Darryl Mexic's Reviews > A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan
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***”A BRIGHT SHINING LIE: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” by Neil Sheehan. This is a work of non-fiction. It feels like I have been reading this book for months, although it is only a matter of weeks. It is long; over 800 pages of very small type. Initially it was mind blowing, but after the first third, it became tiresome. John Vann was a colonel in the U.S. Army and was one of the military advisors to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) during the Kennedy administration and during the beginning of the Johnson administration. He later went back to Vietnam as a civilian official of the AID pacification team during the period we Americans stopped advising and started doing most of the fighting, increasing the number of American soldiers in Vietnam to almost half a million. If you are one of the few remaining holdouts who still think that we were on the side of the angels in the war and that it was a mistake only because we lost it, this book will surely change your mind. It was a colossal error from the time we took over from the French and decided that we needed to stop the expansion of monolithic Communism in Indochina. We feared Communism like we fear Islamic terrorism today. But there was no monolithic Communism in Indochina; there were Vietnamese Communists who were fighting a war of liberation from foreigners, whether the French colonialists or the American placed and propped up rulers in the South. John Paul Vann was a true believer in American exceptionalism, in the need to stop the advance of Communism, and in the need to prevent the Chinese and/or Russians from taking over all of Vietnam. But he observed, as an advisor to ARVN, how the war was being fought, or more accurately, not being fought by the ARVN, how they were so unpopular among the peasants of South Vietnam, and how they were indiscriminately bombing villages and hamlets full of peasants and absent of Viet Cong. He did just about everything he could to point out these and other follies in the prosecution of the war to the top command, but it was to no avail. General Harkins, the American in charge in Vietnam during the “advisory” phase of the war, considered him only a thorn in his side and kept providing glowing reports of war progress to Robert McNamara and President Kennedy. The first third of the book essentially ends with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which our government portrayed as an unprovoked attack by the North Vietnam government on one of our ships, even though the administration knew that it was anything but unprovoked. President Johnson and McNamara used that incident to get Congress to pass legislation that they then took to give them cart blanche to convert the war to an American war and to send so many of our men to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam. A second third of the book pertains to John Paul Vann’s life. While interesting, it is not interesting enough for the slogging through all those pages that it requires. The final third is directed to the war as most of us remember it; Westmorland’s war to crush the Viet Cong by killing everything in sight with overwhelming American power and by bombing the hell out of the Northern cities to force the North to give up support of their southern countrymen. As it turned out, America became tired before the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Not surprising when one realizes that our participation was questionable at best and dead wrong at worst, whereas their participation, in their view, was to save their country from foreign invaders.
By the way, I have to admit that I was one of those who believed in the American cause in Vietnam, and even years later only felt our mistake was in not sticking it out and winning. I give this book a high rating for being detailed enough and powerful enough to change my views, but I give it a lower rating because it should have been shorter. By including a biography of Vann in the book, it takes away from the power of the message. The biography of Vann should have been a separate and possibly companion book.

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