By Jack Mallory (reviewer)
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
by Mark Bowden
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017)
I just finished Bowden's "Hue 1968," and I wanted to give it a quick review. Outstanding. An often microscopically, and brutally, detailed account of the taking and re-taking of Hue, incorporating the experiences of American and Vietnamese troops, and Vietnamese and other-country civilians as well. The book incorporates the experiences of a wide range of individuals with a variety of different roles in the battle, and is extremely well-referenced.
The level of combat detail can be uncomfortably close to combat porn, but Bowden's purpose is to show the horrific effects of the battle on all those involved, combatants and non-combatants alike. And, as importantly, to show the chains of decision-making on both sides that led to the combat and its outcome.
Bowden is unsparing in his criticism of Westmoreland and other Americans of high rank in misunderstanding the nature of threat both before and during the fighting in the city—especially in Westmoreland's insistence in concentrating on a (false) threat to Khe Sanh. He is also honestly critical of the mistakes of the NVA high command in the planning and outcome of the battle, while still treating Tet, and the battle for Hue more particularly, as a political victory for the North both in Vietnam and in the US.
The book is unique in its focus on the importance, and bravery, of the press in getting a realistic picture of the fighting to the American public, in the face of military misreporting of what was actually going on. Bowden gives the first account I've read of the context of Cronkite's trip to Vietnam and his eventual conclusions and report on the situation of the war after Tet.
The final chapter of "Hue 1968" is a sincere accounting of the long-term effects of the fighting on the military and civilians in Hue, and an assessment of its historical meaning.
Bowden is grimly vivid in his portrayal of the physical and moral injuries to combatants, especially American troops:
"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."
"The Americans I interviewed had opinions too various to be summarized, but three major themes predominated: Most (but not all) were proud of having served; Nearly all were angry over the betrayal of their youthful idealism, mostly at American leaders who sent them to fight a war that was judged unwinnable from the start; and All felt sorrow for the friends they lost and the horror the war inflicted on everyone involved, particularly because, for most (but not all), it appears that the death and suffering served no purpose."
He also treats at some length the effects of Tet/Hue on American politicians and on the anti-war movement.
Of what might be called long-term "lessons learned," Bowden says, among other things:
"From the perspective of nearly half a century, the Battle of Hue and the entire Vietnam War seem a tragic and meaningless waste. So much heroism and slaughter for a cause that now seems dated and nearly irrelevant. The whole painful experience ought to have (but has not) taught Americans to cultivate deep regional knowledge in the practice of foreign policy, and to avoid being led by ideology instead of understanding."
Jack Mallory is a