Classic book review: A Bright Shining Lie

The lies one man told himself about the Vietnam War.

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on Nov. 9, 1988.] All history books, no matter how they are written, are political books, and A Bright Shining Lie, from its title on, is very much a political book.

The mere facts of the Vietnam war can be structured in a book to prove nearly anything. The numbers, the places, the names, the weapons, the battles, and the men have been rearranged in probably a hundred different historical treatments. The bookshelf of the war contains versions shaded from the staunchest anticommunist domino theorist to the yippiest peacenik, albeit the ardor for either extreme is failing as the years go on.

The more important considerations, those about the wars within the human heart, remain. Sheehan has his friend John Paul Vann's heart to examine, and the parallels he draws between Vann's emotions and the nation - the pride, egotism, hatred, shame, and moral confusion - will probably last long after the details have any meaning at all.

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Vann was an Army colonel who early on in the war recognized the fundamental error being made by the top command. Sheehan was a reporter for the New York Times who arrived with the first wave of journalists in the early '60s and saw the American involvement in Southeast Asia as a defensible incursion by the US into the affairs of another state.

Vann spoke as few officers then did; he was frank and pointed, showing the fallacy of the hamfisted tactics the upper command had planned. As the war went on, Vann got into trouble with his superiors; Sheehan got into trouble with his at the Times. A bond was formed.

But there was a great deal about John Paul Vann that Sheehan did not know, just as there was a great deal about the expanding US involvement in the war the public did not know.

Sheehan's book would probably not have been published had it been presented as fiction. Vann's funeral, in 1972, at which the idea of the book first occurred to Sheehan, would have been rejected by any editor of historical fiction as too improbable. Nearly every major figure in the military and political operation of the war, from Edward Lansdale to Daniel Ellsberg, came to the service. Joseph Alsop, Edward Kennedy, William Westmoreland, William Colby - the list went on - all these men gathered in one spot.

It was then Sheehan saw the structure of his book.

What he found out in addition was that his friend had more secrets in his life than Vietnam had tunnels. It took Sheehan 16 years to figure them all out and to build around this man's life a history of the war. Not the history of the war, but a history.

Vann grew in authority by a variety of means that will be surprising to readers who think they understand how the Pentagon and the State Department work. His main strengths – a belief in the rightness of the American way of nearly everything, his love for the Army, his tenacity, and his bravery – made him one of the most powerful men in the war zone.

At the end, however, he had invested so much of himself that he lost anything resembling objectivity and at last was consumed with the idea of victory.

As Sheehan puts it, Vann "lost his compass.'' At this point he was an accurate incarnation of the military effort in Vietnam, haunted by the specter of failure, ready to sacrifice anything, and inwardly questioning all of the previously unquestionable truths that the entire war was based on with the fear they might evaporate at this late date.

The degeneration of this man into a stubborn liar and a bloody-minded war lover had its roots in the degeneration of his character. He was capable of cruel deceits and betrayals of friends and family members. These were explained away in his own mind as justified by a far larger and more important end.

He was, as the song of the time said, "knee deep in the Big Muddy," and made the decision that he might as well push on as go back. He became reckless and began to believe in his own invincibility. But his career ended in a mere accident, a helicopter crash in foggy weather.

As a history, "A Bright Shining Lie'' is not as expository or as clear as Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History,'' or James William Gibson's "The Perfect War'' (which is in my opinion the best text), but as reading material it is unparalleled. Sheehan is still a reporter, and his style is deceptively flat.

Yet his descriptions of the carnage and mayhem are more than sufficiently evocative, especially if you were there.

Vann's last days, in one swirling battle after another, are an uncontested "page-turner,'' as they say in the novel business. The details are sometimes astounding.

For example, after the crash in which he was killed, a patrol of South Vietnamese soldiers was sent out into the night to inspect. It was dangerous territory, but Vann was a man who had given most of his life to the defense of South Vietnam. They found his body and carried it back, but minus his watch, wallet, and class ring, which they took. So much for the glory of war.

The book will take its place as one of the milestones in the literature about the war. In spots, Sheehan is more complimentary about the character of the American military in Vietnam than he would be had he been a soldier.

He still has a fascination with military matters that outside observers have, a fascination curable only by a year in the ranks. He tries to be fair to the various players – he is writing about a man he considered a friend.

The friend is not here to defend himself, and Sheehan stops short of making stronger conclusions. This may be the effect of time, or it may be the experienced reporter's earnest efforts to seek objectivity in the face of passion, but readers will wonder and despair that all these events could have happened, and that the reputation and future of this country could fall into the hands of men like John Paul Vann.

I never knew Vann, but I knew people like him. They thought there were problems that could be solved by killing, and my memory of them has always seemed to be a warning.

In these times, a readable book about the Vietnam war, like any clear warning, is worth its weight in life.

Jeff Danziger is a former Monitor editorial cartoonist.

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