Heart of Darkness

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

by Neil Sheehan
Random House, 861 pp., $24.95


War,” said Saint-Exupéry, “is the acceptance of death.” The force of that recognition beats again and again in Neil Sheehan’s unforgettable narrative of his own growing up and John Paul Vann’s wearing down in Vietnam.

In the summer of 1966, shortly before Sheehan’s return to the lower-grade fevers of The New York Times’s Washington bureau, General William C. Westmoreland did him the farewell courtesy of a personally escorted day in the field. “At one point in the trip,” Sheehan remembers, “I asked the general if he was worried about the large number of civilian casualties from the air strikes and the shelling. He looked at me carefully. ‘Yes, Neil, it is a problem,’ he said, ‘but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”’ Westmoreland had accepted the death of a whole countryside because he despaired of any other way to ease the secretary of defense’s disquiet or to sustain the national security adviser’s imbecile optimism.

The officers and too many of the soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam were inclined to accept every death except their own. In his first tour of duty early in 1962 as military adviser to the South Vietnamese, John Paul Vann took exquisite pains to fortify the soldierly kidney and gloss the image of General Huynh Van Cao, commander of the Seventh ARVN Division, author of the autobiography He Grows Under Fire, and so prone to shrink under it that he once called off an artillery barrage because the noise upset his stomach.

Vann’s and Cao’s first substantial joint passage at arms came in January of 1963 with an offensive against a guerrilla force emplaced in Ap (hamlet) Bac, a venture meticulously planned and then appallingly botched because of the timidity of the ARVN and the disciplined ferocity of its adversary betters. When the day was done and had been badly done, the Viet Cong force still held its position and was waiting for dark to shelter its withdrawal. Vann implored Cao to drop his airborne reserves at the enemy’s rear to seal off all avenues to a bloodless flight and partially redeem that disastrous afternoon.

It is not prudent,” Cao said; and, when Vann shouted, “You’re afraid to fight,” Cao summoned up the sang-froid so seldom at his disposal in combats other than verbal ones, and replied, “I am the commanding general and it is my decision.”

The Viet Cong accepted death, looked her in the face, recoiled in alarm from each fresh and terrible machine brought to bear upon it, then took its ground and learned how to endure and overcome every one. The armed forces of the United States could only advise an inattentive ARVN; their solitary successful enterprise would be the training of the Viet Cong.

Sheehan’s John Paul Vann plunged past merely accepting death to assiduously wooing her, as he seems to have ever since she had earliest urged herself upon him as rescue from his awful Tidewater Virginia boyhood, where his mother indifferently catered to the cravings of any man who would pay her and where his stepfather did his pitiful utmost to eke out the biscuit-and-potato diet that gave his brother rickets.

He had sought Death’s embraces from Korea to the inimical hamlets of the Delta again and again until “Vann luck”—bitter thought though it may have been to him—became a byword in Vietnam. For nine years he railed against the waste and inefficiency of the slaughters of the innocent that constituted the single inescapably tangible accomplishment of the American style of war as a mechanical enterprise.

By 1965, when he had returned to Vietnam as a civilian employed in the US Agency for International Development’s provincial pacification program, Vann was so far alienated from the military’s all-excluding concentration on blood and iron that he was coming to agree with the view of Douglas Ramsay, the AID colleague closest to him, that no weight of metal could make a substantial difference until the peasantry had a democratic government with some care for its welfare.

That spring he distilled that gloomy assessment in a letter to Lieutenant General Robert York, who had shared his discontents after Ap Bac and had since returned to the so much less disorderly premises of Fort Bragg, North Carolina:

If it were not for the fact that Vietnam is but a pawn in the larger East-West confrontation, and that our presence here is essential to deny the resources of this area to Communist China, then it would be damned hard to justify our support of the existing government. There is a revolution going on in this country—and the principles, goals and desires of the other side are much closer to what Americans believe in than those of GVN [the Saigon government]. I realize that ultimately, when the Chinese brand of Communism takes over, that these “revolutionaries” are going to be sadly disappointed—but then it will be too late—for them; and too late for us to win them. I am convinced that, even though the National Liberation Front is Communist-dominated, that the great majority of the people supporting it are doing so because it is their only hope to change and improve their living conditions and opportunities. If I were a lad of eighteen faced with the same choice—whether to support the GVN or the NLF—and a member of a rural community, I would surely choose the NLF.

