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A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.

John Paul Vann's one-man war against the Viet Cong and the Pentagon symbolizes all that was right and wrong with what we did in Vietnam.

On June 16, 1972, Neil Sheehan attended what amounted to a state funeral for the war in Vietnam. The body on the caisson behind the six gray horses belonged to John Paul Vann, killed after nearly a decade of continuous fighting in America's longest siege of blood and belief. His friends, gathered in muted pomp at Arlington Cemetery, spanned the full range of the conflict, from Edward Lansdale, the legendary Ugly American given credit for inventing South Vietnam by clandestine maneuver to Vann's old grenade-throw ing companion, Daniel Ellsberg, then on trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Vann had promised to testify in support of Ellsberg's sterling character while conspiring simultaneously with officials bent on imprisoning him as a traitor to national security. One of Vann's war-damaged sons dropped half his draft card into his father's grave and then tried to give the other half to President Nixon in the Oval Office. It was one of the countless awkward, incoherent episodes in the struggle over the war's meaning.

As the New York Times reporter to whom Ellsberg delivered the Pentagon Papers, Sheehan had acquired some notoriety among the special breed then called the New Journalists--reporters who rebelled against dull objectivity by adopting causes and lively personal styles. Therefore Sheehan's book about Vietnam was news from the moment he undertook to write it. Announcements rolled forth as he joined his contemporaries in promising definitive works on the largest topics of the day: Gay Talese on Sex, David Halberstam on the Press, Tom Wolfe on Space, and Sheehan on Vietnam. Each one of these young authors disappeared into the maw of his subject, but they struggled back one by one, battered if not chastened by the reach of ambition. In the Reagan years only Sheehan was left undelivered. Many observers feared that he, as the most workmanlike and least glittering of these writers,might be forever lost as a casualty of Vietnam introspection. Against this background, Sheehan's book* arrives with the haunting quality of a phoenix. Although it will survive as the insider's account of Vietnam, the work rises above all the sins common to the species. There is no I-told-you-so spirit here. The result is a great saga without hubris.

What humanizes the work is Sheehan's tool of discipline-the life of John Paul Vann as an organizing metaphor for the many layers of pain from Vietnam. Vann's life is arresting enough on the surface. Always at the heart of American turmoil over Vietnam, he amounted to a one-man history running backward: from piercing dissenter against an immoral war policy in 1962, years before most Americans had heard of Vietnam, he became the war's last true believer, slaughtering his way toward victory after even the commanding hawks had given up hope for anything beyond graceful defeat.

Sheehan gradually peels away the facade around Vann's inner life to reveal the naked war biography of a man utterly at odds with his reputation. Vann's courageous dissent turns out to have been a manipulator's lie, and so does his true belief. Sheehan allows the pathos of Vann's background to excuse at least some of his personal cruelties, and he carries through every sordid discovery a fleeting, perverse admiration for Vann as a wild, old-style American hell-bent on shaping the world to fit his character. These qualities account for the positive adje"bright"shining" in Sheehan's title, which he borrowed from Vann. But the Vann novel and the war narrative mingle inseparably beneath the title word "lie."

Blunderbuss shelling

Sheehan begins to recreate the war with Vann's arrival in President Kennedy's first major wave of reinforcements. An army lieutenant colonel on volunteer assignment, Vann entered at just the right moment, as usual, and exuded the cocky skills that suited an American soldier of his time: "His body was all lithe, all muscle and bone, and wonderfully quick. . . .At 37 he could still perform a backflip somersault '" The war was an adventure then. Only 20 Americans had been killed. In order to conceal the war from American politics, the Kennedy administration banned combat medals for the advisers, as well as flags or other symbols of authority. The task of the U.S. soldiers was to insinuate themselves among the South Vietnamese commanders by persuasion and example, Vann himself excelled in the role. When told that control by the communist guerrillas made a road impassable, his instinctive reaction was to jump alone into a jeep and drive through at high speed. He liked to hover over combat areas, drawing fire while he screamed orders over the radio. The South Vietnamese, he learned in a series of battlefield frustrations, were riddled with corruptions that magnified their fears.

Among other fine points of South Vietnamese bureaucracy, Sheehan reveals that President Diem punished his commanders for engaging in combat on even the most favorable terms, because combat meant accepting casualties, which in turn meant an unhappy army and therefore the threat of a coup. Once, with helpless guerrillas surrounded after a bloody baffle, a maddened Vann watched the South Vietnamese commander fritter and delay until the guerrillas escaped, and then the commander ordered a blunderbuss shelling that obliterated civilian adults and babies as well as some friendly soldiers. Vann was among the few Americans to perceive the perverse logic of such engagements: the delay followed Diem's strict rules against the risk of ARVN casualties; the cannonade provided a safe, moraleboosting excercise and some bodies to substitute for the vanished guerrilla platoon.

