on March 9, 2001
Having served in Pleiku for two years (4/68-4/70)in the II Corps Interrogation Center as an MACV Team 21 advisor to the ARVN, I turned two days ago to the last third of the book that has been in my library, untouched for years, to read about Vann's time as II Corps Advisor after I had left Pleiku. This was all I planned to read. But once I started I could not put it down --going to sleep was difficult.
Mr Sheehan has performed a critical service by exposing how our system operated, and he has been justly recognized for it. I think Mr. Sheehan's readers can confirm what they probably already suspect: That all "great powers" operate like this -- from the beginning of time, and I'm sure to the end. The US was, tragically, no different than the English, Germans, French, Spanish, Medieval Popes, Chinese, Arabs, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, you name them at their respective heights. The difference, which I believe Mr. Sheehan was telling us, is that in our relatively free and democratic system there is a greater likelihood that the truth will be communicated in an unvarnished manner, and acted upon, but this did not happen in Vietnam for the many and varied reasons so vividly explained by Mr. Sheehan. What is so incredibly amazing, and I think a tremendous strength in this book, is how close one man, John Paul Vann, got to making the truth crystal clear at a high enough level where it might have done some good at the crucial time just prior to the beginning of the US military buildup. Think about it -- a lowly Light Bird Colonel ready to give the briefing of his life at one of the highest policy levels, and it was stopped only hours before the dam could have been burst.
One area I was hoping Mr. Sheehan would cover was the number of deaths our 30 year involvement in Vietnam led to, which I believe is perhaps as many as 2,000,000 Vietnamese, out of a population of perhaps 16,000,000, or an equivalent of nearly 35,000,000 Americans. Whenever I hear people talk about our 58,000 plus dead or our MIA (and I cried at The Wall last year suddenly and unexpectedly), I cannot help but think of the millions lost by an incredibly brave people - a people who fought the Chinese for four thousand years and who (nearly) all cried when Ho Chi Minh died -- right in the middle of the war!
Mr. Sheehan made me think and feel deeply about my two years in Vietnam for the first time in many years. I remember very clearly my Vietnamese counterparts (but I only remember two Americans by name, Captain Matz and Lt. Gerber), and I often wonder what happened to them -- I wrote to Ha Van Cuong until 1973 when Pleiku fell and then communications ceased.
I deeply respect a system which allows a literary and reporting genius like Mr. Sheehan to educate us and thereby improve our chances that such a human disaster will not happen again, at least not on our American watch, for however much longer we will hold this top dog position. At the same time, I believe it is true, as historians tell us, that they need about 50 years before they can get a good grasp on the significance of an event like our involvement in Vietnam. There is still much we do not know as regards how our involvement in Vietnam may have had an impact in China and Russia that helped avoid an even larger conflict. I hope that the many who served in Vietnam who need some societal support to accept their involvement will eventually learn that their experience is being viewed by future historians in a more positive way. And I wish the Vietnamese their well-deserved place in the world as a people who truly understand the word FREEDOM.
"A Bright Shining Lie" is a masterfully written history of America in Vietnam. Written by Neil Sheehan, a former Southeast Asian correspondent for United Press International (UPI) and later "The New York Times," this book combines a biography of John Paul Vann, considered by some to be ". . . the one irreplaceable American in Vietnam," with a spellbinding narrative of the miscalculations, blunders, and self-deceptions which marked America's decade-plus involvement in Vietnam.
John Paul Vann's career in Vietnam spanned a decade, from its beginning in 1962 with Vann as U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and advisor to the South Vietnamese, to its end in 1972 with his death in a helicopter crash, Vann having become the civilian equivalent of a two-star general. During his decade in Vietnam, Vann was consistently frustrated and angry with the pusillanimous and corrupt performance of South Vietnamese forces and the frequent incompetence of American senior political and military leaders. He repeatedly urged his superiors, through normal channels and in the press, that the U.S. government could not defeat the Communist forces in South Vietnam with its military might alone. The war could only be won by the South Vietnamese with American assistance. That help, Vann recommended, should take the form of facilitating social change and providing military equipment and advice. By the time of his death, however, Vann's views had changed. After the near destruction of the Vietcong during the 1968 Tet offensive, he came to believe that America could indeed achieve a military victory in Vietnam.
