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Classic book review: A Bright Shining Lie

The lies one man told himself about the Vietnam War.

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on Nov. 9, 1988.] All history books, no matter how they are written, are political books, and A Bright Shining Lie, from its title on, is very much a political book.

The mere facts of the Vietnam war can be structured in a book to prove nearly anything. The numbers, the places, the names, the weapons, the battles, and the men have been rearranged in probably a hundred different historical treatments. The bookshelf of the war contains versions shaded from the staunchest anticommunist domino theorist to the yippiest peacenik, albeit the ardor for either extreme is failing as the years go on.

The more important considerations, those about the wars within the human heart, remain. Sheehan has his friend John Paul Vann's heart to examine, and the parallels he draws between Vann's emotions and the nation - the pride, egotism, hatred, shame, and moral confusion - will probably last long after the details have any meaning at all.

Vann was an Army colonel who early on in the war recognized the fundamental error being made by the top command. Sheehan was a reporter for the New York Times who arrived with the first wave of journalists in the early '60s and saw the American involvement in Southeast Asia as a defensible incursion by the US into the affairs of another state.

Vann spoke as few officers then did; he was frank and pointed, showing the fallacy of the hamfisted tactics the upper command had planned. As the war went on, Vann got into trouble with his superiors; Sheehan got into trouble with his at the Times. A bond was formed.

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