Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie helps demonstrate the madness of U.S. foreign policy and war towards Vietnam through the experiences of John Paul Vann and figures in the U.S. military and political leadership. The title of the book helps describe parts of the U.S. strategy in Vietnam, and as Sheehan explains, also applies to aspects of Vann’s personal life and behavior towards women.
Sheehan makes clear some of the madness of the Vietnam War in how the U.S. continuously supported a corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese government and military and underestimated the strength and popularity of the Vietnamese Communist insurgency in the South Vietnamese countryside. The book also does well in documenting the unwillingness to try other strategies throughout the course of the Vietnam War by some U.S. political and military leaders and how former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara eventually made changes to his viewpoints and strategies to the war in the late 1960s.
The book is full of other interesting insights about the war such as the U.S. arming South Vietnamese military personnel with U.S. made weapons and how the Viet Cong would eventually steal some of these weapons and use them against the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces during some of the earlier stages of the conflict. The author also provides an excellent biography of Vann’s upbringing and overview of his family’s history immigrating to the U.S. and achieving some wealth in Norfolk, Virginia as the city rose to prominence for its naval bases towards the end of World War I. Yet Sheehan also documents Vann’s poor upbringing and the neglect and rejection he suffered during his childhood.
In an article about Sheehan from the January 16, 2018 edition of The New York Times, politician and anti-Vietnam War activist, John Kerry, is mentioned as telling an audience at a speaking engagement that he never understood the full extent of anger against the war in Vietnam until he read A Bright Shining Lie. Sheehan’s book lives up to this praise and the Pulitzer Prize he received for writing this book. A Bright Shining Lie is recommended reading for those wanting a better understanding of the Vietnam War.