Sheehan uses the story as a vehicle to describe how the United States came to be what it was in Vietnam, especially how the military leadership had evolved from a lean and hungry, almost desperate group at the beginning of World War II, to the victors of that war, to the aristocratic mis-directions of MacArthur in Korea and then to the delusional, bureaucratic and careerist misdeeds in Vietnam.
I'm assuming that Ken Burn's series on Vietnam will drive further interest in Sheehan's story, and that will be good as it includes remarkable historical detail from the Pentagon Papers and also journalistic accounts that didn't always make it into the US media coverage of the war. (Some VfP folks were adament that nothing is "natural" about modern warfare except that it's a pivotal part of our political economy and we have to socialize children into accepting it.) Here is a website of information VfP put together reacting to the series: http://www.vietnamfulldisclosure.org/ Oh, and I thought the movie of Bright Shining Lie was horrible compared to the book - made into an adventure drama instead of a brilliant way to teach us all about the "lie" of Vietnam. (I've wondered how of those wounded by Agent Orange voted for Trump?) I hope Right-wing soldiers who were in Vietnam will reflect on the series, too, especially those drafted, even though we know fewer on the Right watch PBS.
Nominally a biography of John Paul Vann--a soldier and civilian who was one of the first American Advisers in Vietnam at the beginning of American intervention and remained involved in the conflict until his death in 1972--this is actually the most complete history of the Vietnam War that I have ever read. That Minh was originally hopeful that America would support him against the French because American Presidents were saying that it was time for Colonialism to end. And then there's John Paul Vann, who was a womanizer, a jerk, prone to bouts of irrational anger, and a man who always believed that America could win the war.
"A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam" is THE primer on contemporary US foreign policy and should be read by every student of American history.
A lieutenant colonel and later a civilian, he was first sent to Vietnam in 1962, before it was clear (or even conceivable to many, including Vann) that there would be a full-scale US air and ground war there. What may at first have seemed to be personal qualities of Cao's (his unwillingness, for example, to engage the guerillas in battle) turned out to be representative of the ARVN's institutional problems; the same might be said of Paul Harkins, the US General broadly in charge of operations in Vietnam, whose capacity for self-delusion (including the ability to convince himself that the American/Saigon side had fared well at the battle of Ap Bac) was part of a pattern in the US military that discouraged self-evaluation and -criticism, and earned him the nickname among journalists in country of 'Colonel Blimp'. In Sheehan's telling, Vann was one of the few members of the military who saw clearly the foolishness of the US/Saigon strategy; he became gradually bolder (and strategic) in speaking about it, which made him something of a hero to many of the young journalists covering the war, including David Halberstam (who was known to have pounded his fist on a table at a reception and declared that General Harkins should be court-martialed and shot, and whose increasingly grim appraisals of the war for the New York Times bore Vann's influence- at one point, Sheehan refers to Halberstam as Vann's "instrument") as well as Sheehan himself. Vann also became close friends with Daniel Ellsberg, who would later leak the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan and attend Vann's funeral, though he and Vann had come to differ strongly over the war. When he stumbles across a monument in a hamlet dedicated to those 'killed by the puppet forces in 1955-1956', ostensibly years of peace in Vietnam, he is told that Ngo Dinh Diem, the US-backed leader in Saigon, had orchestrated a campaign against the cadres that Hanoi had left behind in the south after Geneva in order to foment revolution, and that the number of dead had reached into the thousands. "In those years, like almost all Americans", he writes, "I saw nothing wrong with shooting Communists and their 'dupes.'" Most Americans my age have grown up, I think, with a vague cultural understanding that the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War, or, in Vietnam, as the Resistance War Against America or the American War) was a mistake. At one point Cao, whatever his failings as a military commander, explains to Vann just one of the common-sense problems with what was called the Strategic Hamlet Program:The religion of the majority of the Delta peasants was a meld of Buddhism, ancestor worship and animism- devotion to the spirits that were thought to dwell in the streams, rocks and trees around their hamlets. This was a problem because, Sheehan writes, "Vietnamese converts to Catholicism had been used by the French as a fifth column to penetrate precolonial Vietnam and then had been rewarded...for their collaboration. These were all strategic blunders that exacerbated the real problem, which Eisenhower apparently saw clearly enough in 1954: "...that if a free election should then be held in North and South Vietnam, Ho Chih Minh would win 80 percent of the vote as the father of the country in the eyes of most Vietnamese." From the US perspective at the time, it was nearly impossible to imagine a homegrown national Communist movement independent of China and/or the USSR, Tito in Yugoslavia being an outlier that couldn't apply, or so the thinking went, to countries in southeast Asia. "Vann and the Americans of his time", Sheehan writes, "were mentally habituated to a globe halved between darkness and light." In other words, the explanation for the Communism of the North could only be that they were Soviet or Chinese dupes. Their heroes, as a foreigner might notice after studying the porcelain figurines on shelves and tables in Vietnamese homes, were men on horseback or elephants, clad in armor, swords in hand." It was Ho Chih Minh, not the regime in the south (who were backed by and collaborated with the Americans, after all), who seemed to be following in this ancestral tradition that was profoundly important and a source of great pride to many Vietnamese. Doug Ramsey, a friend of Vann's in Vietnam who was captured in 1967 and would be held until 1973, got a sense of this while talking with his captors:"We have no fear that the present Chinese regime will attack us...", the youth said, "but if things changed in the future and a new government even dared to try..." He began to describe how the Vietnamese had smashed invading armies from China in centuries past. It was the closest he came, from what I can tell, to questioning the legitimacy of the war outright: If it were not for the fact that Vietnam is but a pawn in the larger east-west confrontation, and that our presence here is essential to deny the resources of this area to Communist China, then it would be damned hard to justify our support for the existing government. Strangely, as Sheehan tells it, it was only after Tet that Vann came to believe that the war could be won, after all. A review of the book I found online talks about how Vann is 'Conradian', and it occurred to me that Heart of Darkness is really about an idealist who either changes or discovers what was part of his nature all along, depending on how you read it. Sheehan, for his part, offers a final opinion: "He died believing that the war had been won."
This book is perhaps the one that covers the war from at the very beginning through its end although John Vann died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam shortly before the US withdrew from Saigon in the notable helicopter flights from the roof of the US Embassy. It is a book that takes you into the homes and buildings of power where the decisions were made that led to the deaths of so many Americans and Vietnamese.
The book is painful to read, not only because one knows how everything will end, both for the war, and for Vann himself, but also because one finds oneself immersed in a person for whom one feels empathy, yet simultaneously finds morally repugnant.
An entirely engrossing narrative of the profound arrogance, paralyzing complaisance and careerism, and the incorrigible, altogether impenetrable ignorance of Americans in Vietnam. It appears that we now have the opportunity to consider Vietnam II - of particular interest, I hope, to those too young to have seen the "prequal." The 60's were great fun - the very best of times.
What Sheehan gives us the story of John Vann, a remarkably complex man who through sheer force of will and personality probably had more impact on the war than anyone outside Ho Chi Minh and the top brass in America.