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Front Man

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
By Neil Sheehan
(Random House, 861 pp., $24.95)

In Neil Sheehan's apt and accurate phrase, John Paul Vann was "the soldier of the war in Vietnam." He began his extraordinary career there as a military adviser to a South Vietnamese division, and he went on to become the single greatest influence on the young American journalists in Vietnam who were to come into such fierce conflict with their government. Then, in 1963, Vann suddenly quit the Army, in what appeared to be an act of conscience. He returned to Vietnam in 1965 as a low-level civilian province adviser, and rose, through sheer energy and skill, to become the only American civilian ever to command American troops in combat. In the summer of 1972, after almost single-handedly saving the Central Highlands from the North Vietnamese during the Easter Offensive, Vann was killed when his helicopter crashed near the town of Kontum.

Neil Sheehan, who met John Vann during assignments in Vietnam for UPI and the New York Times, begins his book at Vann's funeral. As he looked around the chapel adjoining Arlington National Cemetery, Sheehan saw some of the leading hawks and leading doves of the time seated side by side, men who were hardly speaking to each other by 1972, so fierce was the animosity engendered by the war. In a pew with the family sat Vann's friend Daniel Ellsberg, who had furnished Sheehan with the Pentagon Papers. Leading the pallbearers was Gen. William Westmoreland. Reporters who had relied on Vann for their negative accounts of the war gazed at generals who regarded them as traitors to the nation.

For Sheehan, the scene in the chapel was a fitting metaphor for the poison that Vietnam had injected into the American system; and he decided, almost instantly, to write the story of John Paul Vann. It was a brilliant idea. Vann's life and death turned out to be an even better story than Sheehan knew, as he listened to the eulogy of the man who had done more than anyone else to shape his own understanding of the war. After nearly 16 years of research andwriting, Sheehan has produced a book of vast ambition and scope that tells the entire story of the American tragedy in Vietnam through Vann's life and death. Sheehan's claim for Vann—that he was "the one compelling figure" of the war, who had "come to personify the American endeavor in Vietnam"—may seem large to those who have never heard of him. But having known and worked with Vann in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, I share his view. Vann was certainly the most remarkable American that I saw in action.

A Bright Shining Lie is also, in a sense, Sheehan's own memoir. He grew up professionally in Vietnam, reporting things exactly as he saw them, only to find himself unexpectedly attacked by the most senior members of the U.S. government for betraying his country. But he considered himself a patriot who was telling the truth. In a revealing passage, Sheehan observes that he and his colleagues "shared the advisers' sense of commitment to this war. Our ideological prism and cultural biases were in no way different. We regarded the conflict as our war too."

In the early part of his remarkably rich, sometimes overly detailed study, Sheehan re-creates, as well as it has ever been done, the early days of what might be called the advisory war in Vietnam. This period, roughly 1961 to the beginning of 1965, has received far less attention than the period that followed, when American combat troops entered the war and the bombing of North Vietnam began. Yet it was then, in the early '60s, and there, in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta and in the unsuccessful effort to energize the South Vietnamese government, that American policy failed first, by overestimating our Saigon allies and underestimating the Communists. Had the advisory war succeeded, as the Kennedy administration expected it would, the matter of the bombing of the North, and the deployment of American infantrymen in the South, would never have arisen. Lyndon Johnson's escalation of 1965 was, in reality, a thinly camouflaged admission that the advisory war had been lost.

Prior to 1965, Washington's policy in Vietnam was founded on a system of assigning American military advisers to South Vietnamese units. These men were without command authority over the troops. The adviser's job was literally to advise—that is, to inspire, to suggest, to teach—his Vietnamese military counterpart on how to fight. But many advisers, while sincere and brave, had little or no understanding of the nature of a guerrilla war. During that early period, Vann was the most brilliant American adviser in Vietnam. He was fearless, and he understood the courage and the skill of the enemy, whom he came to respect more than America's allies in Saigon.

Vann had already become controversial when, on January 2, 1963, units of the South Vietnamese division that he was advising encountered elements of the 261st Main Force Viet Cong Battalion and the 514th Viet Cong Regiment near the Mekong Delta hamlet of Bac. Fewer than 40 Americans had died in Vietnam at that point. Vietnam still seemed relatively safe, an exciting opportunity, as Sheehan recalls, for "older men hoping to retrieve the excitement of wars past... [and] younger men... eager to prove themselves worthy of their first." That began to change at Bac. In one five minute period, Viet Cong guns brought down four helicopters. Americans died in withering fire from a newly emboldened enemy who, for the first time, stood and fought a pitched battle. And when Vann thought the Viet Cong were trapped, his South Vietnamese counterpart, the division commander, allowed the enemy to slip out through an opening in the trap that he deliberately refused to close. It appeared that the South Vietnamese commander was afraid to risk politically unacceptable losses in combat.

