Discovery and rediscovery make this detailed look at Vietnam rich reading

August 09, 1992|By Marc Leepson

AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER: HANOI AND SAIGON.

Neil Sheehan.

Random House.

131 pages. $17.

Neil Sheehan spent 16 years researching and writing "A Bright Shining Lie," his brilliant 1988 book about legendary U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Paul Vann and the American experience in Vietnam. That powerfully and stylishly written book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for nonfiction, and is regarded as an unparalleled examination of the American experience in Vietnam.

A few months after "A Bright Shining Lie" came out, Mr. Sheehan was asked about his plans for the immediate future. "I won't write another book like this; there's [only] one book like this in your life," he said. "One specific thing I want to do: I'd like to go back to Vietnam to see what's happened -- not to write another book, but to write a long magazine piece or a series of newspaper articles."

Mr. Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter to whom the Pentagon Papers were leaked, was only partly prophetic. He and his wife, writer Susan Sheehan, did make a trip to Vietnam in the late summer of 1989. And the Sheehans wrote about what they saw in a long, evocative article that appeared in the New Yorker last November. But despite his earlier protestation, Mr. Sheehan, in fact, did rework and expand the article into a book.

The book in question, "After the War Was Over," is an acutely observed account of the Sheehans' trip back, and also contains some sharp observations about Vietnam's past. As he did in "A Bright Shining Lie," Mr. Sheehan in his new book shows off an experienced reporter's eye for the telling detail, as well as an accomplished historical researcher's sense of the past's impact on the present. He is equally as informative interpreting the words and symbols he spied atop an obelisk at a cemetery in a village near Haiphong in northern Vietnam as he is explaining the present-day impact of 2,000 years of Chinese-Vietnamese antagonism.

Mr. Sheehan begins with the story of his experiences in Hanoi and northern Vietnam, but saves the bulk of this short book for reflections on more familiar ground -- Saigon and the South. The trip to Hanoi was the first time that he had visited northern Vietnam, and his depiction of Hanoi and the North is a primarily dispassionate account of the pitiful conditions most Northerners live under today. Mr. Sheehan shines particularly painful light on Vietnam's shamefully underequipped hospitals.

In the section covering his travels in southern Vietnam, the writing turns more personal and more emotional. As Mr. Sheehan gracefully puts it: "My journey to the North had been a voyage of discovery; almost everything I had encountered there had been new. In the South, I was beginning another journey, a voyage of rediscovery through the kaleidoscope of the past and the emotions it aroused. As was to be the case wherever I went through a changed but familiar land, something inevitably called the past to mind."

Mr. Sheehan replays his personal involvement in Vietnam -- "the war from which I could never get away," as he puts it. It began 30 years ago when Mr. Sheehan, after putting in three years in the peacetime U.S. Army, arrived in Saigon as a 25-year-old rookie United Press International foreign correspondent.

He returned to the heated-up war zone three years later, this time for the Times. Mr. Sheehan fully supported the U.S. war effort when he arrived in Vietnam. But he slowly became disillusioned after coming under the spell of John Paul Vann, whom Mr. Sheehan accurately labels the American "Lawrence of Arabia" of the Vietnam War.

But that's another story, one that Mr. Sheehan tells beautifully in the 800-page "A Bright Shining Lie." "After the War Was Over" is a worthwhile coda to that masterpiece, and the new book stands alongside William Broyles' thoughtful "Brothers in Arms" (1986) and Frederick Downs' clear-eyed and moving "No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends" (1991) as the best by far of the growing number of "going back" books written by Vietnam veterans and former war correspondents.

Mr. Leepson is the book editor for the Veteran magazine. He served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1967-'68.

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