Michael Bowden’s new history Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam pulls off a rare feat: it takes a conflict of terrible scale and consequence, and allows us to see it unfold at the street level, through the eyes of Vietnamese and American soldiers engaged in the struggle, journalists and activists observing the chaos, and the civilians caught in the crossfire.
Bowden is already renowned for his detailed account of the Battle of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down . His emphasis on firsthand accounts gives a vital heart to the unfolding events. He establishes the connection between the struggle over individual street blocks, the loss of individual lives, the filing of news reports and the actions or nonactions further up American and North Vietnamese chains of command desperately clinging to illusions of their own success. Not only are the personal stories Bowden uncovers at turns deeply moving and horrifying, but they also pose uncomfortable parallels with current events in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Imperial City on the Perfume River
I had the good fortune to visit Hue a few years ago. Reading Bowden’s book, I was struck by how well he managed to describe the city’s layout and capture its relaxed charm compared to the bustling vibe of Hanoi or Saigon.
The former imperial capital, which in 1968 had a population of 140,000, is divided in two by the Huong River (also known as the Perfume River). On the north side stand the “sheer and unassailable” walls of the citadel and the grounds of the royal palace of the Nguyen Dynasty, styled in imitation of architecture in Beijing. On the south bank lay the American military assistance (MACV) compound, one of only a few military bases in a city that lay a short distance from the demilitarized zone separating the two Vietnams.
Hue’s citizens, many of them devout Buddhists or Catholics, did not harbor great affection for the corrupt and disunited regime in Saigon, nor the authoritarian government in Hanoi. But Communist forces commanded greater support in the surrounding rural communities.
In 1967, an aggressive faction in Hanoi led by President Le Duan insisted on embarking on the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack targeting virtually every major community and military base in South Vietnam, scheduled for the Tet holiday in late January 1968—normally a time of truce. But Hue was the one place Hanoi was really counting on capturing: it would deploy four regiments of regular North Vietnamese Army troops and eight battalions of local Viet Cong insurgents to the invasion, backed up by rocket and conventional artillery, heavy mortars, recoilless rifles and numerous rocket propelled grenades. The leadership believed that if a strong force captured a lightly defended city, it would inspire a popular uprising in its citizens.
However, both Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam’s top general, Vo Nguyen Giap, disapproved of the scheme and distanced themselves from what they felt was a foolhardy venture. Local field commanders also knew their odds of success were low, but grimly committed themselves to the attack, determined to make their sacrifice a memorable one.
Meanwhile, the head of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, was feeding the White House a steady diet of upbeat reports on his progress defeating the Communist insurgency, based on “body counts” that he believed showed lopsided kill ratios in the South’s favor. If the members of the press who actually made it to the front line were reporting a much less favorable situation—and were horrified by the realities of the pacification program—they were branded as anti-American defeatists, the “fake news” of the 1960s. But it was the body counts that were the real fake news, vastly exaggerated by commanders in the field for their own self-promotion.
Countless real people are sketched out in lively detail throughout Hue 1968 . As not all of them survive the events of the battle, it’s hard not to feel suspense as their stories unfold over the course of the battle. To offer just a few examples: A Buddhist revolutionary poet tests the limits of charisma attempting to smuggle weapons into the city. A future Medal of Honor recipient write home with plans to start his own farm while counting the days before his enlistment ends; what could go wrong with just a few days left at a post far removed from the front line? A teenage girl who survived torture at the hands of South Vietnamese troops uses her youthful looks to spy on troop positions—then later hunts American tanks with a rocket launcher. An American diplomat visits his Vietnamese fiancée’s family for the holiday—only for the two to be separated and trapped as artillery fire rains down on the city and enemy troops invade.
Urban Warfare 101
When the Tet Offensive finally struck on January 30, Westmoreland downplayed the reports coming out of Hue in favor of emphasizing his success in containing a much more limited attack on Saigon. He remained fixated by the threat of an NVA assault on the besieged Marine firebase at Khe Sanh.