More than 40 years after it ended, America's war in Vietnam is still contentious, still misunderstood, and fast slipping into the fog of history.
Mark Bowden brings it back into sharp focus in his powerful new book, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.
Bowden has a well-deserved reputation for writing with extraordinary clarity and vividness about war in such bestselling books as Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War and The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.
Hue 1968 will burnish that reputation and is likely to claim a place on the shelf of essential books about the Vietnam War. Based on hundreds of interviews, news accounts, histories and military archives, the book combines intensive research with Bowden's propulsive narrative style and insightful analysis.
The title refers to Hue (pronounced Hway), a city in what was then South Vietnam, and to the year in which an epic, nearly monthlong battle took place there. It was a battle that brought about major shifts in the war and in the American public's attitude toward it that led inexorably to the U.S. withdrawal in 1975, which reverberates still in our politics.
What sets Bowden's account of the battle apart is his skill at moving from the macro — the history of the war, the politics surrounding it, the tactics of the battle — to the micro: the individuals, American and Vietnamese, who fought it and tried to survive it.
The battle of Hue was part of the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack by the North Vietnamese on hundreds of targets large and small throughout South Vietnam. It began during Tet, the new year celebration that is central to Vietnamese culture.
"Hue," Bowden writes, "was a city of both practical and symbolic importance. With a population of about 140,000, it was the third-largest city in South Vietnam. ... As a center of Vietnamese culture, its significance transcended the divide. It was a former imperial seat and the major center of learning and worship."
What's more, North Vietnamese leader and icon Ho Chi Minh had grown up there, within the walls of the Citadel, the imposing fortress that enclosed the former royal palace and many of the city's neighborhoods on the north bank of the Huong, also known as the Perfume River.
The assault on Hue was the centerpiece of Tong-Tan-cong-Noi-day, or the General Offensive, a coordinated attack on Tet by the Front — the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong — that was intended both to weaken the U.S. military and to inspire a popular uprising in support of the Communist government of North Vietnam.
Bowden documents the Front's months of meticulous planning and preparation for the attack — and the U.S. military leaders' utter cluelessness about it. Even after the battle began, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, remained in denial, insisting that there were only a few hundred North Vietnamese troops in Hue and that the marines would promptly drive them out.
Commanders in Vietnam but on bases miles from Hue also refused to believe the magnitude of the attack, tragically sending far too few American troops into the city. A platoon sergeant at the base at Phu Bai, south of Hue, told marines heading out, "Just take your flak jackets and some gear because we'll be back for dinner."
In fact, from the beginning of the battle on Jan. 31, the three battalions of marines sent in, along with two U.S. Army battalions and troops from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, were outnumbered by a force of an estimated 10,000 disciplined, well-supplied soldiers of the Front, who captured the city in a matter of hours and made the Americans win it back over 24 grueling days, an inch at a time.
Just one example: A few days into the battle, a company of marines attacked a Catholic chapel held by the North Vietnamese. Its leader "had started his assault with one hundred and forty-seven men. He had lost more than half. After another day of fighting he would have just seven — one hundred and twenty-three wounded, seventeen killed."
One constant difficulty was the urban setting of the battle, Bowden notes. "Neither (Lt. Col Ernie Cheatham, one of the commanders in Hue) nor his marines had ever fought in a city, nor had they been trained for it. The last time the Corps fought a big urban battle had been in Seoul in 1950, a grinding fight that lasted for almost a month and killed more than four hundred and fifty marines."
Bowden's descriptions of the battle are packed with facts about tactics, weapons and troop movement, and as breathtakingly compelling as the best fiction. One of his gifts is sketching portraits of individuals, giving the reader in just a few words a vivid sense of their lives — and then, all too often, a jarring view of their deaths.
His account reminds us, over and over, that Vietnam was a war fought, on both sides, by young people. The officers were older, of course. But most of the Americans in combat were in their late teens or early 20s, the Vietnamese soldiers even younger.
At one point, Bowden writes, a wounded marine lay in the street. "William Barnes, who had gone out to try and drag him back, had been shot in the head and killed instantly. Barnes had just arrived the day before, an eighteen-year-old private from Battle Creek, Mich. He had lasted only minutes in combat. No one knew him."
From those men fighting, often with enormous bravery, and dying in the streets of Hue, Bowden takes us to Washington, D.C., where President Lyndon Johnson, always a reluctant leader of the war, grapples with the misinformation he's getting from Westmoreland and his own advisers.
Bowden looks at the other side as well, from the North Vietnamese leader Ho, by then elderly and largely ineffectual except as a symbol, to the "vicious" Viet Cong who executed large numbers of Hue residents who were seen as traitors.
He writes about the extraordinary intimacy with which the press covered the Vietnam War and the role of that coverage in shaping opinion. He details the courage and accomplishments of journalists like reporter Gene Roberts (later a legendary editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and one of Bowden's mentors) and photographer John Olson.
The Battle of Hue drew CBS anchor Walter Cronkite to Vietnam to cover it personally, and Bowden describes Cronkite's historic report on Feb. 27. There is no news anchor now who approaches Cronkite for influence and gravitas, and his somber description of the stalemate in Vietnam starkly marked the national loss of faith in American leaders.
A month after the battle ended, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. Richard Nixon would be elected touting a "secret plan" to end the war — an end that didn't come for another seven years. In the wake of Hue, the American antiwar movement grew from a fringe of protesters to a major political force.
But Bowden returns always to those most directly affected by the war. The fight for the city left 250 U.S. marines and soldiers dead and 1,554 wounded. He writes, "by even a conservative count, the Battle of Hue resulted in over 10,000 deaths, which makes it the bloodiest of the Vietnam War." Eighty percent of the city's structures were destroyed during the battle, and tens of thousands of its residents fled as refugees.
Hue 1968 is a book of history, the history of an era when a nation was lied to by its leaders and thousands of young Americans in uniform were sacrificed for no clear reason. Bowden brings that history to life — and makes clear how painfully timely it remains.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.