A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam By Neil Sheehan (Random House, 861 pp., $24.95) In Neil Sheehan's apt and accurate phrase, John Paul Vann was "the soldier of the war in Vietnam." He began his extraordinary career there as a military adviser to a South Vietnamese division, and he went on to become the single greatest influence on the young American journalists in Vietnam who were to come into such fierce conflict with their government. Then, in 1963, Vann suddenly quit the Army, in what appeared to be an act of conscience.
A Death in November By Ellen J. Hammer (E.P. Dutton, 373 pp., $22.50) As films, books, and television series on Vietnam proliferate, the focus is almost always, of course, on us: on how young Americans lived and died when thrust into a world for which they were unprepared, how our decision-makers calculated, or miscalculated, as they confronted the bewildering Indochinese quagmire. This is natural enough.
The Palace File by Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter (Harper & Row, 542 pp., $22.95) The literature on Vietnam, so scant in the 1960s, when it was most needed, is now swelling toward flood tide. Much of what is being produced is either redundant or merely memoiristic; but one can now add The Palace File to the relatively short list of important books on this grim and complicated subject.
The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience by William Shawcross (Simon and Schuster, 464 pp, $19.95) Great human disasters, natural or manmade, put bureaucrats to a test not only as public officials but as human beings. Normally insulated from the consequences of their actions by layers of government, and accustomed to the abstractions of statecraft, they suddenly are forced to deal with a problem in which every action (or inaction) can have an immediate effect on whether people will live or die.
For at least eight years it seemed reasonable to me to assume that sooner or later, no matter what we did in Vietnam, things would end badly for us. This feeling was not based on any desire to see us humiliated, or any feeling that the other side represented the forces of goodness and light; it just seemed that the only way to stave off an eventual Communist victory was with an open-ended, and therefore endless, application of American firepower in support of the South Vietnamese regime. No matter how much force we were willing to use, this would not end the war, only prevent Saigon's defeat.