A native of New York City, Bryan attended the Hotchkiss School in the class of 1954, and earned a Bachelor of Arts at Yale University in 1958.
His parents were Joseph Bryan, III and Katharine Barnes Bryan; after they divorced his mother married author John O'Hara.He served in the U.S. Army in South Korea (1958–1960), but not happily. He was mobilized again (1961–1962) for the Berlin Crisis of 1961.
He was an intelligence officer. He was editor of the satirical Monocle (magazine) (from 1961), Colorado State University writer-in-residence (winter 1967), visiting lecturer University of Iowa writers workshop (1967–1969), special editorial consultant at Yale (1970), visiting professor University of Wyoming (1975), adjunct professor Columbia University (1976), fiction director at the New York City Writers Community from (1977), lecturer in English University of Virginia (spring 1983), and Bard Center fellow Bard College (spring 1984). His first novel won the Harper Prize (1965). Bryan is best known for his non-fiction book Friendly Fire (1976).
It began as an idea he sold to William Shawn for an article in The New Yorker, then grew into a series of articles, and then a book. It describes an Iowa farm family, Gene and Peg Mullen, and their reaction and change of heart after their son's accidental death by friendly fire in the Vietnam War. It was made into a 1979 television movie of the same name, for which he shared a Peabody Award. It's also been cited in professional military studies. Bryan died from cancer on December 15, 2009 at his home in Guilford, Connecticut
"When Washington and Rochambeau met in May 1781 in Weathersfield, Connecticut, to plan that year's last-ditch campaign, they knew few of [American General Nathaniel] Greene's successful activities and nothing of [British General] Cornwallis's decision to march his army into Virginia. Once the pleasantries - a military parade and formal dinner - were out of the way, the two generals and their staffs sat down to talk.
The discussions were frank and at times heated. After revealing the financial gift that his country was making to its allies, Rochambeau asked Washington what operations he envisioned for the coming summer.
To one's surprise [given his war-long obsession with retaking Manhattan], Washington urged a campaign to take New York, claiming that Clinton, [the British general in New York] was weaker than ever, having sent raiders to Virginia and reinforcements to the Carolinas. "Losing his patience - a French observer later said that Rochambeau treated Washington with 'all the ungraciousness and all the unpleasantness possible' - the French commander earnestly reiterated his objections to focusing on New York.
He then proposed a campaign in Virginia. Though unaware of Cornwallis's epic decision [to march north to Virginia], Rochambeau knew there was a British army of roughly thirty-five hundred men in Virginia. The allies would have numerical superiority. If they could trap the enemy force, the long-awaited victory that could break Great Britain's will to continue might be achieved. But Washington was intransigent. The allies must focus on New York. Washington 'did not conceive the affairs of the south to be such urgency,' the French general subsequently recalled. Given that Rochambeau remained under orders from France to defer to the wishes of the American commander, he consented to march his army from Rhode Island to the periphery of Manhattan, where the allies would prepare for a joint operation to retake New York."
Washington was delighted. He had prevailed, or so it seemed. The campaign for New York of which he had dreamed for three long years was imminent. After three days of talks, Washington bade farewell and rode back to the Hudson to await the arrival of the French army. But there was something that Rochambeau had not divulged. He had neglected to inform Washington that the French fleet in the Caribbean had been ordered to sail to North America that summer. Immediately following Washington's departure from Weathersfield, Rochambeau sat down at his desk and drafted a crucial letter to the Comte de Grasse, commander of the French fleet. He did not ask him to sail to New York.
Instead, Rochambeau urged de Grasse to bring the fleet to the Chesapeake. Unbeknownst to Washington, and in defiance of his wishes, Rochambeau was secretly planning what he believed would be a campaign that was more likely than an attack on New York to produce a decisive outcome. His object was to confront General Washington with a fait accompli."As the lush days of spring faded into high summer in 1781, three army commanders ruminated over strategy. Only Washington believed the allies could succeed in a campaign to take New York.
Rochambeau and Clinton - both lifelong professional officers, were convinced that the redcoats, having had five long years to prepare for the defense of Manhattan and Long Island, could repulse anything the allies threw at them, even a joint land-sea siege and assault. Indeed, Clinton prayed that the allies would attack New York. If their campaign failed, as he was certain it would, the will to continue hostilities would surely evaporate in France and America.
Great Britain would do very well at the peace conference that followed. In his wildest dreams, Clinton even imagined that Britain might win this war in the event of a failed allied campaign to take New York."[Washington yielded to Rochambeau, and the American army turned south and went to Virginia where it overwhelmingly defeated Cornwallis and ended the war.]John Ferling, The Ascent of Washington, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2009 by John Ferling, pp. 209-211