Americans struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. The country’s longest and only losing conflict invokes painful memories of wanton killing, government lying and moral degeneration that seem for removed from the nation’s other 20th-century wars. The films Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill and Casualties of War present images of brave Americans overwhelmed by the brutality and senselessness of the struggle. Although American battlefield losses in World War One, Korea and Vietnam were roughly comparable and far less than in World War Two, the 58,000 dead in Vietnam seem to weigh more heavily on the country’s conscience. The respectful curiosity of visiting Americans at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, or at a Normandy cemetery I have observed, is pallid alongside the emotional reactions one sees at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.
American grief about the war is mixed with enduring feelings of frustration and anger. Similar feelings remain about Korea. Like Vietnam, it was a ‘limited war’ which fell short of stated goals. The preservation of South Korea was better than the total loss of Vietnam, but less than the ‘liberation’ of the whole Peninsula which American military forces aimed to achieve when they ventured north of the 38th Parallel. Moreover, we entered the Korean and Vietnam Wars without the kind of public debate that prepared Congressional and mass opinion for national sacrifice and made World Wars One and Two popular crusades. In this respect, however, Korea was more understandable to Americans than Vietnam. The Korean decisions were more the consequence of circumstances than choice. The North Korean attack on the South and subsequent retreat above the Parallel following MacArthur’s September 1950 landing at Inchon demanded policy directives that could not wait on public reactions. Nevertheless, the Truman Administration paid a high political price for proceeding without a well-developed national consensus: battlefield losses and domestic inflation largely destroyed Truman’s hold on the public, strengthened the appeal of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communism, and undermined public tolerance for rational debate about foreign policy. The Korean War was an object lesson in what little patience Americans had for a limited war and how essential it was to prepare the nation for the frustrations of a conflict in which wise statesmanship barred the Government from doing more than it did.
America’s leaders learned exactly the wrong lesson from Korea. If the public and the Congress had limited capacity to understand and accept a limited war, the nation’s elected and appointed executive officers aimed to hide unpleasant decisions and realities from them. From 1961 to 1965, when the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations expanded US commitments in Vietnam, the realities of what we were doing and the difficulties confronting us were muted – partly to discourage public debate and inhibitions on executive freedom to make policy, and partly out of the delusion that political and military experts knew how to fix the problem before its cost in blood and treasure agitated public questions. As the journalist David Halberstam emphasised in 1972 in The Best and the Brightest, the experts were less than wise. More important, the making of far-reaching overseas commitments without a Congressional and public consensus was a formula for political failure at home and for military defeat abroad.
In his compelling biographical and historical study of John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan focuses our attention on this sorry chapter in American foreign affairs. A prize-winning reporter in Saigon for United Press International and the New York Times, Sheehan also won distinction as the journalist who obtained the Pentagon Papers for the Times in 1971. Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie is a tragedy in three parts: the story of a courageous and far-sighted but fatally flawed scoundrel, Vann; the account of self-defeating South Vietnamese corruption and ruthless indifference to military and political realities; and the history of American miscalculations and deceit in its longest war.
In Sheehan’s skilfully constructed book, Vann is a metaphor for America’s well-intentioned failure in Vietnam. When Sheehan first met Vann in 1962, he was one of the US Army advisers the Kennedy Administration had sent to help the South Vietnamese Army combat the Viet Cong insurgency which was engulfing the country. A lieutenant-colonel assigned to the Mekong Delta, Vann saw an urgent need to reverse the trend of the war if a non-Communist South Vietnam were to survive. Although mindful of the limited boost his Army career would gain from an effective tour of duty in Vietnam, Vann uncomplainingly accepted the dangers and unheralded role his assignment entailed. In the spring of 1962, American military advisers were given no formal recognition for their part in the conflict. Eager to discourage the thought that the United States was actively involved in war, the Kennedy Administration forbade the authorisation of combat decorations, including Purple Hearts, for American troops wounded and killed in the fighting.
