Book Review: A Bright Shining Lie – John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

John Paul Vann is not a name that appears in most accounts of the Vietnam War, but according to this account he played a key role. Sheehan, a journalist, met Vann when he came to South Vietnam in 1962 and remained close to Vann until the latter’s death in a helicopter crash in the Central Highlands in 1972.
Vann served a single tour as a military adviser on the Mekong delta, just east of Saigon. By the end of his tour in April 1963 he was deeply disillusioned with the conduct of the war and the abysmal conduct of the Saigon establishment and its military. He was by then also professionally under a cloud for criticising the war effort in the media through journalists including Sheehan and for skipping the “proper” channels to try to alert the Kennedy administration that unless the Saigon administration was rebuilt from scratch the endemic shirking, corruption and incompetence would lose it the war. “He and his colleagues were charged with waging a war of infantry combat against a guerrilla enemy with an army that suffered from an institutionalised unwillingness to fight.”         
But the US leaders of the time “did not want to see the world as a complicated place.” They willed themselves to believe that it was possible for a military behaving as badly towards their enemy and population as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to win, despite abusing the peasantry and refusing to face the National Liberation Front (NLF) – a competent and dedicated foe who treated the peasantry with professional courtesy and correctness. Sheehan attributed the difference between the NLF and the ARVN on the need for the insurgents to show the people they represented order and justice and therefore deserved popular support. In this they were assisted by the perception that the NLF was the successor to the Viet Minh who had defeated the French and who were in turn seen as the personification of a 1000-year-old nationalist tradition of standing firm against foreign invaders – and defeating them. Vietnam, Sheehan, might have added, means “land of the victorious southerners”, the “northerners” being successive waves of Chinese, Mongols and Manchus who all came, saw and were defeated. Saigon, by contrast, represented the Quislings who first sold out their religion at the start of the colonial period and then became French stooges. Morally corrupt, they quickly became physically corrupt.                            
As for the US attitude, Sheehan argues that by the second decade after World War Two the American military suffered from the disease of victory – “the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership … had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity. These are the traits that cause otherwise intelligent men … behave stupidly. … They assumed they would prevail in Vietnam simply because of who they were.” The parallels with Iraq are all to clear. Sadly, the three decades since Vietnam seem to have been long enough for the current crop of leaders to have forgotten why they lost. General Paul Harkins, the first American commander, concentrated on the body count, the tonnage of bombs dropped, the number of operations launched “to increase the momentum of this drive to victory that he imagined he had set in motion. The generation of Eisenhower and Patton had not fought World War Two simply building a killing machine and turning it loose in the expectation that it would bring them victory.” Yet Harkins and his successor William Westmoreland did – and arguably a current crop of commanders believe the same.                   
By the time US troops took over the war in 1965 in order to prevent the fall of a venal regime, Vann was back, but as a civilian employee of USAID. His mission now was pacification – mobilising the peasants against the NLF by removing those aspects which motivated them to support the insurgents – a tall order in a country where the president set his generals extortion quotas and supporting artillery fire and medevacs had to be paid for. “… and the principles, goals, and desires of the other side are much closer to what Americans believe in than those of (Saigon). I am convinced that even though the NLF is communist-dominated, the great majority of the people supporting it are doing so because it is their only hope to change and improve their living conditions and opportunities… and to secure a better government.”   
Vann considered Americanising the war as the “worst possible move”, saying the NLF was so intermingled with the peasantry that even the ARVN had difficulty distinguishing them. “”The American soldiers would soon start to see the whole rural population as the enemy. ‘We`d end up shooting at everything – men, women, kids, and the buffaloes,`” Vann said in 1964. “We could pour our entire army into Vietnam – and accomplish nothing worthwhile.” On the facts, he proved correct.               
The US Marine Corps bibliography of recommended books, A Book on Books, (MCRP 6-11A HQ USMC, Department of the Navy, April 1997) notes that the book was extremely popular on first publication and was sharply critical of the US military. “It deserves—in fact demands— reading by serving professionals.”
Neil Sheehan
A Bright Shining Lie – John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
New York
Vintage Books