I’ve read a number of books about the Vietnam War, being relatively of that era. The usual suspects-Halberstam, Sheehan, Karnow, McMaster, even read Daniel Ellsburg’s book Secrets about his decision to release the Pentagon Papers. Mostly they are an analysis of the decision to enter the war, the logical gymnastics the Kennedy and Johnson administrations engaged in as they made the decisions to enmesh the country deeper and deeper into commitments to support the government of South Vietnam.
But for the most part, I’ve avoided the military histories of the war, whether they were devoted to specific battles or combat units. I wanted to avoid glorifying the sacrifices that were made by the men who fought there in a war waged for goals that were unrealistic and guided by plans that were fantastic and delusional.
This spring, however, I decided to read Mark Bowden’s book on the Battle of Hue when it became available. Bowden is a journalist, writing for The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair magazines. He also wrote the bestseller Blackhawk Down, so he knows his way around military history. Though I haven’t read that book, the response to Hue was so strong, I bought a copy for my friend for his birthday and downloaded an electronic copy for myself.
I can say unequivocally Hue 1968, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Bowden has done a superb job with his research and the storytelling that he leaves the reader with an inescapable conclusion: the war was a mistake, fought under erroneous conclusions drawn from incorrect data. It left the lives of many-Americans, supporters of the Hanoi and Saigon regimes, as well as civilians just trying to survive the turmoil of the war, shattered by death, severe injury the loss of loved ones and friends. What’s more, Bowden does his best to offer the perspective of all the combatants and civilians, not just American servicemen.
Bowden begins by sharing the delusions of the American commander, William Westoreland. Asserting the American war effort is succeeding, and that victory over the Viet Cong and NVA forces is not far away, Westmoreland prepares for an assault on the Marine outpost at Khe Sanh as 1967 was ending and the new year was approaching. All of Westmoreland’s preparations came with requests for more troops.
While Westmoreland was worried about the Marines in the western highlands, the planners in Hanoi were planning a far more ambitious campaign. To coincide with the Tet New Year, the Viet Cong, together with elements of the North Vietnamese army attacked every large city in the south, including every provincial capital, Saigon, and the old capital of Hue. The goal was to demonstrate the ability of the Communist forces to coordinate widespread attacks and encourage a popular uprising to support unification with the North and reject the corruption and dependence of the South Vietnamese on American support for survival.
On January 30th, the first night of Tet, attacks went off as plan. The attack on the U.S. embassy made the T.V news. Cities and towns across the South were captured. But within a few days the Viet Cong and their regular army allies were driven off with losses. There was no rising. And Westmoreland, telling the press he knew about Tet all along, hunkered down waited for the expected Dien Bien Phu-like assault at Khe Sanh and the rest of the country went quiet.
Except at Hue, the old colonial capital, built largely in stone by the French colonizers in the early 19th century. Stone buildings laid out in blocks south of a large, menacing citadel across the Huong River. On the first night of Tet, nearly 20,000 troops were engaged in the capture of the city, defended by a small garrison of South Vietnamese, depleted by troops on holiday leave, and a Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound just south of the city occupied by some U.S. Marines and an assembly of support troops.
Bowden’s story is about Major Truong’s effort to hang on to his toehold in the citadel with his depleted ARVN forces, and the American struggle to hang on in the MACV compound. They had to fight off their enemies, as well as the belief by their superiors they were fighting a few hundred, and maybe as many as a few thousand Viet Cong. They also had to fight with their hands tied as high command refused to allow the defenders to use heavy weapons in the city because of the historical value of the buildings.
But somehow they did survive the NVA assaults, took the offensive themselves and captured the city block by block, suffering tremendous casualties. The city’s stout structures, well-defended by veteran, tenacious regulars, Viet Cong and even local militia, were virtually destroyed. Those civilians unable to flee at the outset of the Communist occupation were caught in a killing zone, usually without food or water, and no easy way out of their desperate circumstancers.
Bowden’s research, combining what was available in print, together with interviews from participants on both sides as well as civilians make this captivating reading. It’s a great combination of telling the story using official and journalistic sources, as well as the anecdotal accounts that give the story real meaning . It’s a balancing act and Bowden does it masterfully.
The book concludes with an analysis of Hue and its it central role in the failure of the American mission to settle the status of South Vietnam as a independent nation without the need of U.S. support. More important it examines the impact of Hue from the standpoint of the media and it’s retreat from support for the war to the belief that the war could not be won on the battlefield. Finally, Bowden gives attention to the battle’s influence on Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the removal of Westmoreland, and LBJ’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968.
Hue 1968: The Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam is a must read for those who hope to understand that war, or want to gain additional perspective on the long American commitment to the Middle East and Afghanistan. Questions like “Why are we there,” or “How do we win,” and “When are we done,” should have been asked loudly and forcefully during that earlier Asian conflict, and we shouldn’t hesitate to ask them now.