The Summer of Topics I Have Previously Avoided continues.
Neil Sheehan's epic A Bright Shining Lie is a well-known book, so no one needs me to do a recap, and really, no one needs me to do a review of the war in Vietnam. So here are just a few brief thoughts (I know, you'll believe it when you see it).
Sheehan was part of the first wave of young reporters sent to Vietnam in the early 1960s when few knew or cared what was going on in Vietnam, so it should be no surprise that these reporters are amongst the heroes in this book. That's all right with me, though, because I guess I am one of a seemingly diminishing group who can be persuaded that journalists are heroes. Someone has to ask the questions that no one has thought to ask or wants to ask and someone has to do the unwelcome work of finding the answers that don't always want to be found. And that is the job of the reporter and it's an important one. No one else is going to do it, especially in difficult times such as war times. Not the military, which is usually mostly concerned with maintaining status quo and protecting its image and fighting the internecine battles that go on between the different branches of the services. Not the politicians who are most interested in getting re-elected and keeping or increasing whatever power or prestige they're clinging to. Not the public, this nation of commenters that we have become, who find it easy to criticize but don't want to be the ones who actually do something or find something. That is why journalists are still important--an unfashionable statement, I know--because they must be the curious and the persistent and at best, their efforts can lead to truths that need to be uncovered, whether we like them or not.
Writers create heroes. Sheehan's book is Vietnam via the biography of John Paul Vann, an Army lieutenant colonel stationed in Vietnam who was much admired by the reporters for his willingness to speak the unpleasant truth that was painfully obvious to anyone who was there, but was being purposely glossed over by those who didn't want to see what was happening. Vann's doubly impressed the reporters because he seemingly was speaking out at the risk of his own career. In researching Vann's life, though, Sheehan discovered that Vann had a shady past that was going to prevent his rising further in the military. Essentially, he didn't have a career to lose. Does that make Vann's early outspokenness and the information he gave any less important? No, I don't think so. But it makes it different.
In the end, this book is about the mistakes of the war, and amongst those mistakes are three truisms that I suppose can be applied to any of our military misadventures. First, that what worked in one place will not necessarily worked in another. Trouble often comes because, as they say, generals tend to fight the previous war over again in the current war. But each war is depressingly different and must discover its own way. Another mistake is to not bother to find out about the other people involved, both friends and enemies. Not understanding the history and culture of another place can make your enemies stronger and persuade your friends to join them. Finally, there is the problem when leaders decide to see what they want to see and what they think they should be seeing, not what is actually happening. It's a terrible feeling to admit making a mistake, but it's far worse to ignore it and let it grow bigger. As the astronauts say, "don't let a problem become a disaster."
(Indeed, I am a 21st century Clausewitz, armed with a library card.)
My father is seventy-three, and happy to have seen many interesting things in his life. So whenever I want to put something into perspective, I ask him what he remembers about a time, a place, a person. He was drafted twice, once in 1956, and called back again in 1960. He just missed Korea, just missed Vietnam. I asked him what he was thinking about all this going on in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He just rolled his eyes and said, "I was thinking, 'What are we doing there?" And I guess that sums things up as much as anything else.
Recent events have left me severely disheartened.