Letter From April 2007 Vietnam Magazine

2/21/2007 • VIET Issues

Vietnam’s Voices in the Wilderness

In this issue, we examine two Americans who are counted among the greatest experts on Vietnam and the war. Ironically, at the times of their deaths both were lone voices in the wilderness. John Paul Vann, the legendary adviser who died in a helicopter crash in 1972, is the subject of a feature article. A new book about historian and journalist Bernard Fall, who was killed with a U.S. Marine patrol in 1967, is the subject of this issue’s lead book review.

Their lives before Vietnam, although very different, bore some surprising similarities. Both had had direct personal experience with unconventional warfare — Fall as a guerrilla fighter with the French Resistance in World War II, Vann as a Ranger company commander in Korea. Both were outspoken critics of American policy in Vietnam, not out of any political or ideological beliefs but rather from direct observation of what was and was not working on the ground. Both had the moral courage to speak truth to power — uncomfortable truths that were unwelcome to the policy brokers of the early and middle 1960s. Both had a passion for personal observation combined with hard-nosed analysis and dispassionate, icy logic. Both were adept at statistical analysis, which they repeatedly used in order to back up their arguments.

An entire generation of reporters who covered the war — those who actually went out and sought the truth — came to trust and admire both Fall and Vann. David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan in particular grew to revere Fall as a teacher and a mentor, and to respect Vann for his moral courage and dedication to the truth, no matter how inconvenient or ugly. At the time of his death, Fall was almost completely shunned by the American policy establishment, while the U.S. military almost universally respected him as the West’s greatest expert on the Vietnamese and their way of conducting warfare.

Vann, on the other hand, had run afoul of the military’s can-do mindset during his first tour in Vietnam as an adviser, and retired in frustration as a lieutenant colonel in 1963. He returned to Vietnam two years later, slipping in through the back door as an official of the U.S. Agency for International Development. By the time of his death seven years later, Vann had become the first civilian ever to command U.S. troops in combat.

There were differences between the two men, of course. In more than 15 years of studying Southeast Asia, Fall’s point of view remained fairly consistent. By contrast, Vann’s 10 years in Vietnam changed him greatly. Whereas he was once an advocate of the precise use of measured force in unconventional warfare, he ended up as one of the war’s greatest exponents of massed firepower.

Fall and Vann met at least once in Vietnam, during Fall’s fifth fact-gathering trip in 1965 when Vann was a civilian adviser in the Mekong Delta. Both men already knew each other by their well-established reputations at that point.

They spent two days together, driving all over the northern delta, alone in an open jeep. Between them they had a .45-caliber pistol, a .30-caliber carbine and six hand grenades. That was one more thing they had in common: a lethal addiction to the thrill of combat. In the end, that addiction cost both their lives.