Neil Sheehan Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Remembering the Vietnam War; Conversation with Neil Sheehan, 11/14/88 by Harry Kreisler

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Lessons of the War

We talked about the education of John Paul Vann, of Neil Sheehan, of some of the characters in your book. What education of the American people would you like to see emerge from the reading of this book?

Well, I was willing to spend those years at it because I thought that I could write a book that would tell what really happened in Vietnam, and why it happened. I felt that, because of my own past, and because of this man and where he led me, I would be able to get at the truth. And I also wanted to catch the whole of the war. I thought you could only understand this if you understood the details, and so I wanted to take the reader from the battles in the rice paddies and rain forests up to the White House, and up to the Politburo in Hanoi, just catch the whole thing. What I hope people will draw out of it is, first of all, an understanding of what happened in Vietnam, because we've had a whole lot of excuses -- "the media did us in," "the protesters did us in," "Lyndon Johnson chickened out in 1968," "if only we'd bombed harder." None of those explanations stand up to historic examination.

So I hope that, first of all, it will help us to face up to the truth of what happened there, that's the first thing I would want. And then we would, I hope, begin to draw some lessons from it, because Vietnam will have been a war in vain only if we fail to draw wisdom from it. If we draw wisdom from it, then perhaps we can redeem the lives of some of those men who are remembered on the wall, and we can redeem, to some extent, the destruction inflicted on the nations of Indochina.

What are some of those lessons?

There are a whole lot of them. First of all, that your leadership can be deluded, that your presidents and your generals can really not know what they're doing. Americans never believed that before. War, particularly in the American experience, was always a good experience. You went off to war, it was a morally unifying thing. You came home, you had done your duty, you'd defended your country, and your leaders knew what they were doing. That's one thing.

The second thing was that you can fight a wrong war, in the wrong place for the wrong reasons -- another thing I don't think we understood. Also, the nature of war itself, how cruel war can be, the cost of it to yourself, and the cost of it to other people. Americans, particularly after World War II, tended to romanticize war because in World War II our cause was the cause of humanity, and our soldiers brought home glory and victory, and thank God that they did. But it led us to romanticize it to some extent. And I hope we'll draw a lot of these things out of it.

Is it your sense that our foreign policy elite has learned some of this, even before your book emerged on the scene? Can we understand the reluctance of the military to get involved in places around the world as partly due to that?

Some of it has sunk in, yes. Some of it sunk in by the sheer force of what happened because, of course, Vietnam has changed this country utterly. We will never be the same again, that is, within the foreseeable future, because of Vietnam. First of all, the president is limited now. No president can commit the American armed forces with the freedom Johnson and Kennedy could because the credibility of the president to do that has been damaged, it's been changed. He's not the ultimate wisdom anymore. Secondly, I think the military leadership has a sense of its limitations. Excuse me: some of them have a sense of the limits of military force, that force is not always a solution to a foreign policy problem. And when you see the papers of the military leaders of the 1960s, they're always telling the president, "Force is a solution, send the army, send the marines, send the air force, that'll solve your problem." Now you've got military leaders saying, "Look before you intervene." Some of it has sunk in. I don't think it's fully sunk in yet.

The other issue is that we no longer have the resources that we had to waste in Vietnam. I was struck by your passages describing how American culture intruded on the Vietnamese in the massive way in which we intervened there, not just in a military sense, but culturally, with the big bases we built, the destruction of native culture. But now we don't really have the resources that we used to and that may be more important in all this.

Who knows, it could be. This is still a powerful country but it would be much more painful now to spend the resources like that because first of all we fought a succession of wars and that has damaged our economy -- Vietnam did damage our economy seriously. There's a sense now of economic limitation. As you say, there are not the resources. We have now run up a huge debt over rebuilding, or trying to rebuild, our military establishment, and I don't know if we've gotten ourselves a better one or not.

One of the important themes in this book, and now in our foreign policy, is the role of the press. The press in Vietnam was the messenger of the bad news, and some factions in the public debates on these issues want to blame the press. What has the press learned from all this and what is its proper role now in the making of U.S. foreign policy?

