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Classic book review: A Bright Shining Lie

The lies one man told himself about the Vietnam War.

By Jeff Danziger / March 29, 2009

[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.

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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.

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.

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