John Paul Vann is the lone hero of the Vietnam War in Neil Sheehan’s Bright and Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Vann, a maverick United States Army officer, viewed the American intervention in Vietnam as a holy crusade to save South Vietnam from Communism. Working as the chief advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 7th division in the Mekong Delta, Vann developed a unique understanding of the conflict and the Vietnamese people, leading him to fight the establishment in an effort to win the war. Beyond mere biography, Sheehan uses Vann to argue that American leaders in South Vietnam and Washington, D.C., created a false image of success in fighting against guerillas, creating “a bright and shining lie” for the consumption of outside observers. Sheehan argues that despite the valiant efforts of individual Americans, the United States’ efforts to support South Vietnam were doomed by the corruption of the Diem regime, the unwillingness of the South Vietnamese officers to aggressively engage the enemy, American misunderstanding of the nature of the war, and the aggressive over-optimism of American leaders.
Reporting to the ARVN 7th division, Vann learned that South Vietnamese officers were afraid to risk taking casualties when Colonel Huynh Vann Cao refused to close with insurgents to force decisive battles. Cao was afraid of punishment by South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem who wanted to maintain ARVN as a shield against coup attempts. Pressure to keep their forces intact, combined with disdain for Vietnam’s peasants, led ARVN officers to rely on unobserved artillery bombardments and air strikes that killed more civilians than insurgents, turning the populace against the Saigon government.
Sheehan contends that Diem further alienated the peasants when he launched the “Denounce the Communists Campaign” and equated the Viet Cong with the Viet Minh. By labeling the Viet Minh as Communists deserving suppression, Diem’s regime gave Communists a propaganda coup by identifying them with the group Vietnamese considered patriots and heroes for driving the French out of Vietnam. Attacking the Viet Minh drove the survivors to join the Viet Cong, and convinced the peasants to support them. Other South Vietnamese turned against Diem and his family following the 1963 raids against Saigon’s pagodas.
Vann rose from a hardscrabble life to a successful career in the United States Army and in the Agency for International Development. Sheehan attributes Vann’s later womanizing and self-aggrandizing lies to neglect at the hands of his mother and the absence of a strong male figure. His obsession with sex caused him the most personal grief when it led to statutory rape charge after he had an affair with a fifteen year-old neighbor. This sexual misadventure forced Vann out of the Army in 1965. He returned to Vietnam as a civilian two years later.
Sheehan devotes the vast majority of the text to the first half of the war in Vietnam, halting his detailed commentary with the Tet Offensive of 1968, despite the war’s continuation through 1975. Vann played an instrumental role after the Tet Offensive as senior advisor in the II Corps Tactical Zone, successfully defending Khontum and Pleiku during the April 1972 Easter Offensive. Sheehan dismisses Vann’s post-1968 work, asserting that he could simply not accept that the war was essentially over. In this way, A Bright and Shining Lie adheres to the common assumption that the Tet Offensive demonstrated that the war was not winnable, lending credence to the misguided belief that the media’s portrayal of the Tet Offensive doomed American efforts to failure by virtue of Sheehan’s role in reporting from Vietnam.