away by war fever. Clearly Vann saw the war as his salvation, and was back in 1965, working for the US agency, AID. For those in a position of power in Vietnam, it was a wonderful place to exercise "sexual imperialism" at the expense of Vietnamese woman. Vann had two permanent Vietnamese liaisons, and many, many flings. In most books this aspect of the war is omitted, so it is very much to Sheehan's credit that he documented another sordid side to the war.

The first 500 pages of the book cover the period prior to the American buildup commencing in '65. But Sheehan saw much thereafter, including being present at the first major US-NVA battle in the Ia Drang valley. The Vann - Elsberg relationship was another fascinating aspect the book brought to light. Sheehan also details the demoralization and deterioration of the Army after several years of the madness of this war, which was one of the reasons why the USA eventually decided to end the war. Another favorite passage is on page 690, concerning My Lai, and it is Sheehan's assessment that it was only unusual in the sense that it was up close and personal, but if this number of civilians had been killed at a distance, over time, it would have been SOP for the war.

Overall, it is a brilliant, poignant account of a very tragic episode in American history that should be read in every school, and by every policy maker. It deserves a 6-star rating.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on December 15, 2008)
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Decline and Fall of the American Empire? Nearly., 4 Jan 2000
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. That Sheehan, Halberstam and the rest took so long to tumble to what now seems obvious to us (thanks to the hindsight that they helped give us) shows how deeply ingrained was that American dynastic dream which even now shapes how our world thinks.
Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" (1956) foreshadows the disaster outlined in "Bright Shining Lie" so presciently that it's a pity his book did not prove as influential as Lederer and Burdick's antithetical "The Ugly American" (1958), which John Paul Vann apparently loved so much. It's well worth re-reading Greene's work in the light of "Lie".
Neil Sheehan chronicles this crucial turning-point of a war with a compulsive, confessional brilliance. It seems almost perverse to call "Bright shining lie" too short (at 800 pages) but the war didn't end with Vann's death, and the book does. I was disappointed not to be able to read Sheehan's analysis of the war's final three years.
James Joyce wrote that Irish history is a nightmare from which we are struggling to awaken. The 20th century taught us that the coloniseds' nightmare is the colonisers' dream. In Vietnam, Zimbabwe, South Africa, East Timor, and across the globe, we have learned that once Finnegan has woken up, there's no falling asleep again.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Bright Shining Lie; John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan, 29 Oct 2010
By 
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 a helicopter crash near Kontum, Vietnam in June 1972 (generals Westmoreland and Stilwell both attended his funeral, as did Robert Komer and William Colby of the CIA). Vann attracted attention early on with his outspoken comments about the South Vietnamese military after the battle of Ap Bac in January 1963, the author being one of the journalists who interviewed him on that occasion.
Successfully combining biography and history, this in fact goes further and includes a lot of useful background material as well. An impressive achievement, one of the better books about the Vietnam War.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books on the tragedy of Vietnam, 26 May 1999
By A Customer
This is an incredible book that deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize. It charts the progress of the Vietnam War by following one man, John Paul Vann, in his attempts to turn the tide of war that was flowing very strongly against the Americans. Vann was a maverick, but he saw clearly that the tactics adopted by the American Military High Command were inappropriate for the Vietnamese theatre and would lead to disaster.
Reading this book it is clear that America could never have beaten the Vietnamese Communists; all of the gross excesses of the war, the tragic waste and the American fascination with body counts and superior technology are laid bare for examination. It seemed only one man was trying to change the mind-set, but Vann's voice was the voice in the wilderness and it went unheeded.
I suspect that Vann would have been a very difficult man to like but his bravery, tenacity, far-sightedness and leadership could never be doubted.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Epic account of the folly of Vietnam, 26 Sep 2002
By 
Spencer (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
At 800 pages + you have to have some patience. However, if you stick with it this book will give you the most detailed history of the Vietnam conflict imaginable. The work and research put into this book is immense. Having read 'Dispatches'and 'If I Die in a Combat Zone' this book acts as a historic backdrop to why these events happened and why the carnage was so massive. Essential.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Novel approach to the history of the conflict, 21 Aug 2006
The history of the middle part of the Vietnam war using the life and experiences of John Vann, a senior military adviser, as a vehicle for the narrative. This does make the book more accessible but it also, necessarily, introduces material about Vann's personal life that I was not interested in.

I see that other reviews have described 'A Bright Shining Lie' as 'comprehensive', which is perhaps a strange description for a title that does not cover the French conflict in any detail and makes no mention at all of 'Nixon's war'.

On the whole though, this is a detailed, incisive and well-constructed analysis of US military policy and tactics during the period covered. Worthy of its Pulitzer.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A towering history of the tragedy of two nations, 31 July 2013
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 advisers. He was rapidly disillusioned by the casual brutality of the South Vietnamese troops and the arrogance of his US colleagues. He soon got to know the author, who was a reporter in Saigon and passed on his entirely negative, but as history tells, accurate assessment of the situation. Having left the military under a cloud Vann returned to Vietnam as a civilian and, remarkably, regained a powerful role in the conflict through which he attempted to right the wrongs of the past. Vann died in Vietnam in 1972 and was hailed as a hero at home, never knowing the unedifying end that was to come three years later. The title of the book summarises Vann's thesis, that all that social, political and military narrative that drove US policy in Vietnam was nothing but a Bright Shining Lie. This is a wonderful history, steeped in well documented research and first hand accounts at the time, well written and compelling. A must for anyone interested in the truth about Vietnam.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Biography of good soldier but a flawed private individual, 17 May 2013
By 
Amazon Customer "Sussman" (London CA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
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 book which I came upon in a book store purely by accident. The cover art was attractive and caught the eye, but the deal clincher was the glossary and abstract. The Vietnam War was always a complex issue for me and I really wanted to understand the time line that led to the US intervention in Indo-China. Yes I know that in principle this book is about John Vann, an officer in United States Army, he is good at his job and seems to be unable to suffer fools, especially if they are his senior. However, John Van's private life and the moral compass that guides him through it are askew. Our Author Mr Sheehan, does a very good biography of John Van, but the icing on the cake is the way he interlaces Van's life and career with the history of the conflict, he breaks down common misconceptions, such as the ruling elite in the South of the country were Christian and catholic, while the majority of the people were Buddhist - something it seems the US never really appreciated in its support of the government of the South. These nuggets of gold and the comprehensive attention to detail were like real revelations for me, and I read the book at pace that I save for very good thrillers. This book is an authoritative account that is well deserving of a good 5 stars.
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