Vann almost instantly became a lonely voice within the U.S. military. "This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing," he said "The best weapon for killing would be a knife. . . .The worst is an airplane. The next worse is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle-you know who you are killing." To his dismay, Vann found that his U.S. superiors did not want such close-quarters fighting any more than did the South Vietnamese. The last thing the generals wanted to do was to get to know the Vietnamese better or to fight with primitive weapons. They wanted to look like Eisenhower or Patton at the glorious conclusion of World War 11, commanding a "machine" that would crush the guerrillas with the most sophisticated methods.

Sheehan abruptly interrupts this ground-level war introduction to insert what amounts to a summary of the Pentagon Papers. In 1967, a disillusioned Robert McNamara commissioned a review of the government's secret archives to answer a number of unsettling questions about the war's origins. The answers, leaked by Ellsberg to Sheehan and The New York Times in 1971, shocked the American public with definitive proof that their leaders had persistently misrepresented their motives in Vietnam as well as the prospects for success.

This historical interlude is the first major step into the book as a hall of mirrors. Sheehan, while forthrightly recalling himself as a prowar war correspondent covering Vann, is equally forthright in his conclusion that the secret history of the war made him a fool. The Sheehan who uncovered the Pentagon's secret history nine years later concludes grimly that he and the United States had been "on the wrong side" for many decades. "There was a national revolution going on in Vietnam," he decided, "and the United States was not part of it."

There is nothing remarkable in Sheehan's review of the Pentagon Papers except for the stark challenge posed by his conclusions. The historical explanation for U.S. treatment of Ho Chi Minh lies in the development of the 'American imperial system," he writes baldly. He means empire in a Roman sense more than a Marxist one-of geopolitical control through "surrogate" colonial regimes. When President Truman grandly declared in 1945 that the United States would shun "any government imposed on any nation by the force of any foreign power," his target was the Soviet Union's new dominion over white Eastern Europe and most emphatically not the reestablishment of nonwhite colonies by the Allies. A month after Truman's speech, French commanders bombarded free Hanoi with American planes and artillery, killing 6,000 civilians in a single day. This was an unmistakable signal that the French had American support for a new war to reimpose French sovereignty over Vietnam. From then on, as before, the Vietnamese collaborators in such efforts were Catholic mandarins, Vichy stooges, and unsavory opportunists.

One classic secret memo from the Pentagon Papers dissected the true motives for sending Americans to Vietnam as follows: "70 percent to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat" (imperial pride); "20 percent to keep SVN. . .from Chinese hands" (geopolitics); and "10 percent to permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life" (democratic idealism). This memo was an effort to be candid about the psychology of commitment. The sel f-assessment of American motives was probably too cynical, especially early in the war, but it was the truth-not the exaggeration-of consistently unbecoming, un-American attitudes that made the Pentagon Papers an affront to our national identity.

For, the most part, Sheehan puts aside the historical perspective when he resumes Vann's war narrative. The effect is disturbing--I think deliberately so. Most readers of the Pentagon Papers section will re-enter Vann's battlefield sympathetic to the communist guerrillas, especially as frugal peasant underdogs against the luxury war machine. Almost inevitably, however, the point of identification drifts back to Vann. This is especially true because Vann seems to have intuited some of the elementary facts of the Pentagon Papers even in 1962. To win, he declared, the U.S. forces needed to study the communists and become more like them-more protective of the peasants and less tolerant of corruption. When his persistent reform efforts met complacency all the way up the chain of command, he did not hesitate to buck the system in the tradition of American heroes. "Halberstam," he told the New York Times reporter, "I may be a commissioned officer in the United States Army who's sworn to safeguard classified information, but I'm also an American citizen with a duty to my country. Now listen carefully."

Through the dispatches of Halberstam, Sheehan, and other reporters, Vann told the world of fake operations by the South Vietnamese Army, of phony "body counts" and corruption and doctored intelligence reports. Vann and Halberstam made each other famous as controversial reformers-one as a correspondent and the ot"source" known to insiders. They wanted an honest war because they were idealists who believed that soldiers should serve the weak and deserving-and also because they wanted to win. The challenge to the credibility and rosy assurances of American war policy planted the seeds of later popular dissent. Vann began his protests in February 1963, two years before full-scale American combat units went to Vietnam.

