A decade ago, Mark Bowden’s publisher suggested he write a book about the Vietnam War.
"I’m not really a military writer," the journalist and author says, "and I didn’t particularly want to be identified as one. I told him, I did a book about a battle already, and it worked out pretty well."
That would be Black Hawk Down, Bowden’s 1999 book about the Battle of Mogadishu. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and became an Oscar-winning movie.
His publisher pressed the idea, though, so Bowden did some reading about the Tet Offensive and became interested in its most significant battle. The result is Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, a gripping, intensively researched narrative of the almost monthlong fight for the city of Hue. (Read the review at bit.ly/2iPZiZk.)
Bowden talked about the book by phone from Houston, a stop on his book tour. This book, he says, is also on its way to the screen — filmmaker Michael Mann has optioned it and sold it to FX. "So it looks like there’s going to be a 10-part miniseries."
Why did you choose to focus the book on the battle for Hue?
Out of the whole Tet Offensive, Hue grabbed me. It was out of proportion to everything else in Tet. It was just extraordinary, the scale. It was without a doubt the bloodiest, biggest single battle of the war in Vietnam. If it hadn’t been for Hue, Tet might have come and gone in a few days. But the battle for Hue lasted for almost a month. Yet the intensity of that battle never really registered with people. It wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as Ia Drang or Khe Sanh.
One difference between Hue and other battles in the war was its urban setting, in Vietnam’s third-largest city. Why was that significant?
That’s something that emerged from my interviews with the veterans. They were shocked just to find a city of that size in Vietnam. And they talked about not being able to tell from what direction you were being shot at — just that cold degree of terror. It’s one of the distinguishing features of this battle. It looks and feels and smells very different from the rest.
You conducted hundreds of interviews for the book, some during two trips to Vietnam. What was it like to do that research?
It was fun. I taught for a long time, and I found that one of the really unfortunate traits young people have is that they want to do all their research online. They want to use Google, and even just send emailed questions instead of interviewing in person. I’d tell them, no, that’s the fun of this work — to get to meet these people and go to these places.
Hue 1968 makes extensive use of the accounts of people directly involved in the battle. Why did you choose that emphasis?
Historians and even most journalists tend to go from the top down. You can go back and read the after action reports, read what the officials say. That’s what passes for the most part for military history. The individual accounts are just used to dress it up.
My approach is to work bottom up. I gather this vast store of anecdotal matter, and after a while it begins to cohere. Then I work from the top down, too. Once I know what was actually happening and recognize the names of the people involved, it comes to life for me.
You also write about a number of the journalists who covered the battle. Why were they important?
I’m a journalist myself. Also there’s this narrative about the war, that the military was going to win but the journalists lost it for them. So I was curious to see how this battle was reported.
I had a graduate student compile a database of all the reporting on the battle every day from all of the newspapers. I was very pleased to find that the reporting was both accurate and empathetic. These reporters were on the ground, sharing all the dangers of the battle.
At the time, Gen. (William) West-moreland was saying there were only 500 enemy soldiers in Hue and it was just a mopup action. This is a guy with access to the most sophisticated intelligence gathering. Then (reporter) Gene Roberts flies in on a helicopter and in three hours discovers these Marines were surrounded (by thousands of North Vietnamese troops). And then he flies out and files a story for the New York Times.
Go look. Talk to the Marines, read the stories, look at the statements of the officials, and you see who was telling the truth.
It’s really reporters who elevate these events into the memory and popular culture. That happened with Black Hawk Down — without it I doubt very many people would remember the battle for Mogadishu. It’s a scary power to have in the world.
What do you think we learned from Vietnam?
I think of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and I think it’s a perfect illustration of how this country can dumb itself down.
That can open the door to short-sighted, stupid military engagements for no good reason. (Sen. John) McCain has said the United States eased itself into Vietnam with no clear goal. Now (President Donald) Trump is cutting the State Department, he’s ridiculing the CIA. These people are our eyes and ears on the world. Without them, we end up blundering into very sophisticated situations that we don’t understand. Listen to your field commanders.
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press, 608 pages, $30
Times Festival of Reading
Mark Bowden will be a featured author at the 2017 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will speak at 10 a.m. in the Poynter Institute Barnes Pavilion.