Heart of Darkness

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

by Neil Sheehan
Random House, 861 pp., $24.95
John Paul Vann
John Paul Vann; drawing by David Levine


“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…

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