Then Vann acquired the de facto command of the war effort in the highlands and rice paddies of the Central Coast. The machines whose excesses he had deplored as a wicked futility were his to do with as it pleased him now, and when Larry Stern of The Washington Post looked him up at Pleiku in June of 1972, his whole person seemed “suffused with rage and exaltation.” “Anytime the wind is blowing from the North where the B-52 strikes are turning the terrain into a moonscape, you can tell from the battlefield stench that the strikes are effective,” Vann instructed Stern. “Outside Kontum, wherever you dropped bombs, you scattered bodies.”

The death that had so long refused to be his bride had been delivered to him as his handmaiden; and she was a bequest in default of contending heirs. The proconsuls whose superior rank had so long given them a better title to her services were by now sick of the enterprise; the United States was packing its bags; and John Paul Vann might soon be the last old stager left in this lost colony. Death had become his to order about because fewer and fewer of his countrymen of weight were still disposed to press their claim upon a property that was turning out to be as worthless for advancing a career as it had been for sustaining a cause.

Sheehan’s final words on Vann are: “He died believing he had won his war.” That judgment can be only a conjecture. But, all the same, Sheehan has until then been scrupulous about indulging the license to guesswork about one’s protagonist that is earned by intimate experience of protracted beguilements. His surmise deserves our respect and, if it is correct, we are left with a Vann who, for most of his tenure in Vietnam, had been singular among his American comrades for thinking the war was being lost, and had then ended just as singular among his American comrades for thinking the war was being won. That riddle does not at first seem too much in need of a Sphinx. Vann was sunk in pessimism when the machines were held in others’ hands; but then, of a sudden, he vaulted to optimism as soon as they were his to deploy. He had been an extraordinary field soldier; and now he had been transported to a civilian grade equivalent to a major general’s and had become at once as superstitious as the rest of those corps commanders who had greeted each fresh contrivance from the Pentagon as the magic dragon come at last.

The power of this illusion for clouding the minds of American general officers is one of the several submotifs that enrich Sheehan’s narrative and deserve serious reflection just for what they tell us by themselves. Vann had been a combat soldier in the Korean War and been made painfully familiar with its prodigal disbursements of B-52s and their all-else-but-decisive results. And yet now that same inadequate implement had become for the occasion his all-devouring god of battles. If anyone as seasoned as Vann could forget the lesson he had been so harshly taught, whom in justice can we blame for not knowing better than he did?

When General Matthew B. Ridgway assumed command of the Eighth Army in Korea in January of 1951, he was surprised to find that General Douglas MacArthur thought it necessary to instruct him that “tactical air support [cannot] isolate the battlefield and stop the flow of hostile troops and supply.” This revelation must have struck Ridgway as so entirely a slice of yesterday’s news as to make it odd that MacArthur had so tardily noticed it. Eleven years later Ridgway would be once more surprised to observe that air power’s limitations were still “perhaps a point some active-duty officers and their civilian superiors have yet to learn.”*

Once the soldier mistakes his machines for talismans, he has but a little way to go before dismissing his enemies as contemptible simply because they have fewer to display. Our disabling disdain for Asians in arms against us may not have boiled up from racism so much as from technological hauteur. After the disaster at the Yalu, General Edward M. Almond, commander of the X Corps in Korea, thought to rouse his troops from their shock by demanding to know if they proposed to allow themselves to be chased out by a bunch of Chinese laundrymen. Almond’s voice echoes through Sheehan’s reminders that “those raggedyass little bastards” was the tone of reference to the Viet Cong prevailing for General Paul Harkins and his Saigon staff. Common sense never appears to have suggested to enough American commanders engaged with the mainland of Asia that if you dole out his proper ration of automatic weapons and a spot of on-the-job training to a soldier, his haberdashery is meagerly relevant and anyway easy to repair with larceny or purchase from the occupier’s quarter-master depot.


