A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.

Republished on VDARE.COM on March 28, 2003

(book review)

National Review, March 10, 1989 v41 n4 p46(4)

OSCAR WILDE in a famous phrase described fox-hunting as the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. Something similar might be said about the spectacle of the media establishment in full cry on behalf of former New York Timesman Neil Sheehan's ponderous account of John Paul Vann, a key U.S. official in Vietnam who was killed in a helicopter accident days after masterminding the crushing defeat of Hanoi's 1972 Easter Offensive in the Central Highlands. Excerpted in The New Yorker, winner of the National Book Award, a best-seller for 15 weeks already at this writing, A Bright Shining Lie has attracted an extraordinary pack of articles yelping about what Sheehan has called his "16-year odyssey" in writing the book, and whimpering discreetly of the severe emotional cost to his martyred self and his family.

As of early 1989, a search of the major media revealed not one single negative review. True, several reviewers showed telltale signs of having read attentively little further than the book's dramatic opening scene—Vann's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, attended both by Nixon Cabinet officers and by antiwar pooh-bahs like Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Kennedy. Sheehan, who likes a portentous cliché, has described this scene as the burial of "the whole era of confidence that Henry Luce has so boastfully called 'the American century.'"

The reviews also showed a distinct tendency to discuss not the book, but Vann's character. ("Finally consumed by his own illusions"—Laurence Zuckerman, Time magazine; "in the grip of a compulsion"—Ronald Steel, New York Times Book Review; "degeneration . . . into a stubborn liar and bloody-minded war lover"—Jeff Danziger, the Christian Science Monitor.) Vann, it appears, was guilty of serious deviationism: he did not follow the journalists he had cultivated so assiduously during the early 1960s when he was a military advisor to the South Vietnamese army—most importantly David Halberstam and Sheehan himself—into their subsequent open opposition to the war. In a close race, the Christian Science Monitor's Danziger has probably won the Thundering Inanity Prize: men like Vann, he sermonizes, "thought there were problems that could be solved by killing." General Giap, needless to say, thought problems could be solved by giving birth.

So much for the unspeakable. What of the uneatable? The truth can be simply stated. Sheehan's book is technically, intellectually, and morally incompetent. Its uncritical reception is a devastating condemnation of the American intelligentsia. In itself, it goes far toward explaining why the cause of freedom was defeated in Vietnam.

To begin with the least important: at 861 pages, A Bright Shining Lie suffers from gross, appalling elephantiasis. By comparison, Lytton Strachey was able to dispose of General Gordon, in many ways a Victorian version of John Paul Vann, in less than an eighth of the space.

A crude political motive can be detected behind certain of Sheehan's shenanigans. He devotes six pages to the drama of whether Vann's peacenik son will decide to disrupt his father's funeral by pressing his torn draft card upon President Richard Nixon (answer: no); a mere thirty pages to the entire course of the war from the Tet Offensive in 1968 to the Easter Offensive in 1972; and nothing—repeat, nothing—to the three years between Vann's death and Hanoi's final onslaught in 1975. Thus, "one of the few brilliant histories of the American entanglement in Vietnam" (David Shipler, New York Times) shabbily contrives to evade the historical reality that Saigon ultimately fell, not because its troops ceased to fight—they fought to the end, without benefit of American media coverage—but because the United States reneged on its commitment to supply the modern means to fight.

In the end, however, it emerges that there is simply no point at all to much of Sheehan's narrative. The 1963 "battle" of Ap Bac, involving only 350 Vietcong, receives more attention than any other engagement of the war, apparently for little better reason than that Sheehan was there (he did no reporting in Vietnam after being transferred to Washington in mid 1966). The harrowing experiences in captivity of one of Vann's aides are recounted in detail for a while but then trail off without resolution; it seems that they are included only because Sheehan obtained a copy of the man's unpublished account of his ordeal. Even before reading press stories about the ninety thousand words Sheehan had to cut from his manuscript at the last moment and his desperate scramble (after 16 years!) to complete and fax the New Yorker excerpt as the magazine was going to press, the truth is painfully clear: Sheehan just plain lost control of his material.

