The Hayfoot and I went yesterday to Arlington National Cemetery. While she was taking in an event at Arlington House I ventured out to find the headstone of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam has been on my reading list for some time. I have always put it off, probably because it logs in at nearly 900 pages and with everything else going on in life it seems like a large time investment. I began thinking about Vann again when reading David Hackworth’s About Face. Vann also plays a big role in the Lynn Novick/Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam War, which is how I really go to thinking about him again. I have spent a chunk of this three-day weekend reading old newspaper articles about Vann, and watching interviews with Neil Sheehan about the lieutenant colonel’s life and times. When I decided to visit Arlington while here in DC for the weekend, I knew I had to track John Paul Vann.
Vann arrived in Vietnam in 1962 and retired from the Army in summer 1963. He had done his twenty years but the real reason he retired was for having the temerity of explaining to his bosses why the war, still in its earliest stages, was not going well. Like moth to a flame he returned to Vietnam in 1965, working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. By 1971 he was with the State Department, having taken the job as director of the Second Regional Assistance Group in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. It was a big position: Vann was the civilian equivalent of a major general. He died in a helicopter crash in Kontum in 9 June 1972. Journalist Neil Sheehan attended Vann’s funeral at the Fort Myer Army Chapel on 16 June, and later remembered the event as like “a strange class reunion.” General William Westmoreland, in June 1972 in his last week’s as Army Chief of Staff before his retirement, was a pallbearer. So was William Colby was another. In attendance were Senator Edward Kennedy; Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 had given Sheehan what we now call the Pentagon Papers; columnist Joseph Alsop; Defense Secretary Melvin Laird; Secretary of State William P. Rogers; and General Edward Lansdale among others. They say one judges a man by the company he keeps and this is a disparate lot to say the least.
It was interesting to see Vann’s headstone in juxtaposition to the markers around it. Vann was in the Army during the Second World War, though he did not see combat. He was part of the corps on Army officers who served in WW2 and Korea and brought their institutional memory with them to Vietnam in the war’s earliest stages. There were strengths and drawback to that, though Vann seemed to have better knowledge and awareness of the facts on the ground than others, especially those in Saigon not in the field. Vann believed until the end that the war was winnable. How much of that was wishful thinking due to all he had sacrificed is something I do not know. John Paul Vann is one of the most fascinating Americans from that challenging era in our history.
(bottom image:USOM/Office of Rural Affairs, Saigon. Photograph VA041055, Ogden Williams Collection, The Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University, via Wikimedia Commons)