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.
But the threat to Khe Sanh is today widely considered to have been a diversion. Meanwhile, the Communist forces staged a remarkable coup de main in Hue, seizing nearly all of the city in a surprise night assault. A North Vietnamese tank base was knocked out of action in a daring raid. The royal palace was captured and a giant nationalist flag, specially made for the occasion, was raised upon it. Only in a few isolated pockets remained in the city, notably the American MACV compound and the Mang Ca garrison in the citadel.
However, idealistic young Communist organizers were disappointed when a massive outpouring of popular support failed to materialize. While North Vietnamese troops began digging in throughout the city, squads also began rounding up supporters of the Saigon regime and foreigners, leading to a thinly rationalized purge that slaughtered at least a thousand citizens. Many locals tried to slip out the city to escape the crackdown. They not only had to dodge Viet Cong patrols, but they were also in danger of being shot by South Vietnamese troops.
In response to these development, a response force of only two companies of Marines from Task Force X-Ray at the nearby camp at Phu Bai was sent to relieve the MACV compound in Hue. The truck-mounted leathernecks supported by a handful of tanks ran straight into a deadly ambush shortly after crossing the An Cuu bridge, as Bowden recounts in excruciating detail.
They approached a cluster of two-story houses built close to the road on both sides. It reminded [Captain] Batcheller of a town in an old Western movie. They raced through, guns blazing, and were surprised when nearly the same volume of fire came back at them.
A rocket exploded against Batcheller’s tank and he felt a stinging spray of shrapnel. When they reached the end of the gauntlet, his radioman, who had been right next to him, was gone. He must have been blown off. Leaning across the turret was one of his navy corpsmen, who in addition to to other wounds was missing both of his legs at the knees. . . . There were downed marines scattered behind on the road, and others trying to drag them to safety. One was missing both arms and both legs, still alive and screaming.
The marine column barely made it to the safety of the MACV compound after fighting its way through several city blocks. Upon which it was promptly ordered to recapture the citadel on the other side of the river!
When the Marine battalion commander tried to explain how badly outnumbered and outgunned his troops were, his supported refused to believe him and ordered him to attack anyway with his four hundred men—against a heavily fortified position held by several thousand NVA and Viet Cong troops.
Remarkably, two platoons of Marines managed to charge across the Truong Tien bridge as machine gun fire raked its spans—only be greeted on the other side by withering fire from the walls of the citadel. The Marines were forced to beat a hasty retreat across the bridge, commandeering trucks to evacuate the wounded.
Westmoreland willfully disregarded the reports of his own troops in favor of estimates that only a few hundred Viet Cong had occupied Hue. Modestly reinforced, the Marines were again ordered to attack Vietnamese troops fighting from fortified positions in apartments and houses, backed up by machine guns, mortars and antitank weapons.
The initial assaults were a disaster, as Marines advancing openly up the street were picked off one after another. The U.S. infantry were used to counting on heavy air and artillery support to pin down and destroy their enemies. But the troops in Hue were not permitted to call upon them, nor use the main guns on their tanks, for fear of destroying the city’s historic buildings. Bad weather and a paucity of nearby artillery units further enforced these restrictions.
After punishing early experiences, Col. Ernie Cheatham literally reread the manuals on urban warfare. He realized advancing down the streets was suicide, and that the best way to assault a building was not through the door or window, but by blowing a hole in the wall. He mustered all the heavy weapons he could find—mortars, 106-millimeter recoilless rifles, M42 Duster self-propelled antiaircraft guns, LAW antitank rockets—and then used them to systematically blow open opposing defensive positions one building at time. Then he’d send in riflemen to clear the ruins of survivors.