A Bright and Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan
A Bright and Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.
by Neil Sheehan.
Random House. 861 pp. $24.95.
The Tet offensive occurred a generation ago; the panicky pullout from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon is now thirteen years in the past. Many myths both about the American conduct of the Vietnam war and about the nature of the adversary faced by the U.S. have—or ought to have—died since then. To concentrate for a moment just on the enemy side, the Vietnamese Communists were held by many on the American Left to be mere nationalists; they were not. The Communists were said to be interested in no more than the “liberation” of their own land: instead, they have Prussianized the Indochinese peninsula. Even their vaunted pullout from Cambodia is, so far, no more than partial; if the Vietnamese do in fact leave, their likely aim is to install their favored faction of the Khmer Rouge in control. Years of boat people; years of famine; years of tyranny: in this era of perestroika everywhere, does anyone any longer have any illusions about Vietnam?
Of course they do. A Bright and Shining Lie, winner of the 1988 National Book Award, is proof. Its author, Neil Sheehan, ranks with David Halberstam as one of the best and brightest of the young American journalists who rose to the top of their profession for their reporting from Vietnam and ultimately for their opposition to the U.S. war effort. Sheehan covered Vietnam from 1962 to 1964 for United Press International, then returned in 1965 for the New York Times. In 1971, when he was the Times’s Pentagon correspondent, Sheehan’s good friend Daniel Ells-berg made him a gift of the Pentagon Papers. Sheehan helped to make journalistic and constitutional history in the battle over publication of the Papers; he also won the Times a Pulitzer Prize gold medal for meritorious public service.
Those were epic days. Since then, Sheehan has spent a very considerable chunk of time—sixteen years—composing this work, an obsessively detailed tome about the war, told through the life and death of one man, a formidably dynamic, ceaselessly energetic warrior for the American cause who died in a helicopter crash in South Vietnam’s central highlands in 1972. Sheehan’s intention is nothing less than to make his protagonist, John Paul Vann, into a metaphor for the U.S. war effort, a metaphor for a certain brand of military attitude, and finally, a metaphor for a certain kind of American, if not for America itself.
Few people outside the operational vortex of the war and various power walkways in Washington knew much about John Paul Vann. He arrived in Vietnam as a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel in 1962, retired in 1963, then returned to Southeast Asia in 1965 as a pacification representative for the Agency for International Development. Inside the Vietnam fraternity, however, he was very well known. Restless, virtually sleepless, a genius at organization and logistics, Vann made a deep mark on the war effort. At his funeral, the pallbearers included William Westmoreland, then Army Chief of Staff, and his deputies, Bruce Palmer, Jr. and Richard Stilwell. William Colby was another. Robert Komer, the guiding light of the Vietnam pacification campaign, was still another. A friend in attendance at Vann’s funeral was Daniel Ellsberg, a recent convert to the antiwar effort from his job as a RAND Corporation defense analyst. Another was Neil Sheehan.
Sheehan knew Vann well (and through Vann had met Ellsberg). In fact Vann was one of Sheehan’s most important sources during his own Vietnam years, just as he was the tutor of most of the bright young antiwar reporters, although they were not so antiwar then:
Vann taught us the most, and one can truly say that without him, our reporting would not have been the same. . . . He gave us an expertise we lacked, a certitude that brought a qualitative change in what we wrote. . . . He transformed us into a band of reporters propounding the John Vann view of the war.
What was that view? Specifically, Vann saw that the Vietnamese Communists were winning the war where it counted, on the ground and amid the Vietnamese peasantry. Bombing and artillery fire would not destroy the enemy. Only persistent, coordinated military and political work, at close quarters, would do the job. But the military strategy espoused by Washington, as Vann saw it, was a ponderous, abstract logistical exercise, based on a concept of attrition that failed to come to grips with the political nature of the war and the revolutionary promises of the Communists.
An aggressive, articulate officer in the field, Vann drove himself to see the war as it was being conducted in the hinterlands, at tremendous physical risk that added to his mystique. He sent memos, he briefed highers-up, he schemed. To little avail. When bombarding headquarters from within did not work, Vann bombarded from without, through his press contacts. Thwarted as a military man, he came back as a civilian, and worked himself into a position of de-facto command of South Vietnamese forces. But his preferred instrument for fighting the war, the South Vietnamese themselves, failed—at least, they failed in terms that would satisfy a superpower ally which, after 1968, was increasingly absorbed by the process of military disengagement In the end, Vann perished while beating back a North Vietnamese Army offensive that threatened to turn into a major South Vietnamese rout. What came afterward—three more years of conflict—is, to Sheehan, postlude.
Vann, then, failed to change the official strategy of the war. But what is more important, according to Sheehan, is that he failed, or refused, to see that the conflict itself was misguided. This failure goes to his very makeup as an American:
Vann’s political credo was the set of beliefs characteristic of the United States that had emerged from World War II as the greatest power on earth, the view of self and the world that had carried America to war in Vietnam in the fullness of this power. To Vann, other peoples were lesser peoples: it was the natural order of things that they accept American leadership. He was convinced that having gained the preeminence it had been destined to achieve, the United States would never relinquish the position. . . . He assumed that America’s cause was always just, that while the United States might err, its intentions were always good . . . he saw much that was wrong about the war in Vietnam, but he could never bring himself to conclude that the war itself was wrong and unwinnable.
