Why Vietnam Still Matters: In Search of Its Bright Shining Lie

Exclusively for CounterPunch, Matthew Stevenson travels from Haiphong and Hanoi, in what was North Vietnam, to the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and the capital, in search of the remnants of the American war in Vietnam. This is Part III of an eight-part series.

The battle of Ap Bac, in the Mekong Delta, prominent in the education of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, if not in the American descent into Vietnam.

On this trip to Vietnam, a lot of my time was spent in search of the elusive character of John Paul Vann, the subject of Neil Sheehan’s prize-winning history, A Bright Shining Lie. The book, some 800 pages, was published in 1988, and it tells the story of Vann’s service in Vietnam, where as a lieutenant colonel in 1962 he began serving as an adviser to a Vietnamese division in the Mekong Delta.

Although Vann retired from the army in summer 1963, he could not leave the country or the war alone, and he returned there, serving as a civilian pacification expert and in other responsibilities, until June 1972.

Just after the battle of Kontum, in which, as a foreign service officer with the highest grade, he had command over American forces, he was killed in a helicopter accident.

In between, as described in Sheehan’s magisterial biography, Vann becomes a metaphor for all the promise and disappointment of the American intervention in Vietnam.

Vann never gives up believing that the war can be won, but he disagrees strongly with the likes of Robert McNamara and General William Westmorland that a war of attrition can be successful against either Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars.

The “bright, shining lie,” depending on the chapter in the book, is either the American illusion in Vietnam or John Paul Vann himself, who despite his Boy Scout appearance and starched khaki uniform, allows the sorrows of war to cover up a debauched personal life (under-age mistresses, illegitimate children, bigamy, abandonment of his U.S. family, etc.).

Vann died several days after winning a masterful 1972 victory over the North Vietnamese Army in the battle of Kontum—one of the great victories of the American war, although within a matter of months Kontum was given away for a soundbite at the Paris peace talks, so that Nixon and Kissinger could run for re-election on having “ended” the Vietnam war.

A Visit to Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta

I first read Sheehan’s history and biography in winter 1993, when I went to Hanoi for the first time, but it was only in my more recent travels that I went to Ap Bac, the site of the 1963 battle in the Mekong Delta, that sets the stage for much of Vann’s bitterness about the war.

In that battle, the Vietnamese forces to which Vann is attached as an adviser have the chance to surround and annihilate a battalion of Viet Cong forces, who have decided to make a stand near a hamlet (on the edge of a rice paddy) outside the provincial town of My Tho in the Delta.

[If you are trying to get there, which I recommend, Ap Bac is about fifty miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City or 15 miles northwest of My Tho, on country lanes and dirt roads to the north of Highway QL1A, on which the bus to Vinh Long can drop you. A small museum is on the spot, although the staff is clueless about the battle.]

For the battle and his Vietnamese soldiers, Vann orchestrated the backup presence of American helicopter gunships and amphibious half-tracks, to support the attack of the infantry across a broad rice paddy (see the above photograph). But Vann cannot fight the battle all on his own, and his South Vietnamese soldiers turn a potential victory into a humiliating defeat.

In the fighting for Ap Bac, American helicopters are shot down, attacks against the Viet Cong are avoided, and the enemy is allowed to skip out the back. Vann is furious and leaks his frustration to the American press in Saigon, including Sheehan, who was an early eye witness to the after-action of the fighting. But neither Vann’s nor Sheehan’s take on the battle—that of a South Vietnamese failure of nerve—is what gets played up in the briefing rooms.

The local U.S. commander General Paul Harkins, the rest of the American military brass in Vietnam, and the Kennedy administration all decide to close ranks and to proclaim Ap Bac a great victory for the South Vietnamese army. As they tell the war stories, it confirms the nobility of American assistance in Vietnam and the courage of our allies, even though few had engaged the enemy at Ap Bac.

When, however, American reporters, including Sheehan, visit the battlefield in the aftermath and question the lack of enemy dead or the doomed American helicopters lying on their sides, they are denounced for aiding and abetting the enemy, and for not keeping up with the tunes of the patriotic marches.

Actually Ap Bac meant more in the Vietnam War than simply an opportunity lost to encircle a vulnerable enemy battalion.

When the U.S. army and political establishment (away from the upbeat headlines) took stock of the performance of the South Vietnamese army, they came to the conclusion that the only way to win the war would be with direct involvement of U.S. combat forces.