Death remained as always Vann’s queen, the only her in his existence he had never cheated; and the only her except his mother who had ever prevailed at cheating him. No increase of his estate could diminish his passion for his own doom; and he was killed in his helicopter on an expedition of little purpose just a few days after Larry Stern had recoiled from what he had become.

The ARVN Rangers who found his body stripped it of his wristwatch, his wallet, and the college ring he had worn since his graduation with the bachelor’s degree in business administration he had earned while serving as an ROTC instructor at Rutgers University. Vann’s forebears spring up before us from the roots of the Snopes family, whose creator could hardly have conceived that the Snopes tree would bear the hero of an epic part; and Vann might not have had a chance to play it if he had not come to the gate of glory with an army-financed MBA (Syracuse, 1959) as his key, after having graduated in the top 2 percent of his class at the Command and General Staff College.

He was thirty-nine years old and a lieutenant colonel of infantry only ten months in grade when he arrived at the Saigon headquarters of the US Military Assistance Command (MACV) in March of 1962. The American presence in Vietnam was then so new that the air conditioning equipment had yet to be installed. Colonel Daniel B. Porter, his receiving officer, took note of his falcon’s eye, his record in combat with the Rangers in Korea, and, all-else-but-least strikingly, his MBA, and sensed capacities that, for all their owner’s shortcomings in the matter of seniority, might fit the impending vacancy for an adviser to an ARVN division in the Mekong Delta.

Porter determined to suspend judgment on this prospect until he had tested Vann’s hand with odd jobs around the office, the first of them to untangle a computer supply system whose orders for spare parts from the Pentagon would draw no more rewarding response than ream upon ream of paper signifying gibberish. Within a few hours, Vann had ordered these affairs, and set the computer’s flow on a course so cleansed of snags that even the scarcely tutored could run it. To put a computer system in order meant to slay one’s dragon in a war whose controlling mystique was the data calculator. Vann had proved his fitness for the field, and the Mekong Delta—or such portion of it as he could salvage from the crafts of the Viet Cong and the follies of the ARVN—was henceforth his.

The shadows of his war’s end fell upon its very beginning at Ap Bac, which never mustered as many as two thousand active combatants and which all the same serves Sheehan for a chronicle grand enough to suit the crash and clangors of whole armies. This majesty of scale is in no way disproportionate to its occasion. War is always war, and the same laws mandate the decision in small encounters as in vast ones: the artist never better shows his gift than when he leaves a corner in his composition, whether it is shrunk to the miniature or swollen to the panoramic, for those who have not lost their mettle but who have been reduced by events to no function except to watch.

Sheehan’s accounting for Ap Bac transports Vann and his comrades in the American advisory team to that place of isolation where we are at a loss to know whether to be more touched by the soldier’s courage than appalled by his helplessness. For theirs was that singularly Conradian hour when the native servitor who had until then been taken for so dependable an intermediary between the colonial and them seemed all at once “to have forgotten French—seemed not to understand, seemed to have forgotten how to speak at all,” and when the missionary from the civilization who had thought himself the master has found out that he is a stranger and alone.

[Sergeant First Class Arnold] Bowers yelled at the [ARVN] lieutenant that they had to return fire and maneuver to get out of the open or they would all die in the paddy. The lieutenant said that he couldn’t understand Bowers. Back at the airstrip the lieutenant had understood Bowers’s English perfectly as they had waited to board the helicopters.

You never could be certain what these people were saying over the radio,” Vann is said to have reflected at one juncture when the wall between him and the ARVN hurled itself up like a mountain. “They lied to you and they lied to each other.”

Francis Ford Coppola may have been only guessing when he put forward Heart of Darkness as his metaphor for Vietnam, but if so it was an inspired guess; and Vann seems to grow closer if no less mysterious to us for being so Conradian.

Nor can we be surprised that Sheehan’s Vann should have gone about with so many lies in his baggage. He would issue false claims when his entirely true ones would have sufficed to satisfy any degree of human vanity smaller than the abnormal. His term in Korea had been a succession of improvisations under fire in which he displayed braveries that transgressed upon the limits of the suicidal, and that earned him only a Bronze Star and an Air Medal, honors inferior enough to the proper wage for his gallantry to sustain his first wife’s bitterness until the day of his funeral, when she silently observed for herself and his ghost, “[John], the whole bag is still keeping you down.”

