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A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam Paperback – 1 Oct 1998
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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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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.
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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