The next year, Mr. Sheehan took a book leave from The Times after attending the funeral of John Paul Vann, a charismatic, idealistic former Army officer and outspoken dissenter on the war, whom Mr. Sheehan had known in Vietnam. He set out to write the history of the war through the figure of Mr. Vann, who seemed to Mr. Sheehan to embody the qualities that Americans admired in themselves, and to personify the American venture. He expected the book to take three to five years.
But he lost more than a year recovering from a head-on collision with a car that a young man was driving on the wrong side of a road. Mr. Sheehan repeatedly ran out of money. His subjects, humanity and war, proved more complicated than even he had known.
Disciplined and nocturnal, he worked regularly until 4 a.m. Impressed by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” he labored to give his book — a combination of history and biography — the narrative drive of a novel. “It was a grim business,” he said. He was, he said later, less obsessed than trapped.
The book ended up 861 pages long.
Cornelius Mahoney Sheehan was born on Oct. 27, 1936, in Holyoke, Mass., a son of Irish immigrants. His father, Cornelius Joseph Sheehan, was a dairy farmer, and his mother, Mary (O’Shea) Sheehan, was a homemaker.
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Neil (his nickname from the time he was born) grew up on his family’s dairy farm outside Holyoke, attending Mass with his two brothers every Sunday at his mother’s insistence. He received full scholarships to both the Mount Hermon prep school in Massachusetts and Harvard, where he studied Middle Eastern history and graduated in 1958.
He then joined the Army, becoming a journalist to get out of a job as a pay clerk in Korea. Transferred to Tokyo to put out the division newspaper, he moonlighted for United Press International, which hired him in 1962 and sent him to Saigon as a reporter, two weeks out of the Army, for $75 a week.
He was one of the youngest and least experienced of a group of celebrated correspondents that included David Halberstam of The Times, who became his collaborator and friend. In 1964, The Times hired Mr. Sheehan and sent him back to Vietnam. Impassioned and haunted, he had what his wife later called “a quasi-religious streak.” By 1966, he wrote, the moral superiority that the United States had possessed after World War II had “given way to the amorality of great power politics.”