Although merely a colonel, Vann pushed his crusade recklessly through the corridors of the Pentagon back home, buttonholing generals with his alarm until he finally won permission to give a special briefing to the assembled Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 8, 1963. Vann saw this as a life's opportunity to redeem his career and American purpose all at once. He wrote a lecture o"the fundamentals of guerrilla warfare," informing the chiefs that they were creating more enemies by carelessly maiming noncombatants. The preparation went for naught, however, because Vann's bureaucratic foes stopped him minutes before the "Looks like you don't brief today, buddy," he was told.

By the time of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution a year later, the war was getting serious, but John Paul Vann was out of uniform. He never delivered his briefing, and in fact retired shortly after being blocked at the door. To his friends, the Army had effectively cashiered him for his dissent, forcing him to resign in protest. Halberstam lionized Vann in print. Sheehan recalls feeling terrible that Vann had sacrificed his chance to make general by taking risks to buttress his news dispatches. "Vann emerged as the one authentic hero of this shameful period of moral and intellectual squalor," Sheehan writes, just before changing the lens of his book once again.

Young girls

"He was illegitimate," writes Sheehan, opening an interlude on Vann's background that is a kind of personalized echo of the earlier chapter on Vietnam history. Once again the theme is deceit. Vann was born Johnny Spry, after his no-account father, who was married to someone else when he abandoned Vann to his mother, Myrtle, a Norfolk, Virginia floozie of Tobacco Road sensibility and barnyard manners. She taunted young Vann about his bastardy. As a boy, he and a friend once peeked into a parked car to behold Myrtle being humped by a local doctor for money. Vann never received a dime of the earnings to offset the added shame of her prostitution, as Myrtle spent all the money on fur coats and jewelry right through the near-starvation of the Depression. The only respectable man who befriended the skinny, trapped kid turned out to be an undercover CIA Arabist who took rat poison when criminal indictments finally caught up with his sideline as a child molester. Vann discovered the body on home leave from the Army.

Vann seldom saw his wife or five children even when home because he himself pursued women almost as relentlessly as Sheehan later pursued the sordid details of his former hero's rotten past. More than one shamelessly deceived young conquest was frightened or desperate enough to ask Mrs. Vann whether it was really true that they were getting divorced so that he could marry her, and if so, why had he not called? She lied under oath to protect Vann from court-martial charges of statutory rape, and Vann completed his evasion of responsibility with strenuous training to get his denials past the Army's lie detector machine. Immensely relieved, Vann told his wife of the lesson he had learned: "Next time I'll make goddamn sure they're old enough.'"

Blocked from becoming a general by the statutory rape investigation in his records, Vann had arranged a post-retirement job before he ever left for Vietnam in 1962. Why he took such risks there and cultivated the false impression that his career was on the line is a mystery Sheehan does not pretend to fathom, but the wrath of a snookered reporter shines through the discovery.

Spurned by the Army and bored by civilian life, Vann maneuvered his way back to Vietnam as a civilian adviser in 1965. Uncannily, once again, he landed just as President Johnson was sending U.S. soldiers to take over the war from the helpless South Vietnamese. There he kept two permanent concubines in ignorance of one another, resisted the pleas of their Vietnamese fathers to legitimize or free them, and ravaged a procession of young girls on the side.

In his account of this period, Sheehan puts aside his disillusionment over Vann's character, leaving it in the reader's mind with the other filmy overlays of the wan Vann the cruel manipulator retains a keen and brutal sense of truth about the war i"We're going to lose because of the moral degeneration in South Vietnam coupled with the excellent discipline of the VC," he predicted in 1965. But for the geopolitical necessity of thwarting the Chinese communists, he wrote later that year, "it would be damned hard to justify our support of the existing government. . . .If I were a lad of 18 faced with the same choice-whether to support the GVN or the NLF-and a member of a rural community, I would surely choose the NLF." Sheehan offers a rare speculation that Vann's haunted childhood allowed him to identify with the poverty and anger of the Vietnamese peasants.

For whatever reasons, Vann resumed his crusade of dissent and agitation through the reporters. He thought the introduction of large U.S. combat forces was a dreadful mistake. It would make the political war hopeless, he declared, because American troops would prove incapable of distinguishing Vietnamese guerrillas from noncombatant civilians. Attrition, Vann insisted, was the enemy's game, and Westmoreland's territorial blitzes only fed streams of new recruits to the other side. Vann remained a war critic throughout the three big years of troop escalation.

