Neil Sheehan

A Bright Shining Lie

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A Bright Shining Lie Summary

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A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988) is a nonfiction book by Neil Sheehan, a former New York Times reporter. For his work on the book, Sheehan won the 1988 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. In 1998, HBO released a movie of the same name based on the book starring Bill Paxton as John Paul Vann.

The book begins with Vann’s funeral in 1972 after he dies in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. Sheehan, a friend of Vann’s, is present.

The remainder of the book is divided into seven books. In the first, Vann arrives in Vietnam in 1962 as an American advisor to the seventh division of the Southern Vietnamese army under the command of Colonel Cao. The tenor of American troops at the time, himself included, is that the Vietnam War is a chance for veterans of the Korean War to have another adventure, and for younger recruits to prove their mettle on the battlefield. The South Vietnamese will blindly follow America to victory and the Viet Cong will submit to overwhelming military might. As an advisor, Vann plans attacks on the Viet Cong and fights alongside the Vietnamese troops. He soon becomes concerned at Cao’s reluctance to inflict casualties on the enemy. Cao, for his part, is more interested in waiting for a coup in Saigon than seeking out the Viet Cong. Simultaneously, Cao alienates the local population with thievery, torture, and murder. Vann informs his superiors, but his concerns go unheeded.

In the next book, “Antecedents to a Confrontation,” Sheehan lays out the origins of the Vietnam War. He covers the Vietnamese fight for independence from the French, the different trajectories of national leaders Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem, and the division of Vietnam at the Geneva Convention of 1954. The United States gets involved as part of its containment policy on Communism, seeing itself as a liberator. However, though Diem is no Communist, his harsh policies incense the local population, increasing the likelihood of revolution.

In the “Battle of Ap Bac section,” Vann and the seventh division are ordered to take a Viet Cong radio tower near a small village called Ap Bac. The mission goes horribly from the start and the ensuing battle is disastrous for the South Vietnamese. Vann is so upset by Cao’s conduct that he reports the blundering mistakes to reporters, including Sheehan.

In “Taking on the System,” Vann finishes his tour of duty in Vietnam and is transferred to the Pentagon as a military advisor. From there, he briefs anyone who will listen about what he saw in Vietnam and his suggestions for winning the war. Arriving in Vietnam idealistic and patronizing toward the Vietnamese, Vann is now awakened to his folly. A general disagrees with Vann’s views and prevents him from speaking to the rest of the Joint Chiefs.

“Antecedents to the Man” focuses on Vann’s personal life before his tour in Vietnam. Vann was born during the Depression to an abusive mother. A Methodist minister arranged for Vann to attend a boarding school, thus saving him from a corrosive home environment. Vann later joined the Army Air Corps to become a pilot, met and married his wife, and enjoyed a successful military career. However, his failure to become an officer is likely attributed to a rape accusation made by an Army chaplain’s daughter.

In “A Second Time Around,” Vann’s criticism of the war back home causes tension. He returns to Vietnam as a civilian with the Agency for International Development, or AID, where he rises through the ranks. It is his dream to command a battalion. Months before he dies, AID gives him a command. His personal life may be in shambles, but professionally he has what he has always wanted. He tries and fails to implement a new winning strategy, eventually compromising with the central military strategy.

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam is highly regarded by critics. The New York Times says, “If there is one book that captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it.” The book was sixteen years in the making as Sheehan interviewed, researched, and gathered data to support his friend’s biography.

While there are certainly elements of heroism in Vann’s story, his personal journey from All-American poster child to critic of American military strategy unearths themes of paternalistic attitudes and racism toward Asians. Having first traveled to Vietnam, Vann knew very little about Vietnam or the Vietnamese. The longer he stayed, the more he learned which shifted his military strategy. The higher command did not heed the advice of Vann and others, believing their strategy worked wherever and whomever they fought. It was that kind of thinking that likely lost the Vietnam War for the United States.