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Trapped By Vietnam : Before He Could Tell the Tale of a Soldier and a War, Neil Sheehan First Had to Battle His Own Emotions

Times Staff Writer

It was the most unlikely of guest lists. Daniel Ellsberg was there at the chapel at Arlington Cemetery; so was Maj. Gen. Edward Landsdale, the model for “The Ugly American” and the man who helped establish America’s initial military presence in Vietnam in the 1950s.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy arrived late, but Joseph Alsop, the columnist who so firmly embodied the voice of America’s blue-blood Establishment, was precisely, politely on time. Melvin Laird, the Secretary of Defense, was in attendance. Richard M. Nixon, the President, sent Secretary of State William P. Rogers.

‘A Strange Class Reunion’

Journalist Neil Sheehan watched the ceremony in the chapel at Arlington National Cemetery with a curious set of emotions. Sheehan first met Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, the man they had all come to bury, in Vietnam in 1962. Now it was June 16, 1972, and a military marching band was preparing to escort the coffin to its grave. Already the war had raged on longer than any in the country’s history. Only the Civil War had been so divisive.

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“You couldn’t help feeling you were attending a strange class reunion,” Sheehan recalled. “Here was this renegade lieutenant colonel. (Army Chief-of-Staff) William Westmoreland was chief pallbearer. William Colby (executive director of the CIA) was another pallbearer. The chapel was filled with people. You wondered, first of all, why this man could bring all these people together.”

On that hot, humid Friday, “I had the feeling that we were burying more than John,” Sheehan said. “We were burying a whole era of boundless self-confidence. We were burying what Henry Luce called the American Century.”

At home that night, Sheehan wrote out a memo of “this uncanny funeral.” The more the thought about the implications of what had transpired that afternoon, “the more excited I got.” As he pondered the man who had fought the war as fiercely as he came to doubt it, he recalled, “It struck me that John did sum up in his life and his character and his experience there our venture in Vietnam.”

Contradictions, Complexities

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For Sheehan, Vann was not only the quintessential American soldier in Vietnam but also the personification of the war’s contradictions and complexities. It took Sheehan 16 years--longer than the war itself--and 385 interviews to unravel this complicated character and the war he took part in. “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (Random House: $24.95) runs 862 pages, and at that, Sheehan trimmed more than 100,000 words from the final draft.

Random House will launch the book Friday with a 100,000-copy first-run printing. The Book-of-the-Month Club grabbed “A Bright Shining Lie” as a main selection. “There was pretty much of a consensus among the judges that this was the definitive book on the Vietnam experience,” said Al Silverman, head of the BOMC. “There is a receptive audience for books on this painful subject now. Time has filtered out some of the anguish, and has helped Americans face Vietnam and say: Why?”

Sheehan, who makes his home in Washington now, is 52 and silver-haired. He walks with the aid of a cane, the result of a serious automobile accident in 1974 that badly set back his writing schedule.

Right away Sheehan and his wife Susan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who is on staff at the New Yorker magazine, where a four-part excerpt of the book ran last summer, wanted to discount early and persistent rumors circulating among their peers that chronic writer’s block gripped Sheehan throughout the project. Friends say he agonized over the topic, as if by writing about the war he would have to part with it. A Sept. 4 article in the Boston Globe magazine has Sheehan admitting “you get trapped in something like this,” and Susan Sheehan calling the toll on the family “horrible.”

But Sheehan, a nocturnal character who writes while most mortals are sleeping, insists it was the vastness of the subjects, Vann and Vietnam, that confounded him.

“I didn’t spend all those 16 years walking around my neighborhood haunted by the book,” he said, though neighbors in Wesley Heights say he did often walk around, and he did often look haunted.

“The stories we’re hearing describe someone monastic. It wasn’t like that at all,” Susan Sheehan said. “It makes it sound like something very strange. It’s not as if he was obsessed with John Vann.”

But at various times, Sheehan came close to being overwhelmed by him. The two first met in 1963 when Sheehan, a reporter in Asia for United Press International, and later for the New York Times, arrived in Vietnam. It was before the era of Vietnam protest, before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For most Americans, Vietnam was a small, faraway country where a small-scale guerrilla war was in progress. With only a handful of U.S. military advisers and troops on the scene, Americans believed the war seemed easily winnable.