We'll have to see whether this sticks or not, but by the 1970s editors had become more skeptical than they had previously been because of Vietnam and the events that followed it, like Watergate. And one would hope that the press, as a whole, would retain that sense of skepticism. I don't think the press, the news media, of this country will ever journey far from the conventional view because, despite all this business you hear about the media, the news media in this country are very conventional in their outlook. They don't stray very far from the mainstream, and I don't think we will. But I would hope that some of the skepticism would be retained, that they still ask the questions, still look. Because we do have a responsibility to tell the truth, to find out the truth and to give an account of it. I don't think that would have happened prior to Vietnam, without Vietnam, because Vietnam made people conscious of that.

I'm curious as to your sense of how our culture up to this point has dealt with the Vietnam experience. I have in mind movies that we see increasingly now on Vietnam. Obviously, this was a concern in a lot of the pop music. What are your thoughts on that catharsis that we are attempting to go through?

I think it's good that we're going through it. It's going to be a slow process, this coming to grips with Vietnam. Those things you mentioned -- you hear it occasionally in rock music; the generation that went to Vietnam listened to rock. Billy Joel had a very authentic song about Vietnam; I remember one of my daughters playing it for me years ago. And that, I think, is to the good because it's a way of coming to grips. Now some of its been more excuses, like Rambo. It's escapism. But some of it is a genuine attempt to come to grips. You will also have the escapism, I think. That's inevitable because there will be a lot of people who will never want to face Vietnam.

Do you think we will ever be able to look at this war from the consciousness of the Vietnamese people themselves?

I think that's probably asking too much of us as a people. Because first of all, we didn't understand the Vietnamese when we went there. We didn't understand the Vietnamese whom we were allegedly helping, we didn't understand the Vietnamese we were fighting. And I think the experience has been so painful and so traumatic for Americans that it is asking too much of a nation to see it from the opponent's point of view. You've got to remember that one of the reasons that Americans are angry at the Vietnamese who remain is because they beat us. That's something that rankles. A writer named William Broyles, who was a Marine lieutenant, went back to Vietnam in 1985 and wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly in which he said that he went back to Vietnam and he toured the country, he went down to a place where he had led a Marine platoon. He talked to the local Vietcong, and one of these former guerrillas was drawing sketches in the sand of how they had attacked this Marine unit that Broyles had led and Broyles wrote, "I would rather have his memories than mine." And I can understand that because it was so painful to go to war and to come back and to be rejected. These men were wrongfully rejected, the veterans. The fighting man should never have been blamed for Vietnam. But also it was a war which was a terribly unhappy experience and I think it's asking too much to ask people to really see it from the other fellow's point of view.

One final question. What are your feelings after completing a project like this that took sixteen years of your life?

Well, if people read it, if it helps us to come to grips with the war, then the sixteen years will have been worth it. At least I'm at peace with myself. I have done my best to write a book about what really happened there and why it happened and it's done, it's published. I won't write another book on Vietnam. I might write a magazine article on it.

Do you want to go there?

I'd like to go back and see what's happened to the country and write a magazine piece about it. But I do not want to write another book about Vietnam because this was a book through which I thought I could make a contribution, through which I thought I could help my own country. And again, I want to be careful. I don't want to sound like I'm boasting. But I felt that this was an American saga, this was more than a story of John Vann in Vietnam and of the war in Vietnam, more than a biography and a history. It was also the story of a man, and of his youth, of his early years that led him to this war that he was destined to fight and that would destroy him. And it was the story of a country whose historical path also led it into this tragedy that it was to inflict on itself and on the peoples of Indochina. And I felt that if I could tell that story, I'd have made a contribution. And I've done my best to tell it, so I'm at peace with myself.

Mr. Sheehan, thank you very much for writing this book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. And thank you very much for spending this time with us to help us understand your intellectual odyssey in writing it. I'd like to say that it may be a literary equivalent of the Vietnam Monument in Washington.

Thank you very much.

And thank you for joining us for this "Conversation on International Affairs."

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