Sheehan explores every aspect of Vann's life with the keen eye of the best biographers. Vann is seen at his best: possessed with a first-rate intellect and a singleness of purpose which led him to rise above a childhood filled with poverty and neglect; highly patriotic and courageous; and imbued with a strong sense of professional integrity that gave him tremendous credibility at the most senior levels of the U.S. government. Also seen is Vann's darker side: his ability to manipulate others to his ends; his dark sexual compulsions (which ultimately led him to ruin his marraige and endanger his career); his callousness toward his friends and family; and his all-consuming self-centeredness.
Interwoven with Vann's biography is a brilliant survey of the Vietnam conflict from the time of the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954 to Vann's death in 1972. Three areas of this book were especially interesting to me: first, the author's account of the battle of Ap Bac in 1963, where American advisors were first seriously bloodied by the Vietcong, and Vann's attitudes about the overall conduct of the war took shape; second, Vann's efforts, after his retirement from the Army, to get the U.S. government to change its Vietnam policy - and the political machinations within the government at work against him; and third, Vann's last months in Vietnam as the "civilian general" in charge of the mountains of the highlands and the rice deltas of the central coast, and the critical role he played in several key battles as America's involvement in Southeast Asia approached its tragic coda.
"A Bright Shining Lie" is certainly one of the two best single-volume histories (along with "Vietnam: A History" by Stanley Karnow) of America's involvement in Vietnam that I've read. It's an essential book for anyone wanting to learn more about America's most regrettable war.
"A Bright Shining Lie" is a brilliant, if flawed, masterpiece. Journalist Neil Sheehan first made a name for himself as a reporter in part thanks to the enigmatic American Hero, John Paul Vann. Vann's story is both fascinating and tragic. His military career was seemingly derailed by his attempts to tell the truth about the war during the advisor period (1962-64), but in fact it was his personal indiscretions that did him in. The book was the work of a lifetime for Sheehan (taking him many years to complete) and it shows. The only problem is that Vann's later career in Vietnam as a civilian advisor (1967-1972) gets the short shrift. Sheehan uses Vann's combat death in 1972 as a metaphor for American involvement in Vietnam. But in fact, by 1972 Vann truly believed that the South Vietnamese were winning the war and had they not been abandoned by their American allies, they might have. Nevertheless, this is a vital book for anyone who wants to understand America's lost war.
Sociologist C.Wright Mills once wrote that the key to meaningful social analysis was to understand the actions of an individual in the context of his or her social situation, to place the person in a historical context so as to better appreciate the aspects of the social environment that motivate the individual to act and react in a particular way. Thus, to understand the actions of a middle aged German Jew in the context of the 1930s, one must understand the nature of the Nazi society he lived his daily routine within. Here we can observe how brilliantly this principle can be used with journalist Neil Sheehan book, "A Bright Shining Lie", a book in which he not only tells the story of a single man, John Paul Vann, but also explains the history of American involvement in Vietnam. This is a marvelous tale of a modern tragedy, not only for Vann himself, but for the American people and of course, the poor Vietnamese, who had nowhere to run when the bombs started falling.
Vann began his involvement with Vietnam as an Army Lt. Colonel. Because of both some personal troubles and his outspoken criticism of the ineffective and unnecessarily cruel way in which the war was being conducted, he was in effect cashiered, and he returned briefly to civilian life back in the United States. Yet Vann couldn't help but be drawn back into this country he had fallen in love with while doing his initial military tour. He found the opportunity to return to Vietnam as a civilian supporting the American military mission, and threw himself into the opportunity with characteristic energy and enthusiasm. He seemed to have an almost instinctive understanding of how to conduct an effective counter-insurgency operation, and based on his tireless efforts and his success in pacifying the area he was assigned, he gained increased credibility and influence within both the American military as well as the South Vietnamese government, and as a result became much more influential and powerful.
Yet in the moments of his success Vann began to fatefully turn away from precisely those perceptions regarding the nature of the conflict and the need to be effectively engaged at the micro-level, and he, like many other individuals prosecuting the war, turned to more traditional and massive intervention techniques such as carpet bombing, that were not only indiscriminate, but also tended to be counterproductive in the longer term. Vann's slow but inexorable corruption by power and influence is a familiar tale, and indeed sadly documents one specific example of a widespread phenomena which continues to this day within our military; that of careerism. It is easy to understand how the quest for rank in order to do what one believes is right gets twisted into an eventual accommodation with the very devil one is combating in order to get ahead.
