From The Vault
By Kristen Blackwelder
Neil Sheehan wrote A Bright Shining Lie, in part as biography and in part as political history, which became a highly discussed film in 1998. In the book, Sheehan related the history of the Vietnam War through the perspective of Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann. In the early 1960s Vann became an American military field adviser to the South Vietnamese army. Vann proved a good warrior. He knew the rules of war and played by those rules. He quickly saw the corruption of both the South Vietnamese political structure and its army. The government was incompetent and the army inflicted brutality upon its own people. Vann warned his American superiors that the war was being thrown away and could not be won using the present tactics. His superiors, blinded by the "bright shining lies," rejected his arguments.
When his superiors did not listen, Vann secretly informed reporters about what was really going on in the war. This book is written by and from the viewpoint of one of those reporters, Neil Sheehan, whose book as hailed as "tragic," and "sweeping" as well as "monumental" and "Homeric" when it appeared.
Vann left Vietnam in 1963 and soon after resigned his commission to work in the business sector. He was miserable. He was a warrior; he needed a war. Ultimately, Vann returned to Vietnam as a civilian adviser and served as a civilian commander of the Central Highland Regime. Sometime after his return to Vietnam, Vann lost sight of the truth that he had been exposing during his first tour in Vietnam. "The War satisfied him so completely," Sheehan notes, "that he could no longer look at it as something separate from himself. He had bent the truth about the war as he bent other and lesser truths in the past."
Neil Sheehan does a brilliant job in A Bright Shining Lie of introducing the reader to a brilliant, cunning, hero-warrior. Then, this straight arrow, truth seeing hero, who is sacrificing his military career for the more important truth, becomes more complex and more interesting. Indeed, as Sheehan slowly reveals the dark side of this very intense and flawed man, the reader understands that John Paul Vann's life was also a "bright shining lie."
Vann wanted others to think that he "renounced his career and retired in protest in order to warn the country of impending defeat." He fooled many in Vietnam who interpreted his "career recklessness as self-sacrifice." Yet, his military career was already doomed when he went to Vietnam, due to a dark side of his nature that was ever present. This dark side of his personality had already almost led to a court martial before the army first sent him to Vietnam. Accused of statutory rape, a charge that he was guilty of, but from which he escaped through deceit and lies, the indelible stain remained on his military. Clearly, Sheehan also recognizes a nobility and passion that makes Vann fascinating.
Sheehan uses the dichotomies of the life of John Vann as a metaphor to examine the American entrapment in the quagmire of Southeast Asia. Vann, like America, was seduced into the Southeast Asian entanglement. Neither Vann nor the nation escaped unwounded.
Both book and movie begin symbolically at the end with the funeral of John Paul Vann. The Corps was not just burying Vann, a military hero or maybe an anti-hero, it was more than that. They were symbolically burying the legend of an infallible and undefeatable America. Dead was that great truth that many Americans held in their collective heart: that American always wins. Assurance, even arrogance, was replaced by doubt and uncertainity. This is where the book is far superior to the movie. The film never quite captures Vann as a metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam as the book so beautifully does, nor can the film reflect the elaborate set of circumstances, stupidities, personalities and egos that caused the United States to become so entangled in this Southeast Asian war.
One good line in the film that is delivered by John Paul Vann, portrayed by Bill Paxton, is when asked what the problem is in Vietnam, Vann replies, "We are the problem." This point is made in the movie and is covered much more extensively in the book. The South Vietnamese Army was not vitally interested in fighting the Viet Cong. However, the United States sent in advisers to teach the Viet Cong how to do just that, supplied munitions that found their way into the hands of the guerrillas, and ignored the South Vietnamese Army shelling innocent villages, killing civilians, and causing them to side in the future with the enemy. Ironically, these villages were often targeted because the South Vietnamese Army did not want to attack any force that would counter attack.
A Bright Shining Lie is an account of the Vietnam War, but on another level it is a story as old as time, the story of a hero who possessed great virtues and weaknesses and is ultimately consumed and destroyed by the flaws and the system. The book was turned into an interesting film in 1998 by HBO, starring Bill Paxton and Amy Madigan. It is worth watching, but the film never approaches the depths of the book. The book brims with human passions. It allows the reader to get beneath the surface to know and care for not only the man, but also for the child he had been. Sheehan also goes beneath the surface of American participation in Vietnam. Good intentions and irresolute will coupled with gross naivete and arrogance cost the lives of many Americans and Asians. Sheehan points out that military leaders and politicians really believed that America was winning the war. They were truly deluded
The book, A Bright Shining Lie, is a masterpiece and in 1989 was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The reader is given a very detailed history of American Vietnam involvement presented in a fascinating format. The film is better than average; it follows the book without deviation, but it lacks the depth, the background, the passion, and the heart that the book possesses. While no book or film can totally explore the Vietnam experience, Sheehan's book, unlike the film, gives Americans insight and raises questions a democracy must ask of its leaders and its citizens.
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