The quiet, the bright and the ugly
A BRIGHT, SHINING LIE: JOHN PAUL VANN AND AMERICA IN VIETNAM by Neil Sheehan Cape, 15.95, pp. 880 In Graham Greene's novel, The Quiet American, a brave and well-meaning ideo- logue attempts to save Vietnam from both the French and the Communists. Ernie Pyle subscribes to the Domino Theory that if Red China gets Vietnam, she will go on to seize all South-East Asia. One episode in the novel shows crass American journal- ists taunting the French for their failure to beat the army of Ho Chi Minh.
A few years later, in 1958, two writers, William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, brought out a best-selling novel, The Ugly American, which also concerned the poli- tical troubles of South-East Asia. 'Written as fiction, based on fact', The Ugly Amer- ican drew on the experiences of Edward Lansdale, a US diplomat and intelligence agent, who had helped to save the Philip- pines for democracy. The fictional state of `Sarkhan, a small country out towards Burma and Thailand', was probably meant for South Vietnam, where Lansdale had helped to install the anti-Communist Presi- dent Ngo Dinh Diem. Later, a film was made of The Ugly American, shot in Thailand, with Marlon Brando as US ambassador, and a Thai politician, Kukrit Pramoj, playing the `Sarkhan' Prime Minister. Among those influenced by The Ugly American were President John. F Kennedy and his colleagues, later derisive- ly known as 'the best and the brightest'. With his Peace Corps and his Alliance for Progress in Latin America, Kennedy laun- ched a crusade against what he considered the twin evils of Communism and poverty. Although he was most concerned by the nearby threat from Cuba, President Ken- nedy was a long-time champion of South Vietnam and Diem. He sent to Saigon a team of army advisors who soon became active combatants with the Army of South Vietnam (ARVIN).
Among those who were sent to Vietnam in 1962 was John Paul Vann, a young and eccentric Lieutenant-Colonel who, until his death in an air crash ten years later, came nearer than any other American soldier or politician to understanding how the war should be fought. He too had read and absorbed The Ugly American. He was brave to the point of madness, constantly risking his life in ground actions or low- flying spotter planes and helicopters. Thanks almost entirely to Vann, the ARVIN unit, to which he served as advi- ser, chalked up impressive victories at a time when the Communists, elsewhere, were in the ascendant. In spite of his triumph, Vann fell foul of the US generals in Saigon, the Diem regime and Kennedy's administration. He saw from the start that the US military men were trying to fight a counter-insurgency war in the way they had beaten Germany and Japan. He said that the random bombing and shelling of Vietnamese civilians was not only wicked but drove the peasants into the arms of the Viet Cong. He understood that Diem and his brother were alienating their own peo- ple and using ARVIN not to defeat the Communists but to guard themselves against rivals.
Among the few journalists in Saigon at this time was Neil Sheehan, the author of this huge and in some ways monumental book. He and his colleagues, like David Halberstam of the New York Times, soon grasped that Vann was a good story, and later became his devotees. They too had come to South Vietnam believing that the United States had a duty to beat the Communists and install democracy. Like Vann, both Sheehan and Halberstam fell foul of Diem, the US generals and even President Kennedy. Both men were actors as well as reporters in the events of 1963 which ended with the overthrow and mur- der of Diem and his brother, weeks before the assassination of Kennedy.
Although Vann retired from the army in 1963, his views about Vietnam attracted increasing support, thanks partly to the enthusiastic praise of Halberstam and Sheehan. In 1965 he returned to South Vietnam in a civilian agency busy with pacification. Once again he clashed with the US Army, now commanded by Gener- al William Westmoreland, who thought he could win the war by weight of bombs and artillery shells. The Tet Offensive of Janu- ary 1968 showed up Westmoreland's folly and shook the confidence of the US public. It also brought a momentous change to the Communists. The old Viet Cong, the indigenous South Vietnamese guerrillas, perished in tens of thousands at Tet and the second uprising in May. From now on the war was fought by troops from North Vietnam. The Viet Cong were a spent force.
Pacification was no longer a top priority, since most of the peasants no longer wanted to fight for either side. In his role as advisor, Vann was now in effect a general in mufti, fighting the army of North Vietnam. In the year of his death, 1972, Vann just managed to beat back an invasion, supported by tanks, that threatened to take the Central Highlands and cut the country in two, as the Com- munists managed to do in 1975.
For Americans, still baffled and troubled by Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie has come as a revelation and bitter solace. As Mr Sheehan implies, Vann had something in common with T.E. Lawrence, illegiti- mate, given to fantasising about his achievements and tortured by sexual hun- ger, in his case for women. British readers, unless they have a particular interest in Vietnam, may find this book rather over- whelming. This is, in fact, three books in one. The first is the story of John Paul Vann, from his birth to a drunken prostitute in Nor- folk, Virginia, to his funeral obsequies and a posthumous medal from President Nix- on. Although Mr Sheehan suggests at times that Vann's career was blighted because of his white trash origins, he does not convince the reader, or even perhaps himself. Beginning as an admirer, almost disciple of Vann's, the author is shocked to discover a man who not only beats a lie detector to get off a charge of sex with an underage girl, but afterwards boasts of his cleverness to his own wife. For all his courage and honesty in the war, Vann's private life was shabby and boring. Unlike T.E. Lawrence, who could write The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Vann had no intellec- tual interests, neglecting to take a book with him on a flight from Saigon to San Francisco.