This technical failing leads into Sheehan's crucial intellectual failing. In a peculiar parody of General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, Sheehan substitutes immense diffuse force for specific incisiveness. The difference is that Westmoreland's method of blind attrition was at least intended to produce an American victory.

It is possible to make a case that U.S. interests did not require intervention in Vietnam. But quite apart from such geopolitical questions, the war posed practical military problems that Sheehan nowhere clearly explains. The peculiar geography of South Vietnam meant that Saigon had not only to defend a frontier eighty miles long but had to do so on exterior lines, an almost impossibly difficult task. The obvious solution was either to invade North Vietnam or at the very least to occupy Cambodia and Laos to the Mekong River, establishing the short, defensible frontier along a DMZ extended due west. But Washington refused to contemplate these options. Throughout the war, the North Vietnamese were able to import materiel from the Communist bloc through Haiphong Harbor, transship it down the Ho Chi Minh Trail parallel to the South Vietnamese border, and maintain sanctuaries in Cambodia within fifty miles of their enemy's capital. The United States and its allies were fighting with one arm tied behind their back—a posture they were able to maintain only because the United States' arm was so extraordinarily powerful.

How did this incredible situation come about? In 861 pages, Sheehan makes only a few vague allusions to the problem, usually in the context of Washington's alleged fear of direct Chinese or Soviet intervention.

Sheehan is almost equally impenetrable on the professional disputes between Vann and the American high command. This is particularly unfortunate because it means he never has to confront directly a curious paradox. In the early states of the war, Vann apparently wanted the Americans to take over the direction of the South Vietnamese army in detail, to function like a classic colonial power. But Sheehan maintains dogmatically that it was precisely the taint of "collaborating," with French colonialism—his use of the World War II term is no accident; another favorite word is "quisling"—that made an alliance with Saigon unacceptable to pure-hearted Vietnamese patriots. Either Sheehan—and Vann's other journalistic allies—never thought through the implications of Vann's prescription, or they just chose to ignore it while using his critical diagnosis of American policy for their own antiwar purposes.

Similarly, in the later stages of the war, as the attack increasingly became a conventional invasion by North Vietnamese troops, Vann opposed Westmoreland's search-and-destroy operations in the deserted interior mountains and proposed that U.S. forces instead concentrate on controlling and "pacifying" the populated areas, mostly on the coastal plain. A close reading of Sheehan's text suggests that Vann might have regarded Westmoreland's determination to accept battle in whatever prepared position the North Vietnamese chose to offer it as an uneconomical use of force, but it's hard to tell. And presumably Westmoreland could have objected that Vann's approach would leave the North Vietnamese units intact, able to attack the South Vietnamese in the populated areas and force them either to retreat or to make last-ditch defensive stands. This was exactly what happened in 1972 (win) and 1975 (loss). Sheehan's 861 pages of "brilliant" history offer no clue to any of this.

One reason for Sheehan's vagueness becomes apparent in his treatment of the air war. Accepting as usual the antiwar polemics of the time, he asserts baldly that bombing 'Cannot paralyze a country at war. He does not, of course, inquire why Washington, having decided to substitute attrition for strategy, nevertheless refrained from the systematic razing of populated areas, as in World War II, let alone from bombing the Red River dikes and washing North Vietnam into the sea. But even more significant is the question, raised most recently in Colonel Jack Broughton's remarkable Going Downtown: The War against Hanoi and Washington (Crown/Orion), of political over-restriction of the air war. Civilians in a weekly White House lunch ten thousand miles away decided not only targets but detailed tactics. Pilots were not even allowed to attack SAM sites unless their planes were fired on first.

Sheehan does not reject this argument: he shows absolutely no awareness of it, nor of any of the sources cited by Broughton, such as the 1967 Stennis Committee report and British diplomat John Colvin's testimony that Hanoi was on the verge of collapse in that year until rescued by another round of Washington's pointless bombing pauses, and this suggests that Sheehan's loss of control of his material includes a grave failure to keep up with the field, especially when new work was disturbing to his simple antiwar faith. Although his bibliography cites with a straight face works on European politics by Barbara Tuchman, its selection of books on Vietnam published during the past ten years is suspiciously scrappy, notable omissions including Guenter Lewy's America in Vietnam and Colonel Gerald Turley's The Easter Offensive.