The Battle of Bac (or Ap Bac, as it is usually called) sent shock waves through Saigon and Washington. But its most enduring reverberations were among the handful of young reporters covering the conflict. Until Bac, Vann had always held back his passion and his anger when he talked to journalists. Now, standing in the rice paddies surrounded by the debris of battle, "the redness of the rage in his face merging into the redness of the sunburn on his neck," Vann exposed the depths of his rage to Sheehan, to David Halberstam, and to two or three other stunned colleagues. The South Vietnamese army stunk, he told them bitterly. It was corrupt from top to bottom, and the US, Command, moreover, was covering all this up, instead of coming to grips with it. The reporters came away with a story, of course. But more important, they came away with a cause. As a result of their reporting from Bac (reporting far more accurate than the official version of events that was forwarded by the American command in Saigon to President Kennedy, over Vann's frantic and furious objections), they were pilloried as traitors by the military, and by some older reporters, like loseph Alsop, who were not there. The "credibility gap" was born. 

For Halberstam and Sheehan, Vann became a heroic figure after Bac. He came to symbolize, in Sheehan's words, a commitment the journalists then shared, both to tell the truth and to win the war: "We believed in what our government said it was trying to accomplish in Vietnam, and we wanted our country to win this war just as passionately as Vann and his captains did." When Vann's tour of duty ended in 1963 and he returned to Washington, Halberstam wrote a powerful and influential profile of Vann for Esquire. I still remember the effect the article had on me, and on other young officers at the American Embassy in Saigon. Vann had grasped the nature of the war, he had tried to report it accurately to his superiors. Then, moments before he was scheduled to present his views to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his briefing was canceled by those who were offended by Vann's fierce candor and criticism of his superiors in Saigon. In protest Vann resigned from the Army that had been his life.

Sheehan accurately recaptures the way we viewed Vann then: "Vann's moral heroism became the core of his legend." Vann, Sheehan recalls,

emerged as the one authentic hero of this shameful period of moral and intellectual squalor.... The memory of Vann's moral heroism was the foundation of his reputation in later years in Vietnam for candor and willingness to grasp the biamblesi of fact however they might hurt. Even though he always drew back from condemning the war itself, this reputation for truth-telling lent credibility to what he had to say about the war to those who might differ with him on the fundamental issue of whether the United States ought to be waging war at all. The memory was in the chapel the day he was buried at Arlington. His old professional enemies and friends like Ellsberg who had since come to oppose his war—all paid homage to a moral hero who had given up what he loved most, the Army, rather than be a party to lies and delusions.

When you work closely with a man, particularly under pressure, you think you know him, his values, his character, his background. It turns out, however, that those of us who worked closely with John Vann did not really know him at all. There were important facts of his life about which he kept us all in the dark. Sheehan has uncovered those facts, and another John Vann. The facts do not vitiate, certainly, our impression of Vann's energy, of his courage, of his shrewd understanding of how to fight a war against a guerrilla enemy. But they do change our understanding of what impelled him, of what made him run. Halberstam's hero turns out to have been more complicated and less candid than we all thought. It is one of Sheehan's achievements in this book to have uncovered the truth about Vann, and to have told it scrupulously, without easy moralizing.

As Sheehan discovered, the facts about Vann's performance in Vietnam were accurate. Vann did have great courage. The briefing for the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been canceled (as Halberstam had written) just as Vann was approaching the briefing room. But Sheehan also discovered that the insult of that day was not why Vann left his beloved Army:

He [had] lied to Halberstam and manipulated him.... He had deceived everyone inVietnam. We had interpreted his career recklessness as moral heroism and had worried about our stories hurting him because we had thought that he was sacrificing a general's stars. He had wanted us to think this.... [Yet] all the time he was deceiving us, he knew that he had no career to ruin and no stars to throw away.... He also said more about himself than he meant to say when he told the Army historian: "We had also, to all the visitors who came over there, been one of the bright shining lies."

John Paul Vann had two secrets. One was a shame about which he could do nothing; the other was a scandal that almost certainly ended his military career.

