Bright Shining Lie A Bright Lie Shining: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam Neil Sheehan has used this novel to tell the story of the Vietnam conflict utilizing the perspective of one of its most respected characters. This is the story of John P. Vann who first came to Vietnam as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army and later returned as a civilian official. It is the story of his life from the beginning to the end. It is also Vietnam’s story; it offers clear reasons for the conflict, and why it was such a disaster for all those involved.
Vann arrived in Vietnam on March 23, 1962 as part of the new U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam. He became a chief advisor to an ARVN infantry division. His duty was to advise his Vietnamese counter part, but he officially had no power over any ARVN troops. It was this situation that became a major point of conflict between him and those who were running the war.
During his first stay in Vietnam, Vann came to the conclusion that the U.S. could not win the war the way it was being fought. He decided to try and change the way things were. He gathered data and submitted detailed reports to those in charge of the actual conditions and state of the war. However, those above him either ignored the reports or destroyed them, because they could not believe that anyone could stand up to the might of the U.S.
Reports that were sent to Washington were often dressed up to make things appear better than they were. No deliberated plan to misinform the government was ever uncovered, the generals simply believed that eventually things would go their way and they didn’t want to alarm anyone. Vann learned of this practice and decided to start using the press to get his ideas out, in hopes that someone would listen and fix the problems. People listened, but high-ranking officials repeated denied his claims and informed the President that he had nothing to worry about everything was going fine. Vann left Vietnam and retired because there was little chance of advancement for him.
Almost two years after he left Vietnam he once again returned, but in a civilian role. He was to help with the pacification programs that were developed to reduce the Viet Cong’s presence in South Vietnam. Once again the problems with the way the U.S. was fighting became clear to him. This time he was in a little bit better of a position to change things.
He had spent his years away from Vietnam developing his connections and reputation. However no real action was taken until 1968, after the Tet Offensive showed just how ineffective the war of attrition was. When Nixion took office he was looking for new ideas. John’s ideas were looked at, and partially adopted. He called for the U.S. to take complete control of South Vietnam in order to make ARVN troops more effective.
This idea was doomed to fail however, because most people viewed that step as to close to colonialism. So once again his ideas were ignored. John Vann died on June 6, 1972 in a helicopter crash while in Vietnam. This was just a general overview on how the book addresses Vann’s role in Vietnam. Neil Sheehan was a reporter during the war, and like many other people came to believe Vann was the only person with his head screwed on straight. The reporters who knew him often described him as their bible because of his understanding of the situation.
This above all is a work of history, it covers Vann’s childhood, the Korean War, World War II, and even a little bit of World War I. Sheehan uses the information from all these sources to clearly spell out why things occurred and the reasons why people behaved the way they did. The sheer volume of information contained in this novel is astonishing. I found it difficult to absorb and analyze all of the information. So in the sections to come, I plan to address specific parts of this novel and relate them to what we have discussed in class so far. The title A Bright Shining Lie describes Vietnam to the letter.
American generals and advisors were lying to the president and the public about how the war was going. General Westmoreland assured President Johnson that his war of attrition was severely hurting the Viet Minh and their ability to wage war. He consistently ignored or failed to report increasing Viet Cong activity in the Siagon area, and boasted that he would have the war won within a year. The Tet offensive proved him to be wrong. Another major lie of the war was the effectiveness of the AVRN troops.
Vann many times reported on how the practice of buying one’s promotion within ARVN produced officers that were not competent. Added with the fact that they were ordered to keep casualties down; they often avoided engagements with the Viet Cong, which rendered them useless. However, they did start to conduct fake raids and bombardments, with fictitious body counts to make it appear as if they were doing something. This was pointed out to the generals in charge, but instead of taking action they added these fake engagements to their statistics, in order to bolster their claim that they were winning the war. The constant lying reminded me of what Tim O’brien said about war stories in The Things They Carried.
He said that there were no war stories that they were all just stories. As you can see there were a lot of war stories being told during Vietnam. Vann himself was a lie, which raises serious questions about his judgment. Vann was an outstanding military officer, he always got his tasks accomplished and seemed to be the all American hero. This, however, was just an illusion that he constructed.
Vann was a married man with children, who also happened to be a very good solider. Vann also led a secret life that he tried to keep hidden from most people. Vann had the habit of seducing women and keeping mistresses as young as 15 years of age. While stationed in Germany he had and affair with his 15-year-old babysitter, she went to the army and an investigation was launched. He convinced his wife to lie for him, and eventually figured out how to fool a lie detector test to avoid the charges. It was this ability to lie to himself that eventually caused his downfall.
Near the end of the war, most people came to accept the fact that the US could not win the war, but he continued to preach that it could be won if it was fought his way. It was this irrational belief that caused him to believe that he could hold a position with AVRN troops, that nobody else believed could be held. It was while flying between his command post and the battle zone area that his helicopter crashed. Vann had in the end fell victim to the same lie that held everyone else in awe at the beginning of the war. He just could not come to believe that the U.S.
could lose a war. Everything he was ever taught told him that losing was not possible; he took that belief with him to the grave. Vietnam was one big lie from the beginning to the end. In the end this novel is really about a lie. We have discussed in class the effects that illusion have on people’s perception, it is clearly evident here that the illusion that America was invincible caused a lot of harm. Thousands of people were killed, a country was devastated, and billions of dollars were spent all because of a lie.
This novel has provided me with a basic background knowledge that better equips me to deal with analyzing this war. So much of what we base our opinions on in discussion are based on movies and other works of fiction. What this novel does is show that theses movies and books of fiction all get one thing right, the war was an illusion and it was hell. The war was an illusion in the sense that no one could get a straight answer about how it was going. The war was hell because everyone was lying to everybody else and as a result lots of soldiers were dying.
This illusion, also allowed Harkin’s and Westmoreland’s war of attrition to continue for many years absolutely devastating the Vietnamese people and their country. The really horrible thing about all of this is that people believed that the war of attrition was a good thing. People tried to inform them that this policy of attrition was not working and it was mainly killing civilians and destroying their property, but U.S. leaders failed to listen. The saying, lets bomb them back to the stone-age, sums up the attitude of American officials at the time. The result of all of this in my opinion is the second biggest commitment of war crimes, second only to the holocaust.
This novel opens the eyes and makes you look at the truth of what America did in Vietnam. It dispels lies that have existed since the war and makes you deal with the mistakes we made. The most ironic things, however, are the reasons why we believed we had to fight this war. After WWII, Wilson and the U.S. government sounded out against colonialism. When it came time to act, however, they decided that they couldn’t afford to upset France because they needed military bases there to counter the potential threat from Russia.
It was during this time that Ho Chi Minh went to France to try and gain the support of the U.S. for Vietnams independence. While in France, Ho discovered that the only political party that was against colonialism was the socialist party. It was from this that the myth that Vietnam was really about communism arose. The power of lies are truly amazing when you take time to look at them and their results.