Vann entered upon his assignment with unstinting devotion to duty. He not only had a genuine regard for the Vietnamese and wished to see their country achieve peace and prosperity: he also saw the conflict as a test of whether the ‘Free World’ or the ‘Communist World’ would prevail. He quickly learned that the South Vietnamese Army would not fight aggressively. It was, indeed, under orders from the President, Ngo Dinh Diem, not to conduct offensive operations. Diem’s first priority was the survival of his regime. Convinced that casualties to the regular army would undermine its support of the regime in Saigon, Diem left the fighting to militiamen who were to maintain the Government’s system of outposts across the country through defensive actions. If the militia failed to hold off the Viet Cong, Diem correctly believed that the United States would come to his rescue.
The intent of the Saigon regime became evident in the Viet Cong victory at Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta at the start of 1963. In that engagement, ‘350 guerrillas had stood their ground and humbled a modern army four times their number equipped with armour and artillery and supported by helicopters and fighter bombers.’ The Viet Cong lost 18 killed and 39 wounded, against 80 killed and over a hundred wounded among the Saigon forces. The guerrillas also killed three Americans, wounded eight others, and destroyed five helicopters. Given how poorly armed the guerrillas were compared to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), and given the fact that only twenty Americans had died in the fighting up to that point, it was a shocking defeat.
During the next six months, Vann fought to convince American military and civilian leaders that victory in Vietnam required a drastic change in strategy. He believed that Saigon had to be coerced into accepting direction from him and the other American officers in the field. When he ran into a wall of resistance from the US military command in Vietnam, he took his case to American journalists on the scene. By so doing, he seemed to sacrifice his prospects for advancement: lieutenant-colonels eager to become colonels and generals do not challenge the wisdom of their military superiors. Vann’s crusade for an altered American policy extended to a brief term of service in Washington DC in the spring and summer of 1963. He went to great lengths to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff that American military success was beyond reach unless they altered course. When he found himself blocked from briefing the Chiefs by two high-ranking generals, he resigned from the Army.
Partly relying on Vann’s analysis of the military situation in Vietnam, David Halberstam published a critical estimate of the US-South Vietnamese war effort in a book, The Making of a Quagmire, widely read in 1965. In an earlier magazine profile and in this book, he described Vann as a principled officer who had sacrificed his career out of loyalty to the national well-being.
But as Sheehan now reveals, Vann ‘had not renounced his career and retired in protest in order to warn the country of impending defeat’. It turns out that he ‘did have moral courage’ – he had defied his commanding officer in Vietnam and fought unsuccessfully to press the truth about conditions in that country upon the Pentagon – but that his resignation from the service was not, as he had portrayed it, an act of self-sacrifice. Vann ‘had no career to ruin and no stars to throw away... He had left the Army because a dark compulsion in his personality had led him to commit an act that he was convinced would bar him forever from promotion to general. There was a duality in the man, a duality of personal compulsions and deceits that would not bear light and a professional honesty that was rigorous and incorruptible.’
Vann was an illegitimate child with a tragic early life. His rise to a lieutenant-colonelcy from an impoverished childhood with a disturbed mother, whose prostitution and broken marriages deeply wounded him, was a minor miracle. But it left imperishable scars. He was a liar and compulsive womaniser. He told false tales about his combat experience in Korea, deceived his wife and two Vietnamese mistresses with whom he carried on simultaneous affairs, and committed statutory rape with an American teenager. When the Criminal Investigation Division of the US Army moved to bring charges, he persuaded his wife to lie for him and passed a lie-detector test by staying awake for forty-eight hours as a means of slowing down his reactions to fool the machine. Although he avoided a court-martial and dismissal from the Army, his advancement to the higher ranks was out of reach. He resigned his commission not simply because he differed with his superiors over Vietnam but out of recognition that he could not climb higher in the ranks.