Vann was born illegitimate, Sheehan writes, the son of a woman of staggering selfishness and lack of moral fiber. To keep herself in fine clothes and furs, regardless of what happened to her family, she sold herself to men, some regular customers, some passers-by. Vann's real father, a womanizer named John Spry, played no significant role in his life; the man who bore the name that Vann finally chose was a friendly, complaisant sort who offered little to the boy he eventually adopted. Vann's unhappy childhood was not the reason, of course, for his difficulties in the Army; but it did create in the young man, according to Sheehan, a hostility to women, mixed feelings about honesty, a need for self-promotion, which would shape his later actions.

Despite (or because of) these early circumstances, the driven Vann set out to make a name for himself. He was smart (very smart, as I remember him), and the Army, one of the most egalitarian institutions in American society in the 1950s and '60s, offered a perfect way out for the angry redneck from Virginia. Vann entered the Army in the early '50s, and began a career rich in early promise.

Not that he was unwilling to embroider the facts. In Korea, where he served with distinction and bravery, showing a recklessness under fire that was always to be a part of his behavior, Vann won no important decorations. To make up for this bureaucratic failure, and as an important part of the past he was determined to invent for himself, he appropriated, 12 years later, the heroism of someone else: Ralph Puckett Jr., a young lieutenant and a friend of Vann's. Vann heard Puckett's story while assembling the dossier on the incident for Puckett's Distinguished Service Cross citation. It became an important part of Vann's Vietnam credentials. Writing to President-elect Nixon, for example, in 1969, in order to promote his ideas of how to win the war, he began with a little personal history: "On the night of 26 November 1950, I commanded a Ranger company which took the brunt of the opening Chinese campaign in the Korean War. . . . Myself and 15 men, most of them wounded, were all that were left when the sixth human-wave attack ran through us..." This was a lie. Vann never commanded any Ranger company in Korea. The company commander, of course, had been Vann's friend Puckett, who had been wounded and retired from the service.

But the great secret in Vann's life—the fulcrum of Sheehan's book—was an incident that ended Vann's hopes for the rank of a general officer. Vann had always been sexually voracious and indiscriminate, and over time had made clear to his wife that he would not reform. (She did not insist on a divorce until the late 1960s.) Sheehan concludes that using women "to give himself fleeting assurance was... not enough for him. He had to victimize women too, as he was victimizing [his wife] Mary Jane in a kind of revenge on his mother." In May 1959 Vann was called in for questioning by the Criminal Investigation Division of the Military Police after being accused of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl at Fort Leavenworth earlier that year. If found guilty, Vann faced up to 15 years in military prison. If acquitted, his military career would be finished, and decent employment in the private sector uncertain, unless the charges could be dropped and the incident expunged from the record.

This Vann accomplished in a characteristically remarkable way. With his wife's support, he constructed a fabric of lies to exonerate himself. Unconvinced, the CID challenged him to take a lie-detector test to disprove the girl's story. After Mary Jane gave her carefully rehearsed, sworn testimony in defense of her husband (she knew the truth, of course), Vann volunteered to take the lie-detector test. He had spent the summer studying polygraph machines, tested himself against sample questions, measured his own pulse rate as he practiced. And he succeeded in fooling the machine. It was his greatest deception. The investigating officer recommended that charges be dropped.

Still, Vann knew that his career had peaked. The official record would never show that the incident had even taken place, but it would be known among the elite promotion panels that select generals. Vann would be able to stay in the Army, but his dreams of stars were done. He brought this knowledge with him to Vietnam. But Sheehan, Halberstam, and the rest of us knew nothing of it.

After Vann resigned from the Army, I joined with a few other people in the U.S. Embassy who admired Vann, including Frank Wisner, a fellow Foreign Service officer assigned to the same office (now the American ambassador to Egypt), to find a way to bring him back to Vietnam as a civilian. It turned out that the only way to get him back, over the objections of Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, General Westmoreland, and other officers who thought that Vann was a dangerous renegade who leaked to the press, was as a provincial representative in one of the most dangerous provinces in the country, Hau Nghia, just to the west of Saigon. In March 1965 Vann took the job, a substantial demotion; it was a way back to the war, and he was very much on probation in the eyes of his superiors. But soon Vann became such an indispensable figure that, despite several serious altercations with American military commanders, he eventually maneuvered himself into a job without precedent in American military history. As a dvilian, Vann was placed in charge of all Americans, including the military, in an entire Military Corps area. This meant that Vann, not in uniform, effectively commanded American troops (through a military deputy who took orders from him).