There is a second book here in Neil Sheehan's memoirs. He is especially good on Saigon in 1963, when Buddhist monks were burning themselves to death, and Diem's secret police had a contract out on Sheehan and Halberstam. Unfortunately, Mr Sheehan cannot resist the temptation to write about battles that bear little rele- vance to the Vietnam story or even to Vann. He sometimes gives more detail on Vann's battles than most of us wish to know, 27 years later. For example: 'Only the bravery of the American advisor to the company, Capt James Torrence, the 29- year-old son of an army colonel, a husky officer who had played goalkeeper on the West Point Varsity lacrosse team in the class of 1955, saved the platoon from being wiped out.'
Although Mr Sheehan returned to Viet- nam in 1972, to make inquiries into the end of Vann's life, he spent most time in the country during the early Sixties before the commitment of US military units. The emphasis of the book is therefore upon the early career of Vann and the genesis of the US involvement. This rather distorted perspective also affects Neil Sheehan's history of the war, which is the third book concealed in this massive volume.
As far as it goes, this is excellent history. Never before have I read such a detailed and trenchant analysis of the brutal and self-defeating war of attrition waged by General Westmoreland; of how, for exam- ple, he moved the Marines from pacifica- tion work on the Central lowlands, and sent them off to fight in the enemy's chosen ground of the mountainous rain forest. It is all the sadder to read since those of us journalists who were there at the time had seen that this strategy was doomed. Far from betraying the cause of democracy, the journalists in the Vietnam war saw that the US generals and politicians were hand- ing Vietnam to the Communists. The Sheehans and Halberstams got it right.
Since Mr Sheehan has subtitled his book, 'John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam', one cannot complain that he ends his story with the Americans leaving that country, on 30 April, 1975. He sees this as meaning that everything Vann had fought for was lost. 'He died believing he had won his war.' Yet perhaps, in a way, he had won his war. Like the Quiet and Ugly Americans in the Fifties, Vann had wanted to save Vietnam and all South-East 'Read more slowly! Turn the page! Move your thumb! Mind the crossword!' Asia from falling to Communist China. When Saigon fell, in 1975, along with Laos and Cambodia, panic broke out in Thai- land and even as far as Singapore. The dominoes were about to topple. In fact the reverse happened. The hideous tales of Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia, followed soon afterwards by the sad Viet- namese boat people, created a wave of anti-Communist feeling throughout East Asia. Communist Vietnam went to war against Communist Cambodia. Then Com- munist China went to war against Com- munist Vietnam, which soon had scarcely a friend in the region. Far, from falling to Communism, Thai- land quickly got rid of its few insurgents, then made an alliance with Communist China. In 1976, Thailand closed down all her US air bases, and threw the Americans out of the country. The Prime Minister Who accomplished this was Kukrit Pramoj, the very man who had acted the role of Prime Minister in The Ugly American. The North Vietnamese Army had con- quered the South with minimal help from the southern public which no longer was Communist. The northern leaders them- selves were old-fashioned Stalinists and increasingly out of touch with events in the rest of the world. For about ten years they governed the country with rigid, incompe- tent but not too drastic severity, until suddenly they were overthrown and re- placed by men from the south. The change in Saigon since I had last been there, in 1980, is bewildering. It has progressed from Stalinism to not just glasnost, but something like capitalism. The old boss of the Saigon Communist Party, who led every revolt from 1945 to the Tet Offensive, chatted easily in his garden of how Karl Marx did not understand human nature, the folly of heavy industry and collectivisa- tion of land. When I asked him which foreign Communist government he liked, he said: 'In Hungary, they are going in the right direction'. Former boat people are swarming back to Saigon, living it up on their dollars. When I went into Brodard's Cafe, an old haunt, and told a group I was English, they rose to their feet to drink a toast to Margaret Thatcher. Forty years after the French military press conference, described by Graham Greene, I heard a Vietnamese general answering questions about Cambodia. A new generation of US journalists pestered him for more details on the alleged troop Withdrawals. There had been rumours in Eangkok of artillery fire by the Thai border. 'Did that firing have anything to do With Vietnam, General?'. The general replied with the ease of Westmoreland or one of his colonels, 20 years earlier: 'You are aware that the Vietnamese army has Withdrawn 30 kilometres from the Thai border. You are also aware that Vietnam has not brought to Cambodia any 175 guns [With a range of more than 30 kilometresr. Yes, but General. .