Even so, when he was in Vietnam and the talk turned to Korea, he was not content with his own authentically impressive exploits but fabricated the myth that he had commanded and preserved a Ranger company overrun by the Chinese at Pusan. This deep-seated habit of mendacity governed even those occasions when he was at the business of truth telling. He made himself an object especially venerated by the war’s more perceptive journalists for being the only official American who dared speak openly of its disabling blunders. His devotees had no reason to suspect, until now when Sheehan has found him out, that the military career they had thought endangered by his candor was already over when he arrived in Saigon. A statutory rape charge, by a fifteen-year-old babysitter during his prior duty tour in Germany, had survived the ingenuities with which he had confounded the polygraph testers and still sat uncleared in the army’s files as an impassable barrier to further promotion.

We cannot blame Vann’s lies on vanity because they look too much like the masks for humiliating memories. His childhood in Norfolk, Virginia, was the worse than humble experience that approaches the shameful. He was the son of a trolley motorman who was too haughty to marry his mother and of Myrtle Lee Tripp Vann-to-be, who rented herself out to men and spent her earnings on fripperies for herself, leaving the sustenance of her children to Vann’s stepfather, Frank, who had uncomplainingly adopted the busman’s by-blow she brought to the marriage and who fed and housed the family as best his bouts of joblessness allowed.

The figure of Frank Vann is the solitary grace note, uninsisting as always, in the discords of his stepson’s nonage; and, if John Vann was luckier than many children for growing up in a hero’s company, the example could not much help him, because Frank Vann’s heroism was of the failing and feckless sort that puts itself forward as unworthy of appreciation or even respect.

Distasteful as his mother Myrtle was to him—and her boy for that matter to her—he would pass through life with her standards engraved upon him; and, for them both, to be loved would always count for little, and to be loved abjectly would not count at all. We hate the tyrants of our early years, but, all the same, we are compelled to imitate them. They do their worst to us when they transform themselves into our lasting models for the cruel disdain we remember as the expression of those truly powerful, while the gentle solicitude of others echoes as the useless bleating of the powerless.

John Vann seems to have lived ashamed of everything in his beginnings, his birth, his poverty, his mother’s calculatedly wanton vices and his stepfather’s unserviceable virtues; and he would be tainted further by the patron who provided his escape from them. For he would owe his opportunity for boarding school and college, a wife above his class, and ranks and command options improbable for his origins to the devoted guidance of Garland Hopkins, a Methodist minister, whose genuine concern for deprived adolescent males was tainted by pedophiliac inclinations.

Sheehan takes it for granted that Vann paid Hopkins the price of his ticket to a higher station and permits the inference that we can assign the mortifications of the surrendering boy to a prominent place among the spurs that so goaded the conquering male that Vann is said to have held carnal congress successively with his mistress and two other Vietnamese women on his last afternoon on earth.

That, we gather from Sheehan, would have been only one of many such afternoons; at the end, as so often along the way, the act of love had become for Vann just one more gesture of rage—“another manifestation,” as Sheehan puts it, “of the urge to use and abuse all women that Myrtle had implanted in him.” His mother had practiced the same callous promiscuity in her engagements with men; and “implanted” is the operative verb perfectly chosen to define the endurance of her legacy, opening us up, as only its precision could, to the ambiguities of a career equally circumspect while surveying the roads to self-advancement and reckless while exploring the avenues of self-destruction at the same time and to the same degree of ardor.

His mother had indeed implanted the vice he had detested in her and had fled, and he had still carried it away so deep in his bones that he dealt with women just as she had with men. He died in honor and she in shame; but, aside from that large difference, their ends were oddly alike in their disarray, both bodies broken and violated, hers by a stranger while she was drunk and his looted by its native bearers.

Vann insisted on ordering for her tombstone the inscription: “Myrtle Lee Vann…Beloved Mother of John, Dorothy, Frank & Gene.” He had known her from birth as unloving and through life as unbeloved; and yet the writ of their symbiosis ran even now. He must finally lie for and about her as he had so frequently lied for and about himself.

