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“A Bright Shining Lie”: John Paul Vann & the Vietnam War

By Neil Sheehan (Pulitzer Prize Winner) Vintage, NY 1989

This is simply the best book about Vietnam , the Vietnam War, the military during the war, and the governments of the time: an in-depth and very readable narrative that combines personal interest, extensive research, and deep insights. Combining biographical and historical styles with a fictional like narrative, Sheehan has produced a book that spans interests and audiences. Every American should read this book and it should be required reading in any American History class.

For those of the Vietnam generation and especially those who were called upon to fight this war, Sheehan offers the best answer to the big question: why? Historians writing retrospective histories of the war often try to answer this question with summarized and simplistic statements, but Sheehan tackles it with both depth and personal insight. The answer is complex and broad involving personal, social, political, historical, and governmental issues. Sheehan delves into each domain with adept and integrated thought. Summarizing this book fails offer any benefit – it is really a broad summation in itself.

A few conclusions are useful…

It was the failure of American intelligence to grasp the history and culture of the Vietnamese combined with the egotistical and self-serving military leadership that produced misinformation for our leaders that got us involved in the conflict. Thus, Eisenhower followed the bad advice given him and made poorly considered commitments. (But at least he warned us about the threat of the growing military-industrial complex). By the time Kennedy saw through the veil of misinformation he was distracted by other matters and his ability to provide solutions was limited by an adverse military and intelligence community. Johnson was too easily duped by those who had personal and economic motives for continuing the war and Nixon was so fundamentally dishonest that he seemed to believe his own lies as easily as those of the military and pro-war factions of the government.

An understanding of their history and circumstances compels us to feel sorry for the Vietnamese people. It also leads to respect for the people and disdain for their leadership. The French are largely to blame for creating the circumstances that led to our involvement in Vietnam . Our arrogance led us to believe that we could succeed where they had failed. Our ignorance led us to invest in a fundamentally corrupt government and a social structure largely unacceptable to the people of Vietnam . We expected to impose our will, our might, and our values on a people intelligent, resourceful, and willful enough to resist us. When we went to Vietnam too few were willing to ask the most basic questions: what do the Vietnamese people want and what are they willing to fight for?

Our military believed that we would win a war of attrition in Vietnam – presuming we could sustain a war that our opponents could not. Instead, it was the opposition who won the war based upon attrition and awareness. The opposition couldn’t defeat our military, but it did outlast our will to win. Our belief that we could coerce our opponents by destroying their economic structures was foolish – the broad-based agrarian economy of the people of Vietnam could not be destroyed by bombs. Our notion that we could defeat an enemy that we largely fed, armed, and motivated was naïve. The concept of war that we brought to Vietnam was unsuited for both the circumstances and the people. And, perhaps most apparent, we totally misjudged our allies.

Our fear and disfavor of communism blinded us to the possibility that a people-oriented communist government might be a better option for the Vietnamese people than the dictatorship we chose to support. Our allies were not only corrupt, they were out-of-tune with their people. Thus, it was easy for the majority of Vietnamese to view us as an oppressive invader wishing to impose itself upon them. In short, we allied with the bad guys and that made the communists look like a better choice to most everyone who wasn’t directly benefiting from the unpopular Diem regime.

A few journalists, soldiers, and leaders saw the truth of the matter and eventually that truth entered the awareness of the American people. It was a bitter lesson for us: we were the bad guys, our government had misled us, we were throwing money away by the bomberful and we wasted thousands of precious lives in a war we couldn’t win and for a cause we didn’t understand. This “bitter pill” was so difficult to swallow that many desperately sought refuge in the continuing lies of the Nixon government. The fake “secret plan to end the war” got Nixon re-elected and America became a nation even more divided. 

Again falling prey to misinformation and arrogance, Nixon believed that we could use military might to compel peace: secretly invading Cambodia and Laos while saturation bombing North Vietnam led to insignificant military changes while further diminishing support for the war in America . Reducing the role of military leaders in the ARVN came too late and poor leadership in the U.S. military allowed our opponents social and strategic advantages. The communists accepted cease-fire and peace accords with no intent of honoring them (as did we). Our government claimed “peace with honor” and we withdrew our troops and support, but the ensuing collapse of the South Vietnamese government and quick victory by the North Vietnamese plainly indicated defeat.

The story of John Paul Vann has parallel paradox to the story of our involvement in Vietnam . Sheehan is masterful in drawing upon these parallels and paradoxes. Not only is Vann the exemplar of military dualism, he is the social paradox of conflicting ethics. His involvement in Vietnam transcends all the key domains: social, political, ethical, journalistic and militaristic. His egotism and conflicting ethics led to personal destruction and death as our government’s egotism and conflicting led to death and destruction for the people of Vietnam .

 RVW May 2008


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