But sometime during this phase, sometime in the early '70s, Sheehan recounts, Vann "lost his compass." Some of Vann's defenders may disagree with Sheehan on this critical point, but it would appear that Vann gradually came to see the war in Vietnam as his own war, as a personal war. In his desire towin, he began to infringe on his integrity in the one area of his life in which he had steadfastly maintained it. "He had always kept professional truth in a separate compartment of his life," Sheehan writes. "[Personal] deceptions had never affected his professional integrity.... Vann had invested so much of John Vann in the war that he had talked himself into believing he had to be winning.... The war satisfied him so completely that he could no longer look at it as something separate from himself."

Near the end, Vann became something quite different from the man of Bac. He became a little like Francis Coppola's Kurtz, so seized was he with the drama of single-handedly stemming the tide. Kurtz, however, was frozen in his madness. Vann was diabolically active in the field. Larry Stern, the Washington Post reporter, told me, after he returned from a trip to Vietnam just before Vann's death, that I would no longer recognize Vann. He had become a war lover. Once concerned about the use of excessive firepower, he now called constantly for more and more of it. To be sure, Vann was now facing a different enemy. No longer was this a war between local guerrillas and South Vietnamese soldiers; it was now a "main force" war between North Vietnamese regulars, using tanks and artillery, and combined American and South Vietnamese forces, who were sometimes surrounded or outnumbered. But Vann's zeal was more than a matter of strategy, more than his typical recklessness under fire. He had changed. Sheehan reports that Vann circled the smoking craters made by B-52s immediately after the big bombers had flown past and fired his own M-16 at any dazed survivors. The man who had once objected violently to the stupidity of random "free fire zones" was now referred to as "Mr. B-52" by his Vietnamese counterparts.

By the very end, Vann was a man possessed. The risks he had always taken now reached lunatic levels. He was madly challenging the odds. He staked his career on his prediction that the 1972 Easter Offensive, timed by the North Vietnamese to improve their position in the secret talks being conducted by Henry Kissinger in Paris, would be beaten back. By the smallest of margins, Vann succeeded in stopping the North Vietnamese before they took Kontum. It was there that he died. Hanoi proudly proclaimed that its gunners had shot him down. In truth, his pilot had flown their chopper into a clump of trees. The hero of battle died in an accident.

John Paul Vann's brilliance always masked a significant fallacy in his thinking. Vann and I argued about it from time to time in the '60s; Sheehan alludes to it. In Vann's view of the war, it was the task of the Americans to run the entire show, to bypass the hopelessly corrupt Vietnamese government and its chain of command. This would have required many men of Vann's commitment and skills to be even remotely plausible as a policy. It would have required a complete transformation of "advisers" into commanders of Vietnamese, which Saigon would not have accepted. Vann could not recognize that there would never be enough Americans like him in Vietnam, and that, even if there were, they could not stay there forever, nor take the place of the indigenous government. Finally Vann did not understand (and neither did the highest levels of the American government) that even if "pacification"—the policy of assisting Saigon to gain control over the rural population—had succeeded. North Vietnam was always ready to send its regulars south to achieve its objective; and if it did so, or rather, when it did so, the war would become too costly for the United States to sustain.

Sheehan's sprawling portrait of Vann covers all this, and much more. There is a blizzard of detail. Sometimes he gives the reader more than is necessary: 60 pages on the history of Vietnam and America in Asia over several centuries, for example, which slow the drama down without adding much. But the cumulative impact of Sheehan's labors is still powerful, and often dazzling. When Sheehan writes about things that he witnessed himself—Ap Bac, for example— his rage at the stupidity of some of the commanding generals in Vietnam, and more generally at the failure of American policy in Vietnam, is undiminished by the decades that have passed.

As told by Sheehan, Vann's life is obviously meant to mirror the American experience in Vietnam; and the corruption of America by the war is supposed to seem symbolized by Vann's secret life. But wisely Sheehan himself never makes this grander theme explicit. Sheehan has recovered from the ruins of Vietnam a he'roic and tragic American. And for thepurpose of explaining what the war was like, he has chosen exactly the right subject. The figure of Vann moves our attention to the proper level, to the senior field personnel of the war, on whom fell the true burden of the inept policy that was devised at higher levels. Far too little has been made of their experience of Vietnam.

Their experience was, among other things, thankless. At John Vann's funeral, I found myself seated immediately behind William P. Rogers, the secretary of state, and Melvin Laird, the secretary of defense. As the pallbearers filed in, Rogers, whose presence in the chapel was evidently owed to the advice of his staff, leaned over to Laird and whispered, "Who was this guy, anyway?" 

Richard Holbrooke is a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration. Twice he has served as Assistant Secretary of State.

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