Vietnam’s Lasting Illusion

Republished by on September 25, 2003

The Times
May 13 1989

NEW YORK—Oscar Wilde, in a famous
phrase, described fox-hunting as the unspeakable in
pursuit of the uneatable. Something similar might be
said about the American intelligentsia`s unanimous
enthusiasm for

A Bright Shining Lie,

former New York Times person Neil Sheehan`s
ponderous account of America`s involvement in Vietnam as
personified by John Paul Vann. He was a US official
killed in a helicopter crash days after masterminding
the crushing defeat of Hanoi`s 1972 Easter offensive in
the central highlands.

Now the book has been published in
Britain (Jonathan Cape, £15.95), where I gather the same
baying has begun.

This is emphatically a cultural,
not a literary, phenomenon. A Bright Shining Lie
is technically, intellectually and morally incompetent.
Its hysterical reception is a clue to why America failed
in Vietnam and why President Bush now hesitates over

The book suffers, to begin with,
from gross, appalling elephantiasis. Its 862 pages
contain much formulaic padding, such as detailed
physical descriptions of microscopically minor
characters like Vann`s father-in-law. But it still
contrives to devote only 30 pages to the course of the
war from the 1968 Tet offensive to 1972 and nothing at
all to the period leading up to Hanoi`s final onslaught
in 1975.

This unquestionably serves a
political purpose. It allows Sheehan to evade the
historical reality that Saigon fell, not because its
troops ceased to fight—they fought to the end, without
benefit of American media coverage—but because the US,
unlike the Soviet Union, reneged on its commitment to
supply its ally with the modern means to go on fighting.

Sheehan`s use of space, however, is
more irrational. Ultimately it appears dictated by sheer
accidents such as his own presence at an early skirmish
or his access to an American PoW`s unpublished
manuscript. Even before reading the worshipful accounts
of Sheehan`s 16-year struggle with writer`s block and
his frantic last-minute cutting of some 90,000 words,
the mundane reality has become unmistakable: he simply
lost control of his material.

Which leads to Sheehan`s crucial
intellectual failing: he nowhere gets around to a clear
explanation of the military problem in Vietnam. Against
what rapidly became a conventional invasion, Saigon had
to defend an 800-mile frontier on exterior lines, an
almost impossible task. Washington refused to
contemplate either a counter-attack against North
Vietnam or establishing a shorter line from the
demilitarized zone to the Mekong River.

Thus, throughout the war, the North
Vietnamese were able to maintain and resupply bases in
Cambodia only 50 miles from the South Vietnamese
capital. Sheehan never questions this peculiar
situation. In fact, he shamelessly repeats the anti-war
line that Nixon`s belated thrusts at these cross-border
sanctuaries constituted a `widening of the war` as if
the war were not there already.

One result is that Sheehan totally
misunderstands his protagonist. Vann originally thought
America`s massive use of military force and air power
destructive and wasteful, as it certainly was. But it

Sheehan himself notes that after
Tet the indigenous Vietcong was destroyed, the
population mostly refugees in US-controlled areas, and
the communist cause dependent on repeated North
Vietnamese invasions. It was to defeat these invasions
that Vann sensibly turned to air power—a switch that
Sheehan attributes to gathering hubris.

Nowhere in Sheehan`s vast tome is
there any suggestion that there might be any reason to
resist communism. Anti-communism is invariably
`simplistic` or `Manichean`. America does not fare so
well. It is always, in

Jeanne Kirkpatrick`s
phrase, blamed first.

The Cambodian holocaust which
receives a grand total of 10 lines is described as
`the cruellest consequence of the American War in
although of course it occurred years
after the Americans had left. Even the openness of
American society is repeatedly depicted in diabolical
terms `the genius of the Anglo-Saxon society of the
North-east for co-opting the talents and loyalties of

(Telling terminology. Sheehan,
whose mother was reportedly an Irish immigrant, seems to
be one of that majority of Irish Americans who are
impelled by ethnic antagonism to move to the political
left—a supposition supported by his apparent belief in
what can only be described as a bar-room ballad version

Irish history

Moral blindness is at the core of
Sheehan`s narrative. It is symbolized by a small detail.
Vann kept two Vietnamese mistresses. He ultimately
married one and had a child by her. Sheehan tells the
story at prurient length. But he never bothers to report
what happened to them when Saigon fell. For the American
left, Vietnam was never more than a screen on which they
projected their own self-absorbed psycho-drama.

Earlier this year, I published a
long essay on the Sheehan syndrome in the conservative
(and Irish-American) National Review magazine. It
provoked an unusual type of letter: passionately
assenting, enclosing similarly hostile reviews from
obscure service journals and even private memos,
apparently dashed off to relieve the writers` powerless
rage. None of this found expression in the establishment

The Vietnam war is over. America`s civil war goes on.

The author is a senior editor of
Forbes magazine in New York.

published in England, spelling and grammar vary slightly
from American style.]