“He could not abide defeat, defeat for himself or for his vision of America.” Why not? To answer that question, at least in terms of personal psychology, Sheehan spent an enormous amount of time and effort tracking Vann’s origins. He uncovered a sad, even a poignant, tale of emotional neglect and sexual obsession, the tale of a man born in the redneck South to an alcoholic and a part-time prostitute, who eventually escaped the hell of his private life in the pursuit of far-off war. This, then, metaphorically speaking, is the dark underside of America in Vietnam, a saga of repressed emotions that tragically found their outlet in the wanton carnage of Southeast Asia.
The problem with metaphor, even on this great expanse of canvas, is that it is a figure of speech. The connections it establishes between one thing and another are illusory. They stem from the nature of language rather than from the nature of things in themselves. This is a much greater problem for journalism than literature, and it shows, precisely, in Sheehan’s grandiose determination to make something literary, something positively mythic, out of the materials of journalism.
Thus, Sheehan is scathing (as no doubt Vann was) about the stupidity and incompetence of various American generals in Vietnam, led by Westmoreland himself. Well, Westmoreland lost, and wars are lost for secular reasons that yield to secular analysis. For Sheehan, however, this is not enough: when it comes to the actions of his own country he is a Jansenist, a rigid determinist who sees in every secular outcome a rise or decline in the probability quotient of American salvation.
Actually, he sees only decline. This he traces backward in time from Vietnam to just after World War II. The moral rot in those years, he writes, was most apparent among U.S. military leaders, but there were others, too. In fact, it turns out that nearly everyone who was anyone in America was corrupt: “The attitude had spread as well to the greater part of the political, academic, and business leadership of the United States. . . . The elite of America had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success.”
Sheehan picks up the scent again in South Korea, where, he asserts, the defeat of U.S.-led forces in 1950 was traceable to a failure of virtu on the part of Walton Walker, Douglas MacArthur’s commander. Walker’s troops, it seems, “had not been unduly distracted from what most, in these years without the draft, had enlisted to enjoy—submissive Japanese women and cheap whiskey.” Similarly, the reason the members of the all-black 24th Infantry (disbanded in 1951) broke and ran repeatedly under Communist fire in Korea was that they had been forced for decades “into quartermaster and transportation units to fetch and carry for white warriors. . . . The troops of the 24th believed the myth of inferiority and repeatedly ran before the North Koreans.” In other words, in Korea, as later in Vietnam, military failure was not military failure but evidence of a greater, spiritual lapse.
Sheehan’s Jansenism extends to Vann himself. Vann’s epic weakness was compulsive promiscuity, which Sheehan tracks in microscopic detail. Promiscuity is sexual deceit; Vann’s great vice is therefore his personal deceitfulness—he is the “bright and shining lie” of the book’s title (the phrase, in fact, is Vann’s). When Vann retired from the Army Sheehan believed he did so in order to carry on his protests about the conduct of the war. But now he thinks that Vann’s departure was due to a charge of statutory rape—dismissed—on his military record that forever blocked his promotion to general. Like America itself, then, Vann is a tissue of deception.
If, however, in American leaders Sheehan sees only “arrogance and professional corruption,” he is astoundingly, even lyrically, admiring of the North Vietnamese Communist leadership—and in terms that smack, strangely enough, of 19th-century romantic theories of race, leadership, and nation:
They were mandarins, Vietnamese aristocrats, the natural leaders of a people whom foreigners have repeatedly sought and failed to conquer and pacify. There are only a small number of such peoples on earth. The Irish are one. The Vietnamese are another. The violence of their resistance forms history and legend to remind the living that they must never shame the dead. . . .
To be sure, Sheehan chronicles Communist excesses—very briefly. The Stalinism of the North Vietnamese government in the land reform of the 1950’s is mentioned, yet Sheehan quickly notes that “a Vietnamese government that made Vietnamese mistakes and sought to correct them in a Vietnamese way was granted a tolerance for abuse by its public which would have been denied to any foreign-sponsored regime.” That is, one might add, it would be denied to any regime that did not maintain concentration camps.
One of the most significant silences in Sheehan’s book concerns the role of the North Vietnamese Army in South Vietman. The first substantial admission of that role occurs on page 527. There, Sheehan argues that only in 1965 were North Vietnamese regulars “starting” to march down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to reinforce the native Vietcong guerrillas. In fact, as we know from Vietnamese documents themselves, North Vietnamese units began infiltrating much earlier. The silence is only explicable as a buttress to Sheehan’s main thesis: that Communist aggression in Vietnam was organic, a response to “foreign” contamination.
For Sheehan, such contamination flowed, and presumably continues to flow, from one source only, the corrupt and corrupting phenomenon of postwar American internationalism. It would be easy to link Sheehan’s teleology of manifest American perdition to a Marxist view of history. Actually, however, his extravagantly judgmental book is marked by a total absence of what Marxists like to call “scientific ideas.” Rather, his sympathies and antipathies seem entirely cultural, or perhaps even religious, in tenor, springing from a metaphysical vision of America as an incarnation of material corruption on the world scene. This, at any rate, would appear to be the unargued view which informs and in the end defines his tortured resurrection of the corpse of John Paul Vann. The honors heaped upon his work seem to suggest that in spite of everything we have learned about the Vietnam war since 1975, Neil Sheehan is far from alone in holding onto the antiwar movement’s furious if discredited interpretation of that conflict.