Soldier and civilian: John Paul Vann’s unconventional life and death in Vietnam

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Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann (second from right) briefs other U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam in this undated photo, but probably from 1962 or 1963. Library of Congress

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

The media blitz started several months ago for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’s latest epic project. He and co-director Lynn Novick have been giving newspaper and television interviews well in advance of “The Vietnam War,” to debut at 8 p.m. September 17 on PBS.

The 10-part, 18-hour series, to be shown on consecutive nights, is, Burns admits, his production company’s most ambitious project to date. Forty-two years after the end of the war, the subject still provokes heated arguments and lingering questions as to how and why America became mired in what proved to be an unpopular, divisive, and ultimately unwinnable war in Southeast Asia.

More than 10 years in the making, Burns says his team examined 100,000 still photographs and 5,000 hours of archival footage. They’ve also drawn upon interviews with more than 80 people, from Americans who fought in Vietnam to protestors who opposed the U.S. presence there, to former Vietnamese soldiers from the north and south, and civilians.

One of those interviews was with Neil Sheehan, a former United Press International reporter who later joined The New York Times.

Sheehan knows a thing or two about being in the grip of a topic that won’t let go. He toiled for 16 years researching and writing the superb book “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (Random House, 1988).

It won a slew of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, a National Book Award, and was named to Modern Library’s list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time.

It was also made into a made-for-TV movie (1998), starring Bill Paxton as Vann. I have not seen the film.

For a long time, I had been meaning to read this 800-plus page book. I finally got to it after I returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam (and Cambodia) in March 2016. (See my archive for multiple posts.)

Sheehan
This is the 1988 edition. A new hardcover edition was reissued in 2009.

Harvard-educated Sheehan spent more than three years covering Vietnam. He was there at age 32 in 1962, a time when the American presence was increasing from 3,200 advisers at the beginning of the year to 11,300 by December under President John Kennedy’s Military Assistance Command Vietnam strategy.

Vann, then 37, a lieutenant colonel (and World War II and Korean War veteran), was among the March arrivals. Portrayed as a fearless, supremely confident and capable man, he lost no time in utilizing his management and logistical skills to impress the brass who would determine his assignments and possible advancement.

He believed in the mission — stopping the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia — and America’s ability to help the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to see it through to completion.

But even as early as 1963, Vann was beginning to have doubts, particularly after the Battle of Ap Bac, in the Mekong Delta. Sheehan minutely reconstructs this battle, a microcosm of all that the Vietnam War was to become.

The operation’s target was to destroy a Viet Cong radio transmitter, well-hidden in the hamlet of Tan Thoi, next to the hamlet of Bac, about 40 miles southwest of Saigon. In his advisory role, Vann was in a spotter plane, from where he could see the January 2, 1963, operation unfold.

Fog delayed the ferrying in of the full compliment of infantry, and faulty intelligence underestimated the number of enemy. Further burdens included the ARVN’s disregard of basic tactics, poor leadership and a command-structure breakdown.

Language issues between the ARVN infantry and U.S. advisers, and an inability to maximize the superior, American-supplied ground and air firepower further turned what should have been a successful mission into a humbling mess.

Meanwhile, the 4-to-1 outnumbered enemy, deeply entrenched in foxholes and behind tree lines, and communicating via a protected irrigation canal, conserved its ammunition. When the guerrillas did open fire, they took down five Huey helicopters — at that point an unheard of loss for the South Vietnamese.

The battle’s toll: On the Saigon side, more than 80 dead, 100 wounded and three dead Americans. On the guerrilla side: 18 dead and 39 wounded.

Sheehan and other reporters caught up with Vann in the evening after the battle.

Vann, Sheehan writes, “spoke of how the guerrillas had stood and held despite the assault of the armored tracks and all of the pounding and burning from the air and the artillery. …

“ ‘ They were brave men,’ Vann said. ‘They gave a good account of themselves today.’ ”

For Vann, it was a not-unexpected wakeup call — and should have been for senior officers and American politicians — that strategy would have to change. He took his crusade up the line, but speaking his truth to power did not alter anything. After 20 years in the military, he left the Army in July 1963 — a move that does not seem to have been spontaneous — serving in South Vietnam a little more than a year.

When Sheehan begins to reveal Vann’s background, “A Bright Shining Lie” takes on a second, equally troubling meaning. Despite Vann’s many positive attributes, Sheehan came to believe that he and other reporters had been deceived by the words and actions of a man they had come to consider a trusted source and friend.

In a gripping, 100-plus page section in the middle of the book where Sheehan traces Vann’s pre-Vietnam years, the warrior emerges as an ambitious yet profoundly flawed individual, with more than a hint of Southern Gothic elements in his Virginia background.

The illegitimate son of a 19-year-old job-hopping future floozy and a married trolley driver, Vann’s (the last name of his mother’s second husband) Depression-era childhood was marked by poverty, filth, a frequently unemployed stepfather and an less-than-attentive, unstable mother.

Two benefactors helped the maturing Vann along the way, but the damage done by the depravations and traumas of his hardscrabble boyhood were inescapable. His constant companions for much of his life: self-destructive behavior and an insatiable sexual appetite, ultimately inflicting irreparable damage on his military career and his own estranged family.

When Vann returned to Vietnam in 1965, he did so as a civilian employee of the Agency for International Development. Among its goals: the pacification of Vietnamese civilians.

Over several years, Vann’s titles and roles evolved, consolidating enough tactical seniority to become the de facto civilian commander of one region’s combat forces. His rise is far more involved than that sentence, obviously, and Sheehan spends the last 300 pages or so of the book on this period.

Vann died when, in poor weather, his helicopter crashed on June 9, 1972, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, after the battle for Kontum. He was 47. I’m not giving anything away here. The book opens with a detailed, 30-page description of his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, attended by a who’s who of now well-known names.

Among Vann’s pallbearers was close friend Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and Rand Corporation analyst who leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan, then at The New York Times. Also in attendance were Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts; William Colby, operative but not yet director of the CIA; Defense Secretary Melvin Laird; Secretary of State William Rogers; and William Westmoreland, former U.S. commanding general in South Vietnam.

Vann was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom and Distinguished Service Cross by President Richard Nixon, who met with Vann’s family in the White House from 12:44 to 12:53 p.m. on June 16, 1972, a Friday and the day of the funeral. John A. Vann accepted the awards in his father’s memory.

Make no mistake: Reading this book will take a commitment of time, concentration and patience.

But anyone with even a passing interest in Vietnam and America’s involvement should move “A Bright Shining Lie” to the top of their “must-read” list — preferably before “The Vietnam War” airs on PBS.

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