Despite the end of his military career in 1963, Vann remained closely tied to Vietnam for the last nine years of his life. In March 1965 he returned to Saigon as a civilian official in the Agency for International Development. He immediately saw that in spite of America’s massive escalation of the conflict, ‘we are going to lose this war.’ Moral degeneration in South Vietnam and excellent discipline among the Viet Cong were making it likely. But the refusal of ‘our goddam military geniuses and politicians... to admit and act on the obvious – to take over command of this operation lock, stock and barrel’ was making it certain. Vann did not favour simply substituting American fighting men for Vietnamese, as General William Westmoreland and the Johnson Administration agreed to do. Nor did Vann think that a strategy of attrition, the use of America’s superior fire power to sap Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighting capacity, was an effective approach to the war. Instead, he believed it essential to win the sympathy of South Vietnamese peasants by ‘capturing the social revolution from the Communists and harnessing it to the American cause... The long-range goal was to foster the creation of a different kind of government in Saigon, a “national government... responsive to the dynamics of the social revolution”, a South Vietnamese government that could endure after the American soldiers had fought and the living had gone home.’
As a leading figure in the civilian pacification programme, Vann devoted himself to winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese. To Vann and a handful of other American military and civilian officials in Vietnam, ‘pacification and social and economic reform were “a design for victory”. Attrition was “the route to defeat”.’ Despite the failure of American air and land operations to defeat the insurgency during the seven years between 1965 and 1972, Vann hoped that the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of Vietnamisation, which Kissinger attributed to Vann, would allow South Vietnam to become the autonomous country the United States had aimed to create from the start of its involvement in the fighting. By the time he died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in June 1972, ‘Vann had lost his compass,’ Sheehan says. He could no longer look at the war ‘as something separate from himself. He had finally bent the truth about the war as he had bent other and lesser truths in the past.’
Vann’s illusion was just the latest in a long line of false assumptions that mesmerised Americans in Vietnam. ‘Psychologists or sociologists may explain some day,’ Henry Kissinger believes, ‘what it is about that distant monochromatic land, of green mountains and fields merging with an azure sea, that for millennia has acted as a magnet for foreigners who sought glory there and found frustration, who believed that in its rice fields and jungles some principle was to be established and entered them only to recede in disillusion.’ Sheehan’s book reminds us of all those painful illusions about Vietnam that held official America fast for so long. Self-determination for South Vietnam was never more than a false hope. But given American anxieties in the Fifties and Sixties about Communist wars of liberation and the domestic political consequences of ‘losing’ another Asian nation to Communism, fond hopes of turning a corrupt and dependent client state into an autonomous nation are at least understandable and even forgivable. It is more difficult to explain and forgive the many ‘bright shining’ lies, the wilful falsehoods employed by the four Administrations from Eisenhower to Nixon to advance their benighted goals in Vietnam and South-East Asia generally. Sheehan’s recounting of these unseemly facts is distressing – not because they are unknown, but because, related in sequence, they reveal a pattern of undemocratic actions that constituted an assault on the foundations of representative government in America. Major-General Edward Lansdale’s secret masterminding of the campaign that gave birth to a South Vietnamese state in 1955 under Diem was the first step along this path. Combat missions by American pilots, false reports about the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese Army, denials about the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam, and the American-sponsored coup against Diem, were Kennedy’s contributions to the policy of official deceit. Clandestine raids on North Vietnam beginning in January 1964, misleading information to extract the Tonkin Gulf Resolution from the US Congress in August, and public descriptions of America’s role in the fighting that purposely distorted the extent and ferocity of our involvement, were centrepieces of the Johnson policy towards Vietnam. Nixon’s false assertion during the 1968 campaign that he had a secret plan for ending the war, the secret bombing of Cambodia, and the invasion of that country by American forces in 1970, extended the record of trying to advance democracy in South-East Asia by riding over it roughshod in the United States. Sheehan’s material is so rich, the characters and events so much like those in a work of fiction, that one is reminded of Philip Roth’s observation about being an American novelist: it is difficult to be a fiction writer in America because reality is always outdoing the novelist’s imagination.