This sort of vagueness in a "brilliant history" of such pretensions is appalling, yet it exactly reflects the vagueness endemic in the reporting at the time, as anyone who tried to follow the military situation from a distance will remember. Vagueness, in fact, was crucial to the antiwar cause. It was vital to the undermining of domestic morale that American soldiers appear to be dying, as Sheehan intones in the rhetoric of the era, "in the rain forest of nowhere . . . for no visible purpose and with no conclusion in sight." Similarly, only by keeping attention firmly diverted from the crucial role of the cross-border sanctuaries could the antiwar movement get away with shamelessly describing the Nixon Administration's belated thrusts at them as a "widening of the war," as if the war were somehow not already in these areas—another rhetorical device retained by Sheehan. The Vietnam experience was not merely a case of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of a nation's purpose by its educated classes, but of tantrum des clercs. The entire American intelligentsia was in a state of hysteria over the war, shouting slogans to drown out rational discussion and above all refusing to open its eyes to reality. As the reaction to A Bright Shining Lie demonstrates, it still is.

An odd feature of Sheehan's book is that enough facts have survived his emotional selectivity and analytical ineptitude to refute his thesis completely. Thus he admits unhesitatingly that the Vietcong were always a wholly owned subsidiary of North Vietnam, contrary to ardent antiwar assertions at the time. He makes it clear that guerrilla warfare was not some new military magic, as David Halberstam implied in his influential 1965 book The Making of a Quagmire, and that it was quickly replaced by conventional main-force action; that Westmoreland's approach, whatever its faults, was indeed wearing down the Communists even before the 1968 Tet Offensive; that Tet was a military disaster for them; that after Tet their grip on the countryside was broken; and that Nixon's 1970 incursion into Cambodia achieved its objective in disrupting North Vietnam's preparations for another offensive. He even notes that American bombing, which Vann originally criticized as too indiscriminate for the detailed war he wanted to fight, did indeed ultimately have the effect of driving the population into government-controlled areas where the Communist influence could not be sustained.

But Sheehan avoids considering the implications of these facts with perfunctory excuses. Tet was a "psychological defeat" for the United States. "Antiwar protests" soon "forced" Nixon to withdraw from Cambodia. Quite how victory was turned into a "psychological defeat" and a domestic fifth column allowed to frustrate America's objectives even as its soldiers were dying to secure them is never examined.

It is interesting to speculate why Sheehan's "odyssey" turned out this way. Partly at fault is the knowledge and wisdom of this Ulysses. Sheehan has little historical perspective, so he portrays the Communist victory in Vietnam as inevitable, although the examples of Malaya, the Philippines, and South Korea prove the contrary. His anticolonialism prevents him from seeing that it was the exception rather than the rule for European colonial powers to fail to establish friendly successor regimes, and exacerbates his weakness for debatable and emotive comparisons, particularly with the American Revolution (a Vietnamese "collaborating" with the French was "the equivalent of a Tory"). He asserts at length that Ho Chi Minh could have been an "Asian Tito" without ever considering the possibility that he might have been an Asian Castro. He seems to feel that the North Vietnamese should have been appeased just because they were nationalists who were better soldiers than their neighbors. This theory applied in World War II would have ranged the U.S. on the side of the Third Reich.

But beyond this is the fact that Sheehan is an unreconstructed peacenik and a blame-America-firster, of an unusually primitive kind. His account of Vietnam's post-World War II history can be summarized in Orwellian form: Ho Chi Minh good, U.S. bad. Nowhere in his vast tome is there any hint that there is any reason why anyone should not want to be ruled by Communists. Anti-Communism is invariably presented as "simplistic" or "Manichean." Sheehan's response to the Communist mass-murder of some three thousand people in Hue during the Tet Offensive is notably cool: "The killings were as stupid as they were cruel. The massacre gave substance to the fear that a bloodbath would occur should the Communists ever win the war . . . " The boat people, naturally, are never mentioned.

A new political generation has arisen for whom the Vietnam War is merely a rumor. But for those of us whose youth it pervaded, A Bright Shining Lie is a reminder that in some sense the struggle will never end. We will take it to our graves—and in the case of Neil Sheehan, if the God of his forefathers is to be relied upon, beyond it.