Ap Bac—almost more than the false flagged naval encounters in the Gulf of Tonkin—cast the die for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to wage war directly against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. It was decided that only with direct American arms could the fighting be won.

In the delusional words of aspiring politician Ronald Reagan, who said in 1965: “We should declare war on North Vietnam. . . . We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas.”

John Paul Vann Goes After Hearts and Minds

Unfortunately for American history, the battle template that U.S. commanders brought to Vietnam was lifted from the playbook that defeated the Germans on the plains of northern Europe.

It called for a mechanized army to advance on a broad front, backed up by artillery, air power, and armor. But unlike in Europe, where the goal was to liberate cities and countries, success here would be measured by the number of enemy killed, as if in one of the Indian wars.

While Vann was all for a holy war against Communism in Southeast Asia, he wasn’t eager to sign up for Westmoreland’s way of war. Vann subscribed more to what is now called counter-insurgency, the idea that small-unit tactics, as opposed to carpet bombings of cities and the countryside, could win against the invaders. Sheehan writes:

One of Vann’s most famous maxims, often quoted down the years, came from those first lessons: “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle—you know who you’re killing.”

Vann’s outspokenness, however, not to mention some of the scandals in his personal life, forced him to retire from the army in summer 1963 as a lieutenant colonel, after twenty years of service.

A week before he retired, he had been scheduled to brief some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on alternative strategies with which to wage the Vietnam war, but at the last minute the briefing was cancelled.

Only years later, when he had risen through the civilian ranks of the in-country pacification programs, could Vann apply his tactical theories, although by then the war was a lost cause.

Sheehan describes Vann’s reaction in 1965 to the coming of U.S. combat forces into Vietnam:

“The American soldier was merely buying time,” Vann warned. “The major challenge now facing the U.S. in Vietnam” was to use that time to break the Communist monopoly on social revolution.

Vann wants to win over the same hearts and mind as does Westmoreland, only he wants to do it by driving his jeep around contested provinces and by building new schools.

Few Americans ever spent so much time “in country” as did John Paul Vann, who was there for many stretches between 1962 and 1972.

Down the Ho Chi Minh Trail Through the Central Highlands

In search of Vann’s greatest accomplishment in Vietnam, as the “civilian general” who orchestrated and won the 1972 battle of Kontum, on this trip I decided to travel through the Central Highlands.

My original plan was to bus-and-bike from Dieu Tri, near the coast, to Pleiku, along Highway 19, which passes through An Khe and the Man Yang Pass, the scene of a French military defeat in 1954 that spelled the end of the French occupation of Indochina, much as did Dien Bien Phu earlier in the same year.

Instead of following the French to the scene of their ambush, to get to Kontum I was obliged to change my plans and to take a mini-van from Danang that for six hours climbed the escarpments of the Central Highlands. Who knew that Vietnam had an alpine landscape?

Here and there, the bus stopped for meal breaks and coffee, but mostly it played chicken with oncoming traffic, all of which jostled for a place on the twisting two-lane road.

Close to Kontum, one of the cities in the highlands, the bus made stops in Dak To II and Dak To, mountainside towns that during the war years had straddled the Ho Chi Minh Trail and had seen some of the heaviest fighting in Vietnam—first in 1967 and again in the 1972 Easter Offensive.

Although the sun was beginning to set by the time my bus arrived in Dak To, I still had clear views of the rolling, mountainous landscape that stretched west from Dak To toward the nearby borders with both Cambodia and Laos.

Here the Ho Chi Minh Trail might well have been a back road through the Cumberland Mountains.

Along Rocket Ridge in the Central Highlands to Kontum

If the Americans had won the war in Vietnam, this landscape would be recalled in history in the same context as Antietam Creek. But because the U.S. was driven out of Vietnam, Kontum is as forgotten as the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

In these now barren hills (a number have never recovered from being hit by defoliants), the American army constructed a number of fire-support bases, both to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail as it worked its way south toward Saigon, and to assist infantry operations that were launched in the direction of enemy formations that also poured across the nearby borders with Laos and Cambodia.

The most distinctive hillside on the drive, just north of Kontum, had the nickname “Rocket Ridge” The Americans turned it into a medieval fortress that—in the numerous attacks against Dak To and Kontum—the North Vietnamese often tried to storm, as if scaling the walls of a medieval castle.

