A Bright and Shining Lie – John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
by Neil Sheehan.
I begin this blog with my thoughts about a work by another Neil.*
Exciting and interesting on the whole, with a few tedious sections. More balanced than one would believe based on the title, and than most reviews indicate.
It analyzes the American mistakes in Vietnam unblinkingly, yet doesn't come across as overly cynical. Where the players involved – political or military – had good intentions, it is clear about separating the laudable aspects of those intentions from the situations which made them unrealistic and unattainable.
Sheehan’s views are slanted to the left, and there is a bit of “novelization” involved as he seeks to show how the war is mirrored in the life of one of its protagonists: John Paul Vann. But it’s not too bad, given the politically charged nature of the topic, any book on Vietnam is bound to step on a few toes.** He depicts many of the military and political people involved in the conflict as being seriously concerned for the Vietnamese people as a whole, yet in many cases still blinded by the kind of naïve, benignly-intentioned racism common in the post-colonial era.
The book also contains an excellent analysis of how WWII and the French/Vietnamese conflict transitioned into the American/Vietnamese conflict. This shows how the actual problems that made the American involvement in Vietnam an unfortunate quagmire are in many ways a result of things that happened before the war (as popularly defined) even began. By the time the conflict began, it was being carried in part by the momentum of past events and its own inertia rather than the needs of the day.
In a way, two overlapping wars were being fought by three protagonists: the South Vietnamese vs. the North Vietnamese as a continuation of the French/Vietnamese independence conflict***, and the Americans vs. the North Vietnamese as a proxy war between the West and Communism.
One thing many Americans failed to realize is that the Vietnamese peasantry identified with the independence conflict, and really didn’t care much about the Cold War. The Southern leaders were, in this view, seen as representing earlier Mandarins who became corrupted by colonialism, while the Northern leaders were seen as representing the earlier Mandarins who had stayed true to Vietnamese nationalism. In some cases, in fact, this was literally true.
Thus, though peasants would pragmatically support whoever was in their area at the time, they were always somewhat more sympathetic to the North Vietnamese. So, in the South, it became very much an urban vs. rural war – the boundary of every city and base was a war front.
The fact that both the U.S. and the South Vietnamese tended to conduct the war as a war of sortie from cities and bases into the countryside only intensified the urban/peasant polarization and made it continue to resemble the earlier war of independence. The main protagonist, John Paul Vann, for all his other flaws, realized this and saw that the war could not be won as long as this divide remained. He saw many of the ways in which the Vietnam conflict was different from earlier wars and even earlier guerrilla conflicts, and yet missed many other important things.
In summary: the book is not without its flaws and biases, but if studied in conjunction with other sources, it is a valuable contribution to the understanding of the American experience in Vietnam.
And that's what I learned from A Bright and Shining Lie.
*Other than our first names, Neil Sheehan and I are unrelated.
**I think Sheehan is a bit overly critical of the role of the Catholic Church in the time leading up to the conflict. Not that there is no blame there, but I’m sure there are balancing, positive aspects that are ignored. Also, though he mentions the atrocities and illegalities committed by all sides, he seems to gloss over them somewhat more when it comes to discussing North Vietnamese actions.
***Because of the post-WWII history of Vietnam, North Vietnam was very much identified with independence side of that conflict, and South Vietnam with the French colonial. That this identification also split along West/Communist lines was largely the result of an historical accident involving a single individual: Ho Chi Minh.