Of course, once makes the necessary accommodation to succeed in a military career by mindlessly following orders, then when the particular officer eventually succeeds in getting promoted (by going along with the wrong-headed policies of his or her superiors) he or she becomes exactly that corrupted and compromised type that he or she was originally so motivated to replace. This, then, is the true tragedy of both John Paul Vann in particular and the American Army in Vietnam in general. In my humble opinion, everyone in the officer corps shared this dirty little secret of co-option that made each of them, to some degree, at least, un-indicted co-conspirators in a quite deliberate and systematic campaign to murder countless men, women, and children in living in nameless hamlets and villages in Vietnam. Of course, I am not alone in this view, and former officers such as Col. David Hackworth and Lt. Col Anthony Herbert have written poignantly about this very subject. This is a wonderful book about a terrifying truth, and one all Americans should read to understand the true dimensions of the tragedy in Vietnam.
Subtitled "John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam", this 1988 non-fiction book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and I can well understand why. I'm an avid reader of books about Vietnam. However, this 790 page epic, with an additional 70 pages of acknowledgments, footnotes and indexes, makes all those other books seem lightweight. Sixteen years in the writing, every word has been scrupulously researched. Not only are there detailed descriptions of the battles, however. The reader is given the opportunity of looking at the really big picture of the politics of the time. I'm not talking just about the national politics though. There were politics inside the military and between the Americans and the South Vietnamese. We read about real people and the human disaster and the interwoven complexities of waging this war. And, central to the book, we learn about of Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann whose opinions of how the war could be won often differed from those of his superiors. But we learn more than just about his military expertise. We learn about the man himself. We never really like the man. And yet, we do come to understand him with all his warts and demons.
Neil Sheehan was an award-winning Vietnam War correspondent for United Press International and The New York Times. He knew John Vann personally as well as the other military and political leaders mentioned. But he goes much deeper into the character of John Vann, who died in a helicopter accident in 1972, than just his military experiences. He really gets into John Van, the person. And it's in these sections that the book reads like a novel, as we get to know John Vann, the man who could never really escape his early roots. He was born in the South, an illegitimate first child of a mother who neglected her children to the extent that they never had quite enough to eat while she had many gentleman friends and spent money on fancy clothes for herself. Eventually he enlisted in the army. That's where we learn about Korea and the blunderings and mistakes that happened there. I remember learning about this Korean war as a child. But this book really made its folly real to me.
During John Vann's pilot training in the northeast, he met his wife, a respectable young woman from a middle class family. They married young and had five children. But John was a womanizer and couldn't seem to help himself. There were always at least one or two other women in love with him. And that doesn't even count the recreational pleasures he enjoyed in addition. Towards the end of his career he had a daughter with one of the Vietnamese woman he romanced while keeping another woman as a full time mistress. He also often exaggerated his good deeds when it came to his family, always trying to make himself a hero.
This was a challenging book for me to read. There were details of military operation which I had to read slowly in order to understand. But once I got into it, a picture started to emerge. This was a picture of mistakes turned into bigger mistakes, how the world views of the American military created a monster in Vietnam which was a sea of corruption as a way of life. The Vietnamese people suffered the most of all. It was really brutal and there were parts in the book where I couldn't help but shudder.
This is clearly the most comprehensive and best book about Vietnam that I have ever read. I give it my highest recommendation. But be forewarned of its density and appeal to those who want facts and figures along with a very human story.
on April 5, 2001
I SERVED UNDER "VANN" IN PLEIKU WHEN HE WAS KILLED.AT THE TIME HE WAS THE CLOSEST THING TO A HERO THAT WE HAD. HIS RESCUES WERE SOMEWHAT FAMOUS. THE BOOK SHOWS LIKE OUR EFFORTS IN THE WAR HE WAS ALSO FLAWED.I THINK THIS BOOK CAN ANSWER THE QUESTION THAT VETS AND NONVETS HAVE ABOUT OUR FAILURE DESPITE A GALLANT EFFORT FROM OUR TROOPS. THE WAR WAS DOOMED BY THE FAILURE OF OUR LEADERS TO RECOGNIZE THE TACTICS OF OUR ENEMY WHO SAW MILITARY EFFORTS AS SUBORDINATE TO POLITICAL GOALS.THIS BOOK SHOWS THE THINKING AND TACTICS WHICH DOOMED OUR EFFORTS
on June 4, 2005
If I were stranded on a desert island with only one book to read about the Vietnam War, Sheehan's "A Bright And Shining Lie" would undoubtedly be it. The book is not a linear history of the Vietnam War but instead tells the tale from one of its most important players and critics, John Paul Vann, who served as an in different capacities from the "advisory" period under Kennedy in 1962 to just after the 1972 North Vienamese Easter offensive, when he was killed in a helicopter crash.
