My Book World
One might wonder how the story of a single man might also tell the complete story of a war that that man participates in. Yet that is precisely what the late journalist and author Neil Sheehan does in his award-winning book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. John Paul Vann might be a larger-than-life character if indeed he were a larger-than-life person. He is not. And Sheehan takes great pains to explain to readers Vann’s poverty-stricken childhood, one in which Vann (his adopted name) is born out of wedlock and would rather take the name of his stepfather than the name of the father who brings shame upon him (although he does become acquainted with the man later). Vann begins his wannabee life by earning a good education. He is always about self-improvement as far as his career is concerned and seeks more degrees even while working full time. At a personal level, Van remains a mess for the remainder of his life. His early poverty, the rejection of him by his mother, always plays a role in his judgment.
John Paul Vann commits a crime he ultimately gets away with (he does no jail time) because his wife testifies on his behalf and because he teaches himself to beat the military’s polygraph machine—another blemish on his larger-than-life image. Yet the existence of this trial dogs him as he attempts to climb the military ladder of success via the back door (certainly not West point). Vann places career before his wife and children. He allows his voracious sexual appetite (as many as three acts of coitus a day in his forties) commands him to do whatever necessary to satisfy it: lie, cheat, manipulate. He all but divorces his wife (and children) to accommodate his promiscuity, keeping secret from each other the lives of his Vietnamese lover and (illegal) wife.
Yet all the while Vann possesses an honest and accurate perception of the Vietnam War beginning early on in the 1950s. He perceives that the U.S. military complex, since its recent victories with World War II, develops an arrogance that keeps its leadership from assessing the Vietnam War honestly. Army leaders refuse to learn anything about Vietnam: its centuries-long battles to fight off (successfully) foreign invaders. It refuses to realize that South Vietnam government is weak and corrupt and as such never fights the North with full force. It refuses to realize that the Vietnam people are one and that often the enemy looks like the ally and vice-versa.
The Battle of Ap Bac, in 1962, is one in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong—the American Army losing hundreds of lives in spite of its military “superiority.” The Viet Cong (North Vietnam Communists) capture abandoned U.S. equipment, expensive weaponry, and use them against the South supported by the U.S. military. Miliary leaders fail to realize Vietnam is one country, that it cannot be divided as North Korea was. The people pass back and forth over the imagined line of the 38th Parallel undetected. Vann ultimately believes that how Vietnam determines its future ought to be up to its people, a struggle that, even if it turns to Communism, is not the business of the United States. There is no such thing as the so-called Domino Theory. The lives and money being spent for nearly two decades are a wasted expense, to say the least.
And yet, Vann, up until the very last of his career, continues to believe that with his superior leadership, the war can be won—even after the Tet Offensive and other failures. In June 1972, unable to obtain the service of his usual helicopter pilot, Vann makes an ill-advised night flight in fog with an inexperienced twenty-six-year-old pilot and all occupants crash to their deaths, Vann believing until the end that he has won the war. It will not end, of course, for several more years, in 1975, when the U.S. finally admits defeat and vacates the decimated country.
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