Finally came the Tet Offensive early in 1968, which shattered the credibility and political nerve of the Johnson administration's warmakers. Ironically, this disaster rescued Vann's reputation among the hawks, since he had been predicting such things from the enemy for years. When others turned against the war itself, Vann seized his chance to reform it. His ideas came suddenly into vogue. When the Nixon administration adopted "Vietnamization"--a strategy to return the burden of the fighting to South Vietnam-it amounted to a wholesale adoption of Vann's prescriptions. Old antagonists like Joseph Alsop adopted Vann as a new superpatriot, cured of his former pessimism.

Sheehan argues that the corruptions of Vietnam and of Vann's own life finally swallowed up his professional integrity. Vann's continuing crusades against corruption make it clear that he knew the South Vietnamese government was as bankrupt as ever, but in the heat of his personal success he lost sight of its importance. By then he had grafted himself to Vietnam, perhaps longing to expend his final anger there. "He had finally bent the truth about the war as he had bent other and lesser truths in the past," writes Sheehan. Vann wound up with rank equivalent to a general, the first American civilian ever to hold field command over U.S. military divisions. Against the North Vietnamese spring offensive in 1972, he still amazed hardened soldiers with his kamikaze valor, flying low through machine gun fire to drop ammunition to trapped men. In retreat, he was forced to call in the B-52 air strikes he once scorned. "Outside Kontum, whenever you dropped bombs, you scattered bodies," he boasted, consumed by a warrior's blood rage before the odds finally claimed him in a helicopter crash.

The grease of expansion

Paradoxes abound in Sheehan's tale. The reformers were always concerned about civilians and the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese regime, but they were consistently cutthroat in their quest to purify the war. Halberstam cheered Averill Harriman and Ambassador Lodge as they maneuvered to seize more control of Vietnamese politics by ousting Diem. Vann and other reformers wanted to emulate the Viet Cong, which led to selective assassination campaigns such as the Phoenix program. Meanwhile, traditionalists of the Westmoreland mold preached the anticolonial message that they should not interfere in politics. In fact, they sought to avoid the Vietnamese allies as much as possible while trying to blast the enemy into submission.

Since the war, conservatives have attacked the reformers' chief criticisms of Vietnam. Against the claims of Halberstam and others that the war was not worth winning, or, more strongly, that it was unwinnable, they ask what is the price of a treasured cause, and they call in hindsight for a unity that would have made the war winnable. They attack defeatism. In effect, they take advantage of most liberals for refusing to renounce the goal of victory itself. Liberals are afraid to do that, because it would take them close to an endorsement of the other side-the Jane Fonda problem.

Unfortunately, I think, Sheehan overdraws the analogy between Vann and the war, hoping to impeach the war itself with his flaws. Strictly speaking, Vann's character defects never really explain a line of error in Vietnam purpose or strategy. Indeed, as Vietnam recedes into history, liberals and conservatives may both point to Vann as a tragic hero who labored to refine an ugly war to fit a noble cause.

The heart of Sheehan's conflict lies betweeen the good side of Vann and the contrary history that Sheehan discovered in the Pentagon Papers. If Vann's war was just, how did his countly come to fight "On the wrong side," as Sheehan painfully concludes? But if the war came from America's "imperial system," how do we account for the sacrifice and idealism of many Americans who supported the war? The beginning of an answer is that the concepts of empire and democracy are not mutually exclusive, as we are conditioned to believe. From the Romans forward, all empires have claimed to spread the benefits of their system. In fact, idealism appears to be a historical requirement of empire, the psychic grease of expansion.

This was especially true of the 'American imperial system," as sketched by Sheehan. It was the conception of a liberal, more than a banker or industrialist, born of the Progressive Era's ambition to spread a purified democratic experience around the world. Our problem is that we cannot admit any imperial aspects whatsoever in our purpose, even when two million U.S. soldiers were garrisoned around the globe. Lodged in denial, we cannot even begin the essential debate about an American idea of empire and its compatibility with democratic beliefs.

Sheehan leaves many of the war's most difficult issues exposed but unresolved. This is a book of scalding reportage, not interpretation. By capturing within the life of one small obsessive daredevil the essence of something so vast and benumbing as Vietnam, Sheehan has written by far the best single account of the war. My guess is that it will remain so until someone centers a book around a Vietnamese character as resonant as John Paul Vann. Such a feat would add flesh to the missing dimension of the war, while reminding us of the obvious fact that definitive history reads more naturally from the winner's side. Sheehan, to his credit, has stuck with the American losers not only because they are his people but also because there is much to learn when the losing side of a 30-year war is the world's dominant military power.
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Author:Branch, Taylor
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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