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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Review of Neil Sheehan’s Bright and Shining Lie

Neil Sheehan’s exhaustive 900-page story of a flawed but extremely perceptive and charismatic American Army officer is to the Vietnam War what Moby Dick was to 19th-century whaling. 

While the Pentagon Papers can give you a wider historical perspective, starting with letters from Ho Chi Minh pleading for aid to fight the Japanese during WW2, to the internal documents of Johnson administration's covering up of everything, a Bright and Shining Lie also tells the whole story, but through the eyes and actions of one very amazing yet flawed man.  The book starts with an excellent introduction to the origins of the war, but its foundational narrative is its long and detailed description of the  Battle of Ap Bac in 1964. This battle became a metaphor for the entire war,  where a few companies of Vietcong held off a much larger South Vietnamese force and their numerous American advisors, tank operators, and pilots. We see how the Vietcong developed new tactics almost on the fly. They shot down helicopters, destroyed tanks with meager obsolete weapons and still managed to retreat with minimal casualties. Sheehan follows Vann, who fought in the battle and breaks down his analysis of it. Sheehan shows us that while Vann may have been the most "gun-ho" American officer of the war was also one of the first to see its futility. Sheehan's book explains how the American post-war masculine mentality was ultimately what led to the catastrophe of the Vietnam War. 

 Sheehan was one of a small group of brilliant and iconoclastic reporters and officers such as David Halberstam and Daniel Ellsberg who knew and almost worshipped Vann.  Vann knew from almost from the moment that the Battle of Ap Bac ended that the war was unwinnable. Yet for many reasons he continued to apply his prodigious energy and almost monomaniacal will to continue fighting, taking huge personal risks, while waging a bureaucratic war of his own against the American military’s futile reliance on massive carpet bombing and overwhelming firepower. And tragically, after it was way too late to change the outcome, his ideas, even after his own death, helped extend the war.    

John Paul Vann came from a poor, dysfunctional Virginia family and as with so many young men looking for a way out of poverty, saw the military as a vehicle for personal advancement. He joined the army at 18 during WW2, got into pilot school, and became an officer. He didn’t see action until the Korean War, where his bravery and clear thinking under fire was noticed and put him on the promotion track. His physical courage was legendary, and Sheehan gives many examples of his almost suicidal ballsiness, which in the end would kill him. 

After the  Korean War, Vann went to college and attended the Army War College. He attached himself to many of the leading proponents of the American Cold War Strategy, notably Edward Landsdale. When America’s involvement in Vietnam began, he was one of the US “Advisors” who tried to organize South Vietnam’s resistance to the Vietminh, (later Vietcong) - the South Vietnamese militia who were allied with Ho Chi Minh’s Hanoi based government. Vann quickly saw how corruption and unwillingness to fight, - not out of cowardliness, but fear of their own politicians - made the long term prospects for South Vietnam’s survival bleak. But when his reports began to clash with the official American position of  “light at the end of the tunnel”, Vann used his charismatic honesty to gain allies in the US Press Corp to get the story out that things were not nearly as optimistic as the American Generals, (typified by William Westmoreland) were saying publically.  He wanted to "Vietnamize" the war, to put all the focus on enabling the South Vietnamese to believe in their own ability to win, but no matter how hard he tried, he was never able to motivate the South Vietnamese officers he was advising. 

He admired the Vietcong and struggled to understand how they could be so motivated but his own troops were not. In spite of many brave and competent exceptions to the contrary, he was never able to convince his Vietnamese allies to give up their corruption and fight with the Spartan-like discipline and bravery that would be required to win their own civil war.  He tried desperately to get the truth out about what was happening and used the American press to get his ideas noticed by two different Presidents.  This blunt honesty, combined with his insatiable sex addiction for young Vietnamese women would keep him from ever rising in rank. His own military continued to use him, even after practically drumming him out of the Army. He ended up as civilian with military General-like tactical authority that was never truly acknowledged by the US power structure. By bold and brutal tactics he was able to turn around a number of losing tactical campaigns during the war. But in the end, he allowed his own hubris and desire for glory and recognition to override his judgment. 

Sheehan starts the story at the end of it, at Vann's high profile funeral attended by figures as diverse as his friend Daniel Ellsberg,  powerful columnist Joseph Alsop, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, as well as many of the generals and famous political figures who had been his bureaucratic enemies. Vann was ambitious and in many ways a crude man, who also knew how to flatter and cajole. He was always plotting to increase his influence.

While the book focuses on Vann’s story, it is much more than a military biography. It is an immensely complicated story, and Sheehan does justice to it, by laying out the many contradictions in Vann's life and in the war itself. It exhaustively personifies America’s post-war blindness to its own limitations. It is a story where the profound institutional ignorance of the history and culture of the country we invaded came back to haunt us.   Vann was in some ways the symbolic younger brother of “The Greatest Generation” and in his attempt to emulate his older sibling’s righteous exploits, he helped plunge the US in the psychological and political quagmire from which we still have not extracted ourselves.