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A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books) Hardcover – September 22, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Digital edition.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.