Sheehan's tragic biography of John Paul Vann is also a sweeping history of America's seduction, entrapment and disillusionment in Vietnam.
The story of Vann's childhood shows how this illegitimate son of an alcoholic prostitute became determined to succeed against all odds. It also showed how the seeds of destruction that ultimately ended his military career and his marriage, were sewn. Readers interested only in Vietnam can skip this part.
As a divisional advisor, Vann observed that the South Vietnamese usually avoided contact and always left the Viet Cong with an escape route. Their deficiencies were graphically displayed at the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963. The Army of the Republic of South Vietnam's (ARVN) defeat and America's whitewash of it established the pattern that was followed throughout our time there. Clearly, we were headed for trouble.
Vann was later forced to leave the Army due to a private vice that would haunt him throughout his life. This section shows how child abuse can affect an individual. If you skipped the part on his early life, go back and read it.
As a military and later civilian advisor through AID, Vann never ceased attempting to sell his plan to power-brokers who could change America's tactics and give us a realistic chance to win. His advice was ignored until it was too late. The reader is left to ponder the question, what if this "voice crying in the wilderness" had been heeded? Where would South Vietnam be today?
John Vann's tragedy is America's tragedy as well. Confronted by a political/military establishment that was convinced of its own invincibility after World Wars I and II, he worked tirelessly to show his leaders we could and would lose if radical changes were not made. His futile efforts at preventing that loss is an indictment of the system that failed to heed the warnings of those on the ground who actually saw what was happening. Every student of the war and every military planner should read this incredibly interesting account because, it could happen again.
Vann was a man who did not need to lie, but did even when he did not need to. I found it very surprising how Vann's mother was just a prostitute. More than that, she was quite abusive to the men in her life. This is not just a footnote. Vann's sex problems were what led to his downfall.
Vann was active in Vietnam while I was there, but at my level, that of a teenager, I had no idea who he was. Vann was quite a soldier in his own right, but I found it less odd than the author that Vann would embellish his war stories. Telling these stories has less to do with making yourself sound great than just telling an entertaining story. Sometimes it is also better to tell a fake story than one that you experienced.
In my opinion, one reason we failed can be seen in the chapter regarding the battle of Ap Bac. Vann is flying overhead and trying to push the South Vietnamese into attacking the VC. They are refusing frontal assaults and casualties, which drives him nuts. Yes, I hated the ARVN too, but who says we had the "right" way to fight that war anyway, considering the casualties?
Vann was a rather manipulative individual--again take a look at his mother. He was certainly brutally honest with some journalists (who in turn got sent out of Vietnam for "negative" reports), but also used them to his own end.
Vann's death was long overdue, based on his taking chances. I was not surprised that his body was looted by the South Vietnamese soldiers. Welcome to my war. The North Vietnamese radio broadcasts not only took credit for downing Vann's helicopter, but condemned his "towering crimes." I only got a group condemnation.
I thought it was great that Sheehan included the problems with who would meet with Nixon after he died. One of Vann's sons wanted to make an anti-war statement, but was very forcefully told not to even think of it. Vann left quite a wake in his life, with many people sorry he ever rocked their boats.