Neil Sheehan Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Tell us a little about your own educational process after leaving Vietnam as a war correspondent. What was it about this man's life that led you to unravel all of these complexities, not only the complexities of his life, but also the complexities of U.S. foreign policy?
By the time I went to his funeral, I had been involved with Vietnam for ten years. I wanted to write. I wanted to leave behind something that would be more than another magazine article or another newspaper story. I had first thought of writing a "reporter's memoir" and I was very dissatisfied with that idea because I think reporters are useful for what they witness and what they report. And then I realized, standing in that chapel and later on when I thought about it, that this man had, over the years, befriended, or he had argued with, or he had somehow made contact with almost all the major figures of that war. And he had intersected with all the issues of the war. I mentioned Ed Lansdale, the famous CIA agent who put Ngo Dinh Diem in power in 1954, he was at that funeral. I met him at the steps. And so I thought that if I wrote a book about John, I could tell the story of the war. Now when I got into the thing, I began to discover that he had crossed with even more than I had ever imagined. I ran into figures involved with him who had, for example, been in Haiphong with him in 1945, when we had backed the French attempt to re-conquer Indochina. And I followed it all the way up through -- always one found a thread to Vann. And therefore I had to explain the policy issues as well. I wanted, of course, to weave the history together with the biography of the man, and in order to do that -- and I discovered he had reached out much more than I had ever imagined even when I started -- I had to explain these policies. Why had we gone to Vietnam in the first place? What kind of people were the Vietnamese? -- because we didn't understand them. Why had we done what we'd done? -- because it wasn't a question of generals like Westmoreland or Maxwell Taylor or presidents like Kennedy or Johnson being stupid; obviously they weren't stupid. It was a question of explaining how intelligent men had behaved stupidly, and had brought upon this country, and upon the people of Indochina, this enormous tragedy.
As I read different parts of the book, I was struck not only by the new vistas about the war opening up but with your skills in laboring. Sometimes you were a historian -- there's a whole chapter on the history of the Vietnam War. You were the muck-raking foreign correspondent journalist, and also you were the courthouse reporter, digging up Vann's life. Finally, I was struck by your skills -- your potential as a novelist and the way you would portray landscapes and so on. At any point did you think about moving to a different form, writing a novel for example, or were you too much of a reporter to do that?
Oh, I was much too much a reporter to do that, and I felt that a novel wouldn't have validity because it wouldn't be real. This man's life was to me more interesting. I have never written fiction, so I am not denigrating fiction; that's another discipline. Journalism has always been, for me, more interesting than fiction and to me, this man's life was more interesting than fiction because it was real, it had happened. And the story of what we had done in Vietnam was more interesting than fiction because it had happened. But I wanted to write it with a narrative that would carry the reader along. That's another reason it took me so many years. I mean, I was as arrogant as Robert McNamara: I thought it would take me three or four years to write this book. But I had the very complicated man, this history of a very complicated war going on for thirty years, from 1945 on, and I was trying to explain it. And then also I wanted to write it in a form that would have a simple, driving narrative.
When I had written an earlier book, I had had trouble with the manuscript. It was a small book on a naval affair, it was a sort of Caine Mutiny come alive. It's a book called The Arnheiter Affair. And at first I'd written it in journalist form and the editor I had then had said to me, "This is terrible, it's boring. You've taken an interesting event and you've made it terribly dull." And I then read Truman Capote's book, In Cold Blood, and it convinced me you could write about real events with the same narrative drive we'd associated with fiction, but it was, of course, much harder to do. And I reworked that first book using that form. So I was determined to write this book in this same way, but I didn't realize that I would be writing about a complicated series of events, a complicated biography of a man, and a history of a nation. The history of a man, the history of a nation; but I was determined to do it that way, and it took a lot longer because you have to retain the truth. You have to retain complexity, you have to retain subtlety, and at the same time, you've got to keep that narrative simple and yet, you can't let it be distorted. So it was very difficult to do.
I was struck, in reading the book, by the great works that it called to mind. The similarity of the structure to Heart of Darkness, with you as the narrator and John Paul Vann as Kurtz -- was there any connection? Had you recently read or reread that book, in the course of this odyssey?
It was an odyssey for me. It was an education for myself and it was a journey. But, no I hadn't.
I'd read Heart of Darkness in college, but I had never thought of Vann [as Kurtz]. A lot of people have commented on that since the book's been published, and have seen similarities. I didn't think of it myself. I simply followed the information and I let the story take me where it led. And it led, obviously, in a direction that some people have compared with Heart of Darkness, in the sense that a man who gives the best of himself to something and is finally destroyed by it, because that's what happened to John Vann. He was like a Greek hero in the sense that he had great virtues and great flaws, and the flaws finally did him in. He was destroyed by this war in the end. He was devoured by it. By the end, it's destroyed him; he's not the same man I had known earlier. I had thought I would be able to bring to the book insights that somebody else wouldn't, because I had been a witness to these events, and the figure that I thought of [as myself] was Thucydides because he had been an officer in the Athenian forces, and he had, I felt, been able to write about that war, his war, because he had been there.
One of the things that I felt I could bring to it as a journalist who'd been there was that I would be able to see things that others wouldn't see. And I felt that other participants would share things with me because I'd shared the experience with them. And that turned out to be true. People talked to me in a way I think they would not have talked to somebody who hadn't shared the experience; they gave me their papers, they gave me their diaries. I found people constantly opening up to me. And I think they did because I had shared that experience with them.
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