A BRIGHT SHINING LIE” BY NEIL SHEEHAN – AN HOMERIC TRAGEDY
It’s hardly surprising that this book, written 25 years ago, won the Pulitzer Price and the National Book Award.
If there is ever a story that illustrates the flawed judgment of even the wisest, well-intentioned men and women, this is it.
The Vietnam War is one we never should have entered. It grew from a tragic misunderstanding of the situation in Vietnam, with Ho Chi Minh, a died-in-the-wool nationalist; Vietnam fearing China throughout its history; having already beaten the French. Despite President Eisenhower's clearly seeing the trap of re-imposing colonization, we picked up the war, indeed encouraged the French to continue its war, at an eventual cost of almost 60,000 U.S. servicemen and over 1.5 million Vietnamese.
When Lyndon Johnson succeeded John Kennedy after his assassination in late 1963, there were still only 17,000 U.S. servicemen in Vietnam and less than 120 had been killed. The number of servicemen eventually in Vietnam exceed 500,000. Yet, even in late 1963, it was already an “American” war. We had already committed ourselves to the protection of South Vietnam under a corrupt leader.
There are so many things revealed by this story that find their place in history, not just of nations but of business.
On-the-ground insights from John Vann and other leaders which Generals Harkin, Taylor, Rostow, McNamara and others in command refused to hear.
A delusional view of anecdotal victories became a template to believe in our overall ability to win.
A refusal to measure what the long-term cost of victory would be in light of the commitment of the adversary and the resources that it had and the numbers of people at its command.
The history of Vietnam itself, having overcome so many invasions, mainly from China, on the path to achieve its freedom.
There is also the heroism and the horror. The heroism of Marines not leaving the battlefield until the last of their dead and wounded were retrieved, even at the cost of their own lives. The horror as, in the name of war, we destroyed hamlets, killed innocent victims and sometimes said, as General Westmoreland did, that this was not a bad thing because we were at least destroying the population of our enemy.
There was also the reality that the Vietnamese peasants were looked at by their own generals as not worthy of life, as being expendable.
The history is yet another illustration of believing that a “new battle” could be won in the same way that led to success in the “last battle.” Generals Harkin and Westmoreland and others felt that the sheer force of bombing and tanks and infantry would wear down the enemy, as was the case, at great cost, in World War II, in fighting the Japanese and the Germans. Yet, this was a different war, in a different geographic environment, against a different enemy. No one thought deeply enough about that. Oh, there were some but they weren’t listened to.
And there was the tragedy of Secretary of Defense McNamara. No one smarter; no one more persuasive, carrying the cause to extend the war, only to be one of the first top leaders to recognize that it was a dead end. And recognizing this, telling President Johnson that this was the reality. Johnson, still not willing to accept it, found a way to have Mr. McNamara appointed to the World Bank getting him out of the way and, at least as I read it, McNamara accepted, knowing there was nothing more that he could do. It wasn’t until years later that he acknowledged the deep pain, of knowing that he was wrong.
Vietnam was also a classic case of “doubling down on failure.” With the unexpected but devastating Tet offensive in January 1968, which saw uprisings by the guerilla Viet Cong forces in all the major South Vietnam cities, it became clear, if not to all to most, that the war was unwinnable. McNamara declared as much to Johnson. A couple of months later, Johnson announced that he would stop the bombing of North Vietnam and not run for the Presidency in 1968.
From that point, when the war clearly was unwinnable until five years later, when the treaty was signed—a treaty basically ceding all of Vietnam to the north—another 20,000 American soldiers were killed and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians died. We just couldn’t pull away.
When Nixon came in in 1968, he started what was called “Vietnamization,” a euphemism for the hopeless task of turning the war over to the Vietnamese. It never had a chance.
Then, in a desperate effort to succeed, we encouraged the regime that had overthrown Sihanouk, the hereditary ruler of Cambodia, to attack Vietnam. From this grew the Communist Pol Pot. Hundreds of thousands more people were to die.
As Sheehan writes, “Cambodia was to suffer the cruelest consequences of the American war in Indochina.”
Just as the case with the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, there lies in this story many lessons, including that one can never ever give up on advancing a position they believe is of critical importance to the future, even knowing that one may not succeed.
I’ve seen this lesson borne out in business, and elsewhere, personally again and again.