A review of “A bright shining lie“, by Neil Sheehan
I cannot now recall who recommended this book to me. It might have been John Le Carre, but I think it more likely that it was Max Hastings, in his comprehensive account of the Vietnam War, which I brought after a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in 2019. The copy I bought – from the online Oxfam bookshop was as large and heavy a paperback book as ever I have had, and really could only be read when placed flat on a table or on your lap – too heavy to hold.
It is a biography of an American named John Paul Vann, and an account of the Vietnam War. It is lovely writing, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and very much in the journalistic style of Robert Kaplan, in that there is fascinating detail in the cracks and interstices of his account. One learns much, by literally, reading between the lines. At the start there is page after page just describing the pall-bearers at Vann’s funeral – but these pages contain timeless nuggets of news, gems of information about American political history.
The man who gave John Vann’s eulogy noted of him, “I’ve never known a more unsparingly critical and more uncompromisingly honest man”. Inspiring? We shall see. I personally am neither unsparingly critical nor uncompromisingly honest. Earlier, Sheehan writes of Vann that “he had no physical fear”. Being fearless is not the same as being courageous; being fearless, at least, is no virtue.
Sheehan writes – unsparingly critical perhaps – of the American military machine of those years, that after the victory of WWII, they had forgotten how to lose. And in the forgetting of that important lesson, they assured for themselves, defeat in Vietnam – to say nothing of Korea. The fool says, “I don’t do defeat” or “I don’t do failure”. But it is that very attitude that assures and guarantees failure. True success is found in that person who budgets for, bargains for, allows for and plans and prepares for failure. It’s not the failure that matters – it’s how you recover from it. “I get knocked down – but I get up again…”
In the section on “antecedents to the man” Sheehan provides as good a description of the American South as ever you will read. And in that description, he is describing a lost Britain – or more honestly, a lost Ireland and Scotland. Those who Britain rejected, after the Clearances, in the eighteenth century, went to the southern part of what is now the United States. The weak died on the way, or soon after they got there. The strong remained – and they had a wild streak, the wildness of Britain before the Victorians tamed it. Reading works like J.D Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder” (about the American west, but describing the life of Davy Crockett) one can see this wildness, this untamed violence, not far beneath the surface.
We read about John Vann’s sexual indiscretions and moral darkness (and the root causes of that in the behaviours of his mother) in respect of his relationship to his wife, his children and to marriage. He kept two mistresses and was a serial philanderer. Yet, he was considered moral by his superiors, and by their – and his – lights, he was a moral man. It is interesting to read about the complete separation of Vann’s moral probity (or at least, ostensible moral probity) in the professional, military, space, from the squalor and degradation of his private life. Looking after your troops properly, dealing honestly and truthfully with your superiors – yet failing to look after your own family and lying to your spouse. It is the nuance, the ambiguity, that i find so fascinating. Particularly in this age, when so often, our leading men and women need to be perfect and seen to be perfect. Nuance and ambiguity seem to be not allowed. This is a pity, for no-one is perfect. All have sinned and fall short of the high standards required of us by the great God in heaven – never mind the double standards imposed by the newspapers and social media.
A remarkable and worthwhile read, though I did skip quite a lot of detail – some of it was tedious, some of it was fascinating. From the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, through to the catastrophe that was the Tet Offensive and onto the Nixon years, it’s fair to repeat what the blurb says – if you read one book about Vietnam, make it this one. You’ll learn much else besides – about America, France and Vietnam; about WWII and about Korea; about human frailty and sin, and the indomitability of the human spirit. I read these big improving tomes because they inspire and encourage me – and we finish with a tip from a character called Weyand, who was a patron of John Paul Vann. How does a person get on? “Move up, move out, to the cutting edge”.