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An Accessible Source

Only a few U.S. journalists were in Vietnam at the time. There was David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne, Charlie Mohr--and soon there was Sheehan. Like his fellow print correspondents, Sheehan soon came to rely on Lt. Col. Vann, a military adviser to the South Vietnamese who fast established himself as an accessible source. Vann was indiscreet and generally accurate, a journalist’s dream.

Vann was a small man, 5-feet-8, and 150 pounds. But he had “what is cornily called charisma,” Sheehan said. “He was this incredibly vigorous guy who would do things nobody else would do.” Vann got by on four hours sleep a night and thought nothing of working two eight-hour shifts a day, then using the remaining time for what might politely be termed personal diversion. He devoured details and possessed astonishing powers of recall. Fearless, Vann made a sport of driving through ambushes. Reasoning that “the odds did not apply to him,” Sheehan writes, Vann flew his own helicopter while assaults were in progress, “defying the enemy gunners to kill him.”

Part of Vann’s own “bright shining lie,” as Sheehan was to discover in researching his central character, was a troubled youth that produced a defiant adult who, Sheehan writes, “followed his own star.” Vann spoke little about his childhood, but Sheehan learned he was the illegitimate son of a man called Spry. His mother, a sometime prostitute named Myrtle, showed him no love at all. “You don’t have a daddy,” she would taunt him as he was growing up, a child of white trash poverty in Norfolk, Va. Just before his 18th birthday, his stepfather adopted him and gave him his name. When Vann joined the Army in the spring of 1943, a college counselor predicted he would be the kind of soldier who would “go beyond the call of duty.”

But he was also manipulative, a consummate actor. “I suspect that to survive his childhood, John would have had to act,” Sheehan said. “I don’t see how anyone could survive that kind of childhood without pretending.”

Unbridled Sexual Appetite

Confident to the point of arrogance, John Paul Vann had an unbridled sexual appetite that led to the charge of statutory rape that would keep him from attaining the general’s status he coveted so dearly, Sheehan writes. The incident occurred in 1959, and when Vann heard the Army had records of the charge, he tried to steal the file. When called to take polygraph tests on the matter, Vann took pills to control his blood pressure, and his responses, and was cleared of the charges. But the questions alone were enough to block Vann’s promotion to general, and Vann was too ambitious to remain in the service without attaining the highest rank. He was a bitter soldier when he left the Army in 1963. But by 1965, he was back in Vietnam, this time as a civilian adviser.

Vann had a multitude of Asian girlfriends and at least two longterm Vietnamese mistresses, one of whom bore him a child. He had five children by his wife, Mary Jane, and though they were divorced at the time he was killed in a helicopter accident in Vietnam, at the funeral she placed a rose on the coffin and told the man inside she loved him.

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As the senior adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry division in the Mekong Delta in 1962, the first year American correspondents began to descend on Vietnam, Vann was the de facto contact for U.S. journalists who arrived to cover the war.

“Vann saw that the war was being lost,” Sheehan writes. “The ambassador and the commanding general in South Vietnam were telling the Kennedy Administration that everything was going well and that the war was being won.”

Vann believed then and continued to believe that the war could be won if fought with “sound tactics and strategy,” Sheehan recalls. But when his negative reports to his superiors aroused displeasure, Vann “leaked his meticulously documented assessments to the (American journalists) in the country.”

Vann, Sheehan relates in his book, “offered an alliance” to the press, “and we entered it eagerly.” Other American advisers and Vietnamese on the Saigon side conveyed valuable information to the American reporters, but Vann, Sheehan said, gave the journalists “an expertise we lacked, a certitude that brought a qualitative change in what we wrote. He enabled us to attack the official optimism with gradual but steadily increasing detail and thoroughness. He transformed us into a band of reporters propounding the John Vann view of the war.”

Layers of Illusion

Which was, as Vann said to an Army historian shortly before he resigned in 1963, the notion that the Americans were helping the South Vietnamese to win the war was “one of the bright shining lies.”

The title of the book “was meant to reflect all the ironies and illusions about the war,” a conflict Sheehan called “layer upon layer of illusion.”

But the title also reflects the feelings Sheehan came to have for Vann as well. “There was a duality in the man, a duality of personal compulsions and deceits that would not bear light,” he writes, “and a professional honesty that was rigorous and incorruptible.”

