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If you like Neil Sheehan's story, you might also like:
Sam Donaldson,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
David Halberstam,
Nicholas Kristof,
David McCullough,
Colin Powell,
Dan Rather,
Norman Schwarzkopf,
James Stockdale,
Michael Thornton
and Bob Woodward

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Neil Sheehan
 
Neil Sheehan
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Neil Sheehan Interview (page: 8 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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  Neil Sheehan

Are there lessons to be learned for Vietnam in American foreign policy today, for American journalism today?

Neil Sheehan: Sadly, I don't think the American nation has absorbed the experience of Vietnam. They haven't processed it. They haven't come to grips with it. If they had, we wouldn't have gone into Iraq.


The central lesson of Vietnam is the United States can do evil as easily as it can do good. Now that is something that grates on most Americans. They think America is an exception to history, that the United States can never do anything wrong, that what we want, the rest of the world ought to want and that they do really want it. Well, that is not necessarily true. So the lesson of Vietnam is: before you go out to do violence to other people and violence to your own young, your own people, you ought to be absolutely certain that you have to do it. You don't pick a war. Iraq was called a "war of choice." You don't start wars of choice. I mean, you start a war that you absolutely have to. If you go to war, you absolutely have to, and we didn't have to go to war in Vietnam.


We thought we did. There was more of a justification, from a moral point of view, for Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, who were also products of the Cold War, to have gone to war in Vietnam than there was for the Bush administration to have gone into Iraq.


I think one of the main reasons why they did go to war in Iraq was because they all dodged the war in Vietnam. The President escaped into the Texas National Guard. The Vice President got, I think, five draft deferments. The Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld, was a Navy pilot, but he didn't fly during the war. I think he flew before the war, so he had no experience in Vietnam. The great intellectual hawk, Wolfowitz, also escaped on draft deferments. Perle, another big hawk who helped push us into it, escaped in a draft deferment. You look at these guys, none of them had any experience in Vietnam.


If you came to me -- and Colin Powell was the only one who did -- and I think Powell made a terrible mistake when he bought that intelligence and went up and made that speech at the UN, a terrible mistake. He ruined himself, because even if that intelligence was true, it was still no justification to go to war. Weapons of mass destruction indeed! You know, both sides in World War II had gas, and neither of them used it. The Germans invented nerve gas. It was by accident when they were developing insecticides. They didn't use it because it's not very useful on the battlefield. The wind changes, and it comes back on your own people. Sure, you can kill a lot of poor Kurdish villagers who can't get away, but you use it against an army, they've got equipment. They get in these rubber suits, and they get through it, and then they kill you. Even if Saddam Hussein was developing a bomb, it was still no reason to go to war against him. There were other ways to deal with it. Israel has dozens of nuclear weapons. Are we going to war with Israel because they have dozens of nuclear weapons? None of it made sense to me.


If you had come to people who had experience with Vietnam, who were seared by Vietnam, who had absorbed the whole experience of Vietnam -- that it was a terrible mistake, that the Vietnamese were not our enemies, that we killed a million Vietnamese, at least, for no good reason, and lost 58,259 of our own people -- they'd have said, "Are you crazy? I need you like I need a social disease," which is a polite expression of an old military term. That would have been the end of it. "Get out of the room. Find some other way to deal with this character, but we are not going to stick our hand in a hornet's nest like Iraq and get thousands of our own people killed." A small number, but tens of thousands of the peoples of Iraq, and probably many more will die when we leave there, and we are going to have to get out. So that ends what I have to say about it.


If young people come to you today and say, "Mr. Sheehan, I would like to do what you did. I would like to follow in your footsteps," what would be your advice to them?


Neil Sheehan: My advice would be to try to find a television station or a newspaper where they are going to get some good basic experience in their craft, because you need that. And then try to get yourself assigned to the biggest story you can get, even if it's dangerous, no matter what it is, a story that is going to get attention, where you are going to get attention. We were lucky in Vietnam, as journalists, in the sense that we could fulfill ourselves by printing the truth, and also, we got attention from other editors. They read your copy coming in over the wire. In those days, it was the wire, the foreign editors. So we got attention within the profession. So that would be my advice. Learn your craft, and then find the toughest story you can find, whether it be in this country or overseas. You got to, because that's the only way you can really get ahead in the profession. It's very competitive, and the way you get ahead is by getting the attention of people who are going to hire you, who see that you can perform in difficult situations. People hire known quantities. Organizations hire known quantities. They want to know, if they hire someone, "Will he perform?" or "Will she perform?" So that would be my advice to them.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


You've written about some major failures of American leadership, in Vietnam and elsewhere. We've been more fortunate on other occasions. Who do you think were truly successful leaders in American history?

Neil Sheehan: I've read a good deal of Civil War history, and we were very fortunate in President Lincoln. This country was very fortunate in three or four major occasions. We were very fortunate in George Washington during our revolution. He was a wise leader, and he turned out to be an able general. We were very fortunate in President Lincoln because he was such a wise leader. He knew what to do at the right time. He was a very shrewd politician, and he knew that he had to get a really good general to destroy Lee's army, which was the key to destroying the Confederacy. When you destroyed Lee's army, you destroyed the Confederacy, and he understood that he was running out of time, so he appointed Grant, who is one of the great generals in our history. He knew when to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and when to withhold it. He knew when to threaten the British, who were trying to break us apart by building warships for the Confederacy. Our big enemy then was Britain, and also France that had gone into Mexico. He knew when not to move and then when to move against them.

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
And then we were very lucky during the Depression with Franklin Roosevelt, who probably saved this country from a revolution. And then, during World War II, Roosevelt appointed the right man to lead us, General Marshall, really a very wise decision. Once he had Marshall in the saddle, Marshall knew who to reach for.

As a writer, what do you think about Lincoln's words?

Neil Sheehan: They're extraordinary. I won the Gettysburg Address Prize when I was in boys' school for reciting the Gettysburg Address. I think it's one of the great pieces of American writing because it's so moving. Lincoln had a wonderful economy of words. He did not write or say too much, even in his short rejoinders. Supposedly a group of congressmen came to him, and they wanted Grant fired. I don't know if it was over the drinking or what. They had their reasoning. They wanted Grant fired, and Lincoln said, "I'm sorry I can't oblige you gentlemen. I can't part with that man. He fights." End of argument, very succinctly put. And in his notes, he's eloquent, but he's also very succinct, and it's beautiful to read, to read things like the Gettysburg Address. You never get tired of reading them. You go up to that monument which is really a Greek temple to a demigod, which in our history he became, and you read those words, and they are never stale. That's the real secret, I think, to a man who is a great public figure, and also a great writer as Lincoln was.

We don't want to, but we have to let you go. Thank you so much.

Neil Sheehan: You're welcome.

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