Still, if there was a coldness about pretty much every aspect of Vann except his anger, he could now and then show tenderness, but only to men and then generally only to men in extremis. By 1965 Garland Hopkins had been divorced, dismissed from his ministry, and laid open to prosecution for child molesting; but Vann was nonetheless a guest in his house, which by then nobody else cared to visit. When Hopkins took strychnine he left a note asking Vann “in the name of our long and splendid friendship” to see to the funeral arrangements.

In 1970 Vann had raised himself to an eminence admired by the sitting president of the United States as the author of a plan, after Tet, to “pacify the mainstream of the American public” by reducing US forces and turning over the fighting to the South Vietnamese. But he put at hazard his hard-won license to stride the corridors of power by attempting to contrive the escape of a Vietnamese colonel who had been his comrade in war and was now threatened with arrest as a traitor to the Saigon government.

But to be thus touched by how true Vann kept to his love for the Garland Hopkins who had passed beyond future use to him or to anybody else is to commence to wonder whether the riddle of his having slipped farther from grace the nearer he came to power is as simple as it had at first seemed.

Of course his anger at the war’s military managers was to some measure stirred by resentment of those who held the army commands from which his sins had permanently cut him off. Just as probably his sedulous cultivation of the doubts of the journalists and his persistent challenges to the illusions of the highflown tourist parties from official Washington may be put down among the devices of a politician so shrewd as to recognize how well such counterfeits of impolitic candor could serve him.

Once we settle for such judgments and no others, we are licensed to decide that Vann’s ambitions alone explain his progress from preaching that the war could not be won without social democracy to crowing that now, when he controlled his share of its weapons, the war was being won with B-52s. But then we confront his selfless fidelity to Garland Hopkins and, all of a sudden, Vann seems less and less the enraged but otherwise uncomplex climber and more the divided soul.

Hopkins had introduced him to some things better forgotten and many others worth remembering always. Sheehan tells us that “Vann admired Hopkins’s qualities as a social reformer and political activist and was immensely grateful to him,” not least perhaps for weaning him away from the racism that was the sour mother’s milk of poor white childhoods.

We cannot quite dismiss the original image of the man who rejected the savage means deployed by his military superiors by calling them wicked as well as tactically unsound: it looks too much like the survivor of the boy taught by Garland Hopkins to be altogether the lie that those who read Sheehan quickly may think it was. It would be an odd but not unfamiliar experience if we finally disposed of the mystery of John Paul Vann by consigning him to the company of all those who were realists when their vision was affected by the social conscience, and who became fantasists as soon as they rose beyond its distractions.

But then the time came when Daniel Ellsberg, who had achieved the close friendship that Vann reserved for his votaries, was on the eve of his trial for the fancied felony of making public the Pentagon Papers; and, Sheehan tells us, Vann spent “an hour and a half” with the prosecution’s lawyers “passing along Ellsberg’s defense strategy and suggesting how the administration might defeat it.” He then told Ellsberg he would testify for him and would “say anything you want.” Might it not be Vann’s excuse for this double game that he had caught in Ellsberg the scent of those who survive, and that he could be true to no man who did not smell of doom, the one badge of comradeship to which he felt he owed a debt?

A Bright Shining Lie is a very great piece of work; but its rewards are esthetic and, in an unexpected fashion, almost spiritual. We can no longer sense much firmness of ground for the hope that Sheehan’s book can have real relevance to the future, whose courses seem already mandated and unalterable by the lessons that Vann’s life and Sheehan’s chronicle teach us about what Conrad used to call the curse of facts and the blessing of illusions. We remain comfortable for being blessed by illusion and unconscious of being cursed by fact; and work that compels reflection has little to do for people as unreflecting as our own or, after all, as of most other nations. In Vietnam, we may suppose, John Paul Vann got the war and Vietnam the hero that each deserved. Even so, he and the comrades whose language he never felt required to learn had a bit of the honor lost to those who bade them fight; and who can say that we won’t see worse before we see much better? The lies do not shine as bright as they used to from and around John Paul Vann, but they endure, and they go on working their will upon us over and over again.

  1. *

    Matthew Ridgway, The Korean War (Doubleday, 1967).