Successive Approximations

Thoughts on "A Bright Shining Lie"

Thoughts on "A Bright Shining Lie"

After finishing About Face by David Hackworth, my friend Gary renewed his recommendation of A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan. (I ended up with a copy that appears to be the first paperback edition, printed in 1989, with a sticker in the front declaring it withdrawn from Bowdoin College Library. When I got the book it showed no signs of ever being read.)

It was a very good book, and I both enjoyed reading it and learned quite a bit from its 790 pages. This is clearly a book that took the better part of a lifetime to write. I don't know enough about Vietnam to say whether Sheehan got the analysis of the geopolitics exactly right, but certainly the through-line that he draws makes sense.

There were two moments in the book that were particularly illuminating for me.

The first was the realization that the way the US operated in Vietnam was a complete consequence of the prevalence of helicopters. Of course Sheehan covers the standard list of mistakes: unbelievable quantities of bombs and rockets used against an enemy that figured out quickly how to tunnel and dig to protect from them; taking of territory to abandon it days later; displacing the populace from their traditional lands so they had to choose between joining the VC or being a beggar; and so on.

But Sheehan also paints a striking picture of a South Vietnam made up of district and regional capitals under US and South Vietnamese control, surrounded by rural expanses where the VC operate unopposed. Attempts by the US military or the ARVN to chase after them were largely ineffective as the VC avoided conflict or retreated until they got to a location they liked and decided to fight.

Meanwhile, supplies and personnel had to be brought in by helicopter. The VC only had to lay one booby trap or dig one trench anywhere on the hundreds of miles of road that connected one district center to another, and they could ambush at will. So the roads were given up and air transport used instead.

The picture in my head of the North fighting the South with front lines that advanced or retreated as armies moved forward and back, like something out of the American Civil War was just wrong. Instead of resembling the traditional battle lines on a map in a textbook, the map of South-vs-VC-held territory would look more like a county-by-county election map of the US. Splotches of one color around cities, and much of the rest a sea of the other color.

Luckily in America, Republican counties don't set up roadblocks and ambushes for city folk commuting from one metropolis to another. But you can imagine that if they did, the city folk would start taking airplanes and helicopters instead. And in Vietnam, that's what was happening.

Perhaps we thought it was a technical marvel to be able to zip around the country on the wings of American airpower. But if the US had not had the crutch of helicopters, perhaps it would have been harder to ignore what was actually happening at ground level for so long.

The second big takeaway for me was this passage:

To make attrition work in his favor, a military leader must be able to force his enemy to fight, as Grant could force Lee to fight when he had Lee locked into a defense of the Confederate capital of Richmond [...]. Thayer's findings proved that Westmoreland was unable to force his enemy to fight, because the Vietnamese had an overwhelming grasp of the initiative. The Vietnamese controlled their own rate of attrition.

(Also, implied but unstated by the quote: the VC didn't have any strategic cities to be captured. They could set up camp wherever they liked and move in supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The US and ARVN were pinned in place by the duty to defend cities, but the VC had no such constraint.)

In retrospect, it seems so obvious: you cannnot wear down an enemy if you cannot strike at them on your time table instead of theirs. As long as your enemy has the ability to withdraw at will and gather their strength, you can never push them past a breaking point.

Such a simple idea, but one that unlocks so many of the ills of the American war in Vietnam.

On the whole, the book was worth the read. As you understand by the end, John Paul Vann was clearly a troubled man with a dark side, but in many ways it seems that his sense of living on borrowed time freed him to do things few other careerists would.

And, compared to a much more personal memoir like About Face, A Bright Shining Lie provided quite a bit of history of the French occupation, backstory on Ho Chi Minh as well as the Diem family, including why they were concerned with a coup and how avoiding one became an obsession. Except perhaps for Westmoreland, none of the people profiled come off as sheer bumbling idiots, but instead each one as a cog in their own machine, with incentives and ambitions and fears they are constantly weighing.

I look forward to reading it again one day.

Ben Berry

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