Sheehan graduated from Harvard in 1958 and began his career as an Army newsman in Korea and Japan. His stories appeared in a publication called The Bayonet; Sheehan covered the U.S. 7th Infantry Division. As soon as he left the service in 1962, he went full time with UPI. He worked for a time in Tokyo, then was sent to Vietnam.

Born in Holyoke, Mass., in 1936, Sheehan grew up in an era when Americans believed in their soldiers and their wars. When he first went to Vietnam, he remembered over dinner, “my head was filled with the shibboleths of the Cold War.” His generation “grew up questioning nothing,” Sheehan said. “We really thought that if we didn’t stop them in Vietnam, we would lose Japan.”

Slowly, “my perspective about Vietnam changed.” Sheehan, struggled as he watched “this country that I had grown to love, I saw this country being torn to pieces by the United States armed forces.”

Made Himself an Outsider

By 1967, back in the United States as the Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, Sheehan was declaring his transformation from hawk to dove in an article in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine.

By that time, too, John Paul Vann was back in Vietnam, heading a civilian pacification program. The war was accelerating and Vann could not stand to be away from it. He wielded the power of a general, but would never hold the rank.

“He had decided that he could never again depend on any bureaucracy for his rise as he had depended on the Army,” Sheehan writes. “He had made himself an outsider by leaving the Army. His climb would therefore have to be a singular one. He would have to take risks that other men were unwilling to take, because he would have to defeat the system in order to scale it.”

The ambiguities of Vann’s character often perplexed Sheehan as he was chiseling away at the complex individual who was the center of his book. Yet, Sheehan added, Vann “fascinated me because of who he was, but also because it made him an even better metaphor for the war.”

Sheehan’s book weighs heavily toward the early years of the war, with only about 50 pages devoted to the period after the Tet offensive in 1968 until 1972, the year Vann was killed. “From Tet forward it was an anticlimax,” maintained Sheehan, who left Vietnam in 1966. “Although an enormous number of people were killed, the die was cast.”

It is probably no coincidence that Sheehan all but dismisses Vann’s views in the post-Tet period as those of an angry fanatic who “could not accept the death of the war. He could not admit that Tet had written a finis to it.”

From 1968 on, Sheehan said, “Vann began to rationalize things. It was also part of his character that he could not accept defeat.” There again, Sheehan concludes, Vann was “to some extent a mirror of the American culture. A lot of people could not accept defeat.”

But Sheehan has anger of his own about what happened in Vietnam.

“Neil has a certain anger about certain things, as everyone would,” his editor, Robert Loomis, said. “I think the book is not propagandistic, although it is very outspoken.”

Sheehan believes that “if you see anger in the book it is probably over the war.” But “it is not an anti-war anger,” he insisted. “It is over the waste. There was so much wasted gallantry in the war, so much needless pain inflicted on people.”

Asked about the Saigon side of the war, Sheehan, adamant that his book is meant as a “witness” to the war, not as a reporter’s memoir, contends that the South Vietnamese government was “an extremely egocentric, corrupt group of people,” and “the society as a whole there was moribund and parasitic.”

An Undeserved Tragedy

Still, he said in a telephone call he made after he had thought still more about this question, “nobody deserves the tragedy that befell the Vietnamese.”

For Sheehan, the book served as a personal odyssey “in that I learned a great deal about the war I didn’t understand before.” Now, he said, “I think I understand the Vietnamese in a way I didn’t before.” Writing the book “was sort of like the war,” said Sheehan, “only I didn’t get destroyed.”

The 16 years it took him to produce “A Bright Shining Lie” may have served to his benefit in America’s willingness to accept the book, Sheehan said.

“Maybe the war has been over long enough for us to begin to emotionally come to grips with it. I detect, maybe I am wrong, a receptivity to looking at the war with a new perspective.”

Recently, for example, Sheehan said a Navy pilot approached him and told him, “I always thought we could win if we just got one more bridge. Now I realize we were wasting our time.”

Such turnabouts in opinion make Sheehan all the more convinced that Vann was “lucky” to die when he did. “He would have been very unhappy with the outcome. He would have been very unhappy with the Paris peace accords.” Vann, the hero, the hell-raiser, the knave and the performer, Sheehan said, “didn’t miss his exit.”


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