By focusing on a character study, we get a rare glimpse of the "feel" of the war, particularly its early experimental days in the Kennedy years when the most capable military graduates competed for a handful of advisory slots to see real combat. The book has the best description anywhere of the seminal 1963 battle of Ap Bac, in which a VC battalion stood its ground and bested a heavily armed and ponderous South Vietnamese regimental attack. This battle foretold what would follow in other South Veitnamese and American engagements through the disasterous Lam Son campaign eight years later.
As Sheehan sets out his story, Vann was a perfect microcosm of the America's tragedy. He was a hyperachiever and a true believer to the end, never questioning the Cold War premise that the United States had to prevent a Communist takeover of the South, that the war was not an indiginous conflict but agression from without, and that the South Vietnamese could sustain a viable indepdendent political existence. Vann singled out loyal and capable South Vietnamese couterparts to work with, but he was, by the mid-1960s, an island bucking the massive influx of the American sledghammer, "defoliate, deploy and destroy" methods adopted by Westmoreland.
Vann was used and abused by his American superiors. Like his good friend Daniel Ellsberg (whose recent autobiography, "Secrets", tells another angle to the story), Vann reported truth and was ignored. When Vietnamization began in 1969 -too late, too much (useless or unrepairable cast-off materiel), he still remained behind, and unlike the cynical Kissinger-Laird "realpolitik" crowd who were looking only to an exit with a breathing space before collpase (as occurred in 1975)("peace with honor"), Vann sincerely beleived to the end in the moral good of his mission.
Vietnam chewed up thousands of John Paul Vanns. As Sheehan points out, the issue is not whether the war could be one or lost, but the immorality of a system which exploits the idealism and abilities of fine people and covers its tracks with deliberate lies. While all wars depend upon a cerain degree of calculated deception, such deception cannot extend to fundamental premises under which the conflict is being fought, whether one's name in Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld.
on January 25, 2006
It's generally accepted that Vietnam was the first real television war, where images from the front lines were constantly bombarding the senses of the American people. This means Vietnam in all likelihood started the complex and convoluted mind games that governments have been required to play since. In order to meet your aims, as a government, you need to convince your public that the ends justify the means. Showing dead children on television makes that a difficult message to swallow. Enter the Age of Flak.
The reason I open my review with that pre-caveat is because this book is just one version of the US war in Vietnam. There are countless versions retold in book form, and for me to say this one or that one is head and shoulders above or below some other version would be specious, at best, ridiculous at worst. What I can say is exactly what I title this review, this book is an interesting perspective of a confusing war. There are many other perspectives, the vast majority I have never read.
Make no mistake about it, Bright Shining Lie is a great book. It reads well, it's informative, in-depth, encompassing - all you can ask for in a history book. But for me, it's not quite 5 star material. Many people love this book, and indeed, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 with good reason. But there's something missing in the pages, something a little short of a true classic 5 star book. I will now attempt to explain what that is, not entirely sure I can do that.
The story is in-depth. I'm not about to use the word complete, since a book on Vietnam would have to be 38,000 pages long to be complete, and even then it might come up short. My main problem is the meandering path it leads you down from time to time. I know this approach appeals to some, especially those who dole out the Pulitzer Prizes (see Guns Germs and Steel for another example). Personally, I found the book sometimes lacked focus, and certain sections tended to bog down, suffering from knowing exactly where it was going.
The research was solid, otherwise the book would have suffered. Sheehan had such a wealth of first-hand experience it only follows he would have this aspect nailed. But then, there are instances when too much background is revealed. Having known Vann, Sheehan probably felt the correlation was clear. As a reader, I was occasionally left wondering where the connection was. This leads me to use the word meandering. Again, some readers enjoy the complete analysis, no matter how small and long the adjacent path leads. Personally, I felt too much of the text was a side-story, and not enough discussion was aligned with the aim of the book.
Perhaps there is another contention: The aim of the book. In the second half, John Paul Vann occupies a much smaller role than he had in the beginning. The story, and of course the war being described, took on a life outside of Vann. This is fine. I have no delusions that the war was about one man, especially when he wasn't in the country for some of it. But the title of the book, and how that played into what I was reading...I don't know. Sometimes it was too scattered for my liking. I often wondered where the text was going, why it was going there. Sometimes the questions were answered, other times not.
Some other reviews cite this as a left-wing propaganda piece, which I think is laughable. Other reviews cite the fact that the man, John Paul Vann, was by and large a lousy excuse for a husband and person. While almost entirely true, that doesn't leave the text any less engrossing. Indeed, it probably gives you an idea where Vann's edge came from, and what kind of person he was. He liked to get his way, and generally stopped at nothing to make that happen. But knowing the subject matter, you know how well that worked out.
The book also touches on aspects not directly associated with Vann, which is to be expected in a book about war. The mindset of the native participants is explored, and it gives people like me - with insufficient knowledge about Vietnam - a better understanding of why things went the way they did. I believe this is why people call it liberal. But really, it explains so much more than some off-handed comment that tows the liberal-conservative dichotomy our nation feels the need to be a slave to. Far beyond that, the explanatory power of some of the observations is outstanding.
The book is really good, no doubt. But overall, I found it dragged too often. The book is large enough that you're bound to have low spots - it comes with the territory. But I think it happened too often. I think the book would have been better if some of the sections were shorter, or cut out altogether. Yet, despite these complaints - and I should note these are not condemnations of the book by any stretch - I enjoyed it immensely. It kept the pages turning and, for the most part, kept me interested. For one really good perspective of this confusing war, it is well worth the read.
on April 6, 2005
Had it not been for the movie it was the basis for, I would never have learned a Big slice of the truth about Vietnam, and I'm thankful I found a softbound copy of this for just the equivalent of US$4.95 in Philippine pesos last year.
A Bright Shining Lie is the life story of John Paul Vann, one of the most controversial, yet indispensable, figures of the Vietnam War. What's more epic about this book is that the one person who knew him real well from Vietnam took SIXTEEN LONG YEARS to write, collated from a large collection of sources dating back to the war: taped interviews, printed materials (including the Pentagon Papers), and experience from being a UPI war correspondent.
Neil Sheehan did a commendable job by compiling all the facts about John Vann's early life: his being born out of wedlock, a literal SOB, and his experiences at Ferrum, to name a few were all good parts to read. He was also able to shed light on the stories about his relatives, and how they all connected with Vann's.
Aside from what I've read in other books about the Dien Bien Phu siege, Bao Dai and the rigged elections of 1956, I did not learn more about the early history of the Vietnam War until I read A Bright Shining Lie. Once again, in the chapter "Antecedents to a Confrontation", Sheehan's star shines as he detailed the history of Vietnam's struggle for independence and resistance to foreign domination (by taking note of some of Vietnam's early heroes such as Nguyen Hue), starting from the Chinese, all the way to the Japanese, French, and later the Americans. It was in this book that I first learned that the term "Viet Cong" was actually American-made, and Edward Lansdale, the man behind Ramon Magsaysay's success in the Philippines, had a role in placing Ngo Dinh Diem as South Vietnamese leader, thinking he could repeat what he did in the Philippines. The passages about the Denunciation of Communists campaign in 1955-56, the near-draconian rule of the Ngo Dinhs, plus the endemic corruption, and discrimination of other religions and people in the rural areas (no thanks to Diem's usage of his Catholic friends as administrators) further undermined Diem's ability as a leader for the Vietnamese people, and he was obviously ignorant of the signs.
The Battle of Ap Bac, the major skirmish that brought the Vietnam War to a whole new level, has an entire chapter devoted to it, and narrated in exquisite detail on both sides, and included a map Vann wanted to use in briefing the Joint Chiefs.
The battle, it's aftermath and the repercussions from it, gave Vann the ammunition he needed to confront the senior military leadership on how they ran the advisory effort in Vietnam. He knew what was wrong and made it his mission to make them understand, but the passion with which he pursued his goal was paid in full by a lot of frustration when, due to some politicking by officers who didn't like Vann, he was denied the chance to brief the Joint Chiefs just when he was already at their office, ready to go.
I would have loved to add more of my thoughts about such a riveting book as this, but I've ran out of things to say. Hopefully I can add more later..
Sheehan tells the history of the war in Vietnam paralleled by a biography of one of its most colorful figures, the Army Lt. Col. and later civilian pacification leader John Paul Vann. Regardless of where you stand on this most controversial of all America's wars, this book is a must read to understand its background. Sheehan thoroughly researched the story with interviews of many key players. As a young correspondent he spent several years in country. The book raises many fascinating "counterfactual" history questions: what if military and government leaders had listened to Vann's early (1962-1963) assessment of the weaknesses of the South Vietnamese military and the Diem regime? The only weakness of the book is its abrupt ending. After Vann's death in a helicopter crash in 1972, the author fails to analyze later events including the withdrawal of U.S. troops by 1973 and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. Writing in 1988, Sheehan should have reflected more on Vann's views and their relation to events that occurred after his death. Nonetheless, a must read for those who want to understand the most divisive war in American history.