Review of Mark Bowden’s “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam”

tags: book review, Mark Bowden, Hue 1968

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School and HNN’s senior book editor.

The approaching fiftieth anniversary of the Tet Offensive makes journalist Mark Bowden’s detailed account of the battle for Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, a timely volume on an event that many perceive as a turning point in American support for the Vietnam War. Bowden is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and currently a writer in residence at the University of Delaware. He is the author of thirteen books including the bestseller Black Hawk Down, chronicling the American military intervention in Somalia during the 1990s.

Bowden applies his journalistic skills to an extensive set of interviews with both American and Vietnamese sources that form the core of his book. These eyewitness accounts provide readers with realistic portrayals of the gruesome urban fighting in Hue as American and South Vietnamese troops (ARVN) battled North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces from building to building and room to room before dislodging the occupiers after three weeks of struggle.

This focus upon the intimate details of the battle, however, leads Bowden away from considerations of the Tet Offensive within a broader historical context, and the author fails to consult major historians of the Vietnam conflict. A similar critique may be leveled against the acclaimed television documentary history of the war by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The film relies upon a few eyewitness veteran stories, both American and Vietnamese, to personalize the Vietnam War, but Bowden attempts to incorporate so many voices that the reader sometimes becomes confused with the vast array of characters. Nevertheless, Bowden’s rather massive book on the battle for Hue is compelling reading, providing considerable insight into the death and destruction suffered by the combatants as well as the civilian population of Hue caught up in the battle.

While Bowden is willing to censure the actions of soldiers on both sides, he is, again similar to filmmakers Burns and Novick, primarily critical of the leaders who were so willing to sacrifice the lives of soldiers and the people of Hue. Bowden credits the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong with successfully implementing a surprise attack on Hue and the cities of South Vietnam on January 31, 1968 while taking advantage of a ceasefire for the first day of Tet, the Lunar New Year. Eyewitnesses document the discipline and hard work it took to prepare the massive assault, but Bowden finds considerable fault with the strategy of North Vietnamese leaders such as Communist Party Secretary Le Duan who believed that the large scale assault against the cities in the south would inflict considerable casualties upon the American forces and undermine popular support for the war in the United States. The communist leader also believed that the success of the offensive would inspire a mass uprising of the people in Hue and throughout South Vietnam to throw the American invaders out of the country. Le Duan was on target regarding the impact of the Tet Offensive on American public opinion, but the mass uprisings of the Vietnamese people he envisioned did not occur. Despite the considerable media attention given to the attack upon the American embassy in Saigon, Hue was the only city taken by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, who were able to hold the old imperial capital for nearly three weeks against fierce American and ARVN counterattacks.

Bowden argues that some in Hue welcomed the invading forces, but he maintains that a majority of the city’s residents cooperated with the North Vietnamese out of a sense of fear rather than the excitement of a mass uprising. He also condemns the efforts of the invading forces to imprison and execute people they considered to be traitors who collaborated with and served the South Vietnamese government. Although it is almost impossible to achieve an accurate count, Bowden believes that as many as 2,000 people were executed and buried in mass graves. He concludes that many of these killings were driven by personal retribution and undermined efforts to rally the population for the communist cause. Bowden also acknowledges that following the reconquest of Hue, South Vietnamese forces undertook a similar purge of any Hue residents who demonstrated sympathy for the communists, although the journalist asserts that little information is available on these killings.

Bowden, however, reserves his greatest criticism for American leaders, especially General William Westmoreland, who maintained that the United States was winning the war in Vietnam and refused to acknowledge the scope of the Tet Offensive and assault on Hue. Pointing to the superior kill ratio that the American forces exercised over their Vietnamese adversaries, Westmoreland asserted that there was objective evidence of American success on the battlefield. In addition, Westmoreland believed that the North Vietnamese were planning an assault against American forces at Khe Sanh. The Tet attacks on Hue and other South Vietnamese cities were simply a feint by the enemy, seeking to distract the Americans from defending Khe Sanh. Thus, Westmoreland refused to recognize the magnitude of the enemy fighters occupying Hue. Vastly outnumbered American forces were ordered to advance against well entrenched North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. The testimony gathered by Bowden portrays the courage displayed by American soldiers against near impossible odds which their commanders initially refused to acknowledge.

After nearly three weeks of intense fighting, the American troops, supported by the superior firepower of planes and artillery, succeeded in driving the enemy from the city. But the cost for both sides was staggering. The American losses were 258 dead with 1,554 wounded, while the ARVN had 458 soldiers killed and another 2,700 wounded. Estimated deaths for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were between 2,400 and 5,000 fighters—both men and women. In addition, civilians were caught in the crossfire and thousands perished. While condemning the executions undertaken by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, Bowden concludes that the majority of civilian casualties were due to American shelling and bombs. He also concedes that some American soldiers were guilty of gunning down civilians whom they feared might by enemy combatants or sympathizers. Such actions were exacerbated by the savage nature of the fighting in Hue, the emphasis placed on dead Vietnamese for the kill ratio, and the racial nature of the conflict in which respect for the Vietnamese and their culture was often absent.

Certainly the destruction of Hue did little to rally the Vietnamese people in support of the American troops. Bowden, however, shares the conclusion of the interviewed soldiers that American commanders such as Westmoreland shouldered the major responsibility for the carnage. Praising the bravery and patriotism of the American forces, Bowden writes, “In the worst days of this fight, facing the near certainty of death or severe bodily harm, those caught up in the Battle of Hue repeatedly advanced. Many of those who survived are still paying for it. To me the way they were used, particularly the way their idealism and loyalty were exploited by leaders who themselves had lost faith in the effort, is a stunning betrayal. It is a lasting American tragedy and disgrace.”

While Bowden relies primarily upon American voices to describe the battle for Hue, he deserves credit for traveling to Vietnam in order to broaden his perspective. Both men and women sympathetic to the communist cause are included, although the perspective of the ARVN, who played a significant role in the battle, is largely missing. This may be due to the fact that in his second trip to Vietnam, Bowden was assigned a government interpreter, and the journalist suspects that this may have convinced some of his Vietnamese sources to be less forthcoming in sharing their experiences. Nevertheless, Bowden’s book makes for fascinating reading as he argues that after Tet the debate in America was never again about how to win the war, but rather how to leave Vietnam. In the final analysis, Bowden asserts, “The Battle of Hue is a microcosm of the entire conflict. With nearly half a century of hindsight, Hue deserves to be remembered as the single bloodiest battle of the war, one of its defining events, and one of the most intense urban battles in American history” (520). The Tet Offensive and the battle for Hue are deserving of the attention Bowden bestows upon the participants, but it would valuable to place the struggle in Vietnam within the larger historical perspective of American territorial expansion and imperialism.  

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