John Vann’s last battle, that for Kontum in 1972, was a classic set-piece engagement fought between North Vietnamese regulars (NVA) and the South Vietnamese Army (often called ARVN) on this thirty-mile stretch of highway between Dak To and Kontum.

Wanting to end the war in 1972, the NVA attacked with tanks and in human waves against the entrenched positions of Vann’s ARVN forces (who were backed up by American military advisers).

By this point in the war, Nixon had withdrawn most American combat forces, which explains why a civilian had senior military rank in Military Region II and why American involvement was largely limited to air power and artillery.

In the early days of the 1972 Easter Offensive, the NVA overran Dak To and besieged Kontum, much as General Vo Nguyen Giap had surrounded the French at Dien Bien Phu.

On this occasion, however, thanks to Vann’s presence and his thirst for battle, the ARVN could call on the combined arms of the American air forces, which threw everything from B-52 bombers to army Cobra helicopters into the fight to save the surrounded city of Kontum.

With Vann’s reputation on the line, American advisers guided the South Vietnamese army to hold their lines around Kontum, while from the air thousands of bombs broke the North Vietnamese advance and later the siege lines. It was a near-run thing, but eventually in early June the NVA withdrew.

Had such a victory come in 1965, when the first U.S. ground troops were sent to Vietnam, it would have been hailed as one of the great victories of the war.

Coming, however, in summer 1972, by which time the American public had given up on the Vietnam War, Kontum was a footnote in a disintegrating situation at the end of a lost war. Who today even remembers its name?

The Battle of Kontum Saves South Vietnam—for a while

My room that night was in a hotel training center, staffed with students and interns, all of whom meant well and tried hard, even if the cost of good intentions was inedible food in the restaurant.

The next morning, before breakfast and the coming mid-day sun, I went out on my bicycle, in search of what had once been the 1972 siege lines. But long ago they had vanished under the construction of a modern, if pleasant, Vietnamese city.

Another book I was reading on my Kindle was Thomas P. McKenna’s Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam. It’s partly a campaign history (with detailed descriptions of Air Force units and artillery brigades) and partly a Vietnam War memoir, although McKenna is one of the few writers from that time who believed that the war could still be won and who fought with the devotion of a Confederate calvary officer—in this case, to save Kontum. His courage is commendable, and he writes with a distinctive, positive voice.

In his book, McKenna writes of John Paul Vann, his commanding officer:

Brigadier General Hill considered John Paul Vann abrasive and self-centered and saw him run roughshod over people. However, during the six weeks he spent with Vann he realized what a good fighting man he was. Vann never asked his subordinates to do anything he would not do himself, and Hill never knew any officer who got so much loyalty from his troops. Hill had more military experience than Vann but could not equal Vann’s influence with the Vietnamese. Vann was the one American who came, stayed for a decade, and showed the Vietnamese he cared. This feeling and his good rapport with the Vietnamese enabled him to look them in the eye and say things like, “You really screwed that one up!”

On the bicycle I made several loops through the shops in the downtown section, which even early in the morning were spilling into the streets.

But to see more of the vast battle area, I decided to hire a car and driver and to explore the contours of the battlefields from Dak To south to Pleiku, a front that was sixty miles long and twenty miles from east to west.

Aside from a few North Vietnamese memorials, the battlefields have been lost in time. Even the NVA monuments have a forlorn quality. Many were locked behind rusting fences and covered with fallen leaves.

Needless to say, there are no American markers, and the only South Vietnamese memorial, by the side of a busy road, implies that its war dead were scattered to the wind—a sacrilege in the local culture.

John Vann and the American Presence in Vietnam Go Down in Flames

On the drive I did manage to locate the location near the Kontum Pass where John Vann died on the night of June 9, 1972, flying back from a meeting in Pleiku.

During the battle of Kontum, Vann made it a point to visit the besieged city every day. Although the battle was over by June 8, the next day he kept to his routine of touching down in Kontum, even if on this occasion it meant a night flight, over contested ground, through deteriorating weather conditions.

That night he was also flying with a replacement pilot; his regular pilot was suffering from battle fatigue, from so many previous flights with Vann into harm’s way.

Approaching Kontum, but not yet through the Chu Pao Pass, Vann (or perhaps his relief pilot—we don’t know who was at the controls) flew the helicopter into the ground, into what Sheehan describes as the only grove of trees on the line from Pleiku to Kontum.

I cannot be sure I found the exact place where Vann died. I had copies of pages from Sheehan’s book, plus a map in his biography marking the tree grove with an “X”. And I had highlighted on my Kindle passages from McKenna’s history of the battle.

But the driver I had engaged that morning was allergic to factual information, my maps, or even Google coordinates. After I spotted trees and high ground on the flight path into Kontum, he parked the car off the road haphazardly and encouraged me to search for the spot.

From a parking lot of a nearby gas station, I took pictures of the area, frustrated that the Vietnam War comes without any of the markers that punctuate the battlefields of the American Civil War.

(Later my friend Craig Whitney, who worked closely with Sheehan at the New York Times and reported from Vietnam, wrote to me: “Are the Montagnard death figures still standing in the grove Vann crashed into?” If they are, I could not find them.)

In his biography of Vann, Sheehan describes at great length Vann’s military burial in Arlington National Cemetery, about a week after the accident.

One of the ironies of Vann’s life is that his death brought together the oddest collection of mourners. Army generals, with whom he had argued for years about the course of the Vietnam war, were there. So were journalists and opponents of the war.

Not far away, and ready to greet the Vann family at the White House, was President Richard Nixon, who appreciated that Vann was one of the few who believed in Vietnamization.

Another who mourned the loss of his good friend John Paul Vann was former RAND Corporation official Daniel Ellsberg, who in that summer of 1972 was in the fight of his life (with many of those gathered around Vann’s grave) to stay out of jail for having leaked the Pentagon Papers (to Neil Sheehan at the New York Times).

The only person who brought all these men together, at least in death, was Vann—although it is still isn’t clear whether he was the last believer or the first cynic.

The Deep State Premieres in Vietnam

Another presence in the lives of Neil Sheehan, Daniel Ellsberg, and John Paul Vann was the former Times reporter David Halberstam, who in 1972 would publish The Best and the Brightest.

Halberstam had been with Sheehan and Vann during the time of Ap Bac, and he was among those reporters who had questioned the official story of the battle as a South Vietnamese victory.

About the time of Vann’s burial—perhaps with the mourners gathered around the Vann grave in mind—in his book Halberstam quotes Sheehan at length in describing what sounds like an early edition of the Deep State. He writes:

These men, largely private, were functioning on a level different from the public policy of the United States, and years later when New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan read through the entire documentary history of the war, that history known as the Pentagon Papers, he would come away with one impression above all, which was that the government of the United States was not what he had thought it was; it was as if there were an inner U.S. government, what he called “a centralized state, far more powerful than anything else, for whom the enemy is not simply the Communists but everything else, its own press, its own judiciary, its own Congress, foreign and friendly governments—all these are potentially antagonistic. It had survived and perpetuated itself,” Sheehan continued, “often using the issue of anti-Communism as a weapon against the other branches of government and the press, and finally, it does not function necessarily for the benefit of the Republic but rather for its own ends, its own perpetuation; it has its own codes which are quite different from public codes. Secrecy was a way of protecting itself, not so much from threats by foreign governments, but from detection from its own population on charges of its own competence and wisdom.”

Sheehan devoted some sixteen years of his adult life, not to mention all his years as reporter in Vietnam, to figuring out and writing down the life of John Paul Vann. A Bright Shining Lie is worth such an effort.

Although I have read the book twice now, I still struggle to figure out if Sheehan admires Vann, despite all his flaws, or whether he believes he embodies everything that is misguided about the American experience in Vietnam.

My feeling is that Sheehan likes and admires Vann as both a professional soldier and a friend. Later on, however, neither Vann nor the war effort turn out to look as they did in those early, upbeat press briefings from 1962-63.

To chase away these demons, Sheehan spends all those years writing A Bright Shining Lie—to figure out how he misunderstood Vann and how the government of the United States got the war in Vietnam so wrong.

Sheehan’s book is one of the few good things to come out of a bad war, and I took pleasure on my bike in following his chapters and prose around Vietnam, which feels a little less gloomy when you have a good book in your hands. (It felt as if I was reading Ulysses—“… a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”—while biking around Dublin.)

Otherwise in many places, Vietnam might well be Reagan’s paved paradise, where the war is largely forgotten and all that remains—besides the painful memories for those who served here (Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / ’Till it’s gone)—is an empty parking lot of the American soul.

Up Next: To the Street Without Joy, north of Hue, where French-American scholar Bernard Fall wrote part of his famous history, and where ten years later he was killed. To read earlier installments in the series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.