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A Bright Shining Lie

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Language  English
Author  Neil Sheehan
Genres  History, Non-fiction
4.2/5 Goodreads

Originally published  1988
Subject  Vietnam War
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Adaptations  A Bright Shining Lie (1998)
Awards  Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction
Similar  Neil Sheehan books, Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction winners, Vietnam books

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988) is a book by Neil Sheehan, a former New York Times reporter, about retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann and the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War.


Sheehan was awarded the 1988 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for the book. It was adapted as a film of the same name released by HBO in 1998, starring Bill Paxton and Amy Madigan.


John Paul Vann became an adviser to the Saigon regime in the early 1960s. He was an ardent critic of how the war was fought, both on the part of the Saigon regime, which he viewed as corrupt and incompetent, and, as time went by, increasingly, on the part of the U.S. military. In particular, he was critical of the U.S. military command, especially under William Westmoreland, and their inability to adapt to the fact that they were facing a popular guerrilla movement while backing a corrupt regime. He argued that many of the tactics employed (for example the strategic hamlet relocation) further alienated the population and thus were counterproductive to U.S. objectives. Often he was unable to influence the military command but used the Saigon press corps including Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam and Malcolm Browne to disseminate his views.

The volume begins with a prologue giving an account of Vann's funeral on June 16, 1972, following his death in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. The author, Sheehan, a personal friend, was present. The subsequent account is divided into seven "books" detailing Vann's career in Vietnam and America's involvement in the conflict. Book I tells of Vann's assignment to Vietnam in 1962. Book II "The Antecedents to a Confrontation" tells of the origin of the Vietnam War. Book III gives a detailed account of the shambolic Battle of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963 in which the South Vietnamese army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Viet Cong. Book IV details Vann's criticism of the way the war was being fought, his conflict with the U.S. military command and his transfer back to America. Book V tracks back to give Vann's personal history before his involvement in the war, explaining how his career development path to being a general officer was probably permanently truncated by being accused of statutory rape in a case involving an Army chaplain's daughter. In the final chapters, Books VI and VII give an account of Vann's return to Vietnam in 1965 and his doomed attempt to implement a war-winning formula for the beleaguered U.S. Army and how he eventually compromised with the military system he once criticized. Sheehan describes Vann as having been in charge of more American troops in direct combat than any other civilian (which Vann, now retired from the Army, technically was) in U.S. history. Sheehan describes Vann's death in a helicopter crash in these words: "John Paul Vann did not miss his exit," meaning that if Vann had lived to see the war's eventual conclusion, totally unsatisfactory from the U.S. viewpoint, this would have destroyed him emotionally.

Reception and influence

According to The New York Times Book Review: "If there is one book that captures the Vietnam war in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it. Neil Sheehan orchestrates a great fugue evoking all the elements of the war". The New York Review of Books proclaimed it "An unforgettable narrative, a chronicle grand enough to suit the crash and clangors of whole armies. A Bright Shining Lie is a very great piece of work; its rewards are aesthetic and...almost spiritual".

It received the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights 1989 Book Award given annually to a novelist who "most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy's purposes – his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity."

In September, 1988, Sheehan was interviewed by Brian Lamb about A Bright Shining Lie. The discussion was aired on C-SPAN in five 30-minute segments, and was the basis for the later C-SPAN show Booknotes.


A Bright Shining Lie Wikipedia

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