Fifty years ago this June 9, John Vann died when the helicopter he was riding in crashed in central Vietnam.
The anniversary coincides with my reading Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book (published 1988) about Vann and the Vietnam War. This monumental work is 800 pages-worth of small print. As with after my reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (click here), I figure all that labor deserves to bear some fruit, even if only a few dried raisins on WordPress. Thus, my review.
Who was John Paul Vann? He was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who arrived in Vietnam in 1962 soon after the Kennedy administration began sending military “advisors” there. Vann was one of a handful who early on criticized U.S. strategy. He left the army in cloudy circumstances but returned to ‘Nam in 1965 as a civilian U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) director right when Gen. William Westmoreland and the Johnson administration began ramping up America’s failed war with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
Vann tried to convince Washington that the U.S.-built Diem regime in South Vietnam was corrupt; that Diem’s army (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN) was afraid of confrontation; that the American-backed Strategic Hamlet Program (isolating Vietnamese hamlets with barbed wire to repel the Viet Cong) was counterintuitive; that U.S. commanders were fudging the numbers; and that America’s war-of-attrition strategy would ultimately fail.
Neil Sheehan was one of the first American reporters in Vietnam. He covered the war for its duration, first as a UPI correspondent, then as a reporter for The New York Times. Sheehan and other Vietnam journalists, like David Halberstam and Peter Arnett, admired Vann. Vann didn’t bullshit the reporters. He told it like he saw it, warts and all, despite the career risk. He exhibited a professional courage unusual for most Vietnam-era military and civilian protagonists.
Before writing this book, Sheehan was most known for obtaining the Pentagon Papers from RAND Corporation “whiz-kid” and a former protégé of Vann’s, Daniel Ellsberg. Publication of a portion of the Papers in the Times revealed among other things that four presidential administrations, primarily Johnson’s, had systematically lied to and misled the American public about their intentions in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers became a First Amendment cause célèbre. Sheehan died January 7, 2021.
Sheehan writes in a direct, declarative style undoubtedly honed by his years as a wire reporter and war correspondent. He doesn’t succumb to the temptation of hyperbole. There are no exclamation points or sarcasms, despite the black-comic nature of what he observed in Vietnam. Because he was there, he occasionally uses first-person narration.
Once—in an exchange so staggering it beggars belief— Sheehan managed to discuss the war with Westmoreland, the second of three commanding generals. He politely asked the general about the extraordinary number of civilian casualties. The civilians—South Vietnamese peasants, including women and children—were ostensibly those whom the U.S. was trying to save from Communism. They were being killed, maimed, and made homeless by U.S. bombs and artillery shelling.
Westmoreland responded: “Yes, Neil, it is a problem…but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”
Vann’s story parallels the war’s history. He’s the human focal point of the book; however, he’s far from a choirboy. He was a philanderer who exploited his family-man status to burnish his own résumé. He manipulated people and lied to them, even young and vulnerable girls, victims of Vann’s pathological sexual hunger. Vann amply contributed to a familiar by-product of the war: illegitimate pregnancies, abortions, and child abandonment. Sheehan uncovers more than one dark secret about Vann’s past. The “bright shining lie” of the book title, taken from a direct quote by Vann about the war, has a double meaning.
Sheehan weaves Vann in and out of the larger story of America in Vietnam. He touches on a chilling capture and imprisonment of Vann’s partner Doug Ramsey, buried in the jungle for seven years. He covers the significant Vietnam War battles: Ap Bac, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, and the Tet and Easter Offensives. Vann tried to direct the first major confrontation at Ap Bac as an advisor to the incompetent ARVN. It backfired.
When it became clear that full American intervention was required (total withdrawal was rejected, of course), the military strategy proved stupid and unnecessarily brutal. Westmoreland convinced the Johnson administration that a war of attrition would prevail, rather than Vann’s policy of South Vietnamese pacification (winning rural ”hearts and minds” through security, arms, training, and social reform). It was a “stomp-them-to-death” policy of bludgeoning the enemy with relentless matériel and manpower from the air and in the jungles, and it was a total cul-de-sac. After the war crescendoed with the 1968 Tet Offensive, President Richard M. Nixon continued these bludgeoning tactics by invading Cambodia (secretly in 1969, not-so-secretly in 1970) and with the 1972 “Christmas Bombings.”
The U.S. mistakenly tried to transfer WWII tactics to the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. There was little attempt to understand Vietnam history, culture, or Vietnamese soldiers’ perfection of guerrilla warfare for over 1,000 years. (The French had failed here, too.) Additionally, due to its monomaniacal hatred of Communism, the U.S. could not recognize that Ho Chi Minh and his followers were Nationalists first and Communists only second.
By the second decade after World War II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the U.S. armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity…American society had become a victim of its own achievement. The elite of America had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success.“A Bright Shining Lie,” page 285
Vann didn’t waver from his position on how the war should be fought. Like everyone else in those innocent years of the early 1960s, including reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam, he believed that America had a moral obligation to “stem the Red tide” in Southeast Asia. But while Halberstam, Ellsberg, ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and much of the rest of the world eventually recognized the folly of that tragic conflict (McNamara secretly), Vann clung to it like one of his many sex partners, and still believed, at least publicly, that it could be won.
A one-time dirt-poor Southern cracker, in Vietnam Vann transformed himself into ”The Most Interesting Man in the World.” He embraced President Richard M. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization (gradually transferring combat roles back to South Vietnam), which incorporated Vann’s pacification ideas. Nixon in turn gave him smiles and pats on the back. He both finagled and earned stars to put on his résumé. His fighting instincts and courage were beyond reproach. He found a home in that land of atrocities and waste. Reading this book, one gets the impression he’d have been content if the war continued forever.
Vann’s June 1972 burial at Arlington National Cemetery was a who’s who of principal players in the conflict, civilian and military. Sheehan was there. When he looked around and saw the faces, it struck him how Vann’s scarred life and tragic death were a metaphor for the war itself. Vann’s funeral, in fact, was the genesis for Sheehan’s book.
(Spoiler Alert)…Vann’s discarded family was at the funeral, too. Afterwards, they met with Nixon in the Oval Office. Nixon was to award Vann a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. Vann’s second of four sons, Jesse, had just been drafted. Earlier that day he’d torn his draft card in two and placed one half on his father’s casket. He intended to hand the other half to Nixon. He was talked out of doing this only at the last second.
The president had been alerted to what Jesse might do. After Jesse reluctantly shook hands with Nixon, the president offered a muffled “Thanks.” He’d been saved from embarrassment.
The image of an uncomfortable Nixon greeting a 21-year-old boy whom he’d tried to send to Vietnam—a boy whose father had just been wasted by the war Nixon was prolonging—is hard to stomach. But it happened. There’s a photo of the Vann family with Nixon in the Oval Office.
Of the eleven people lined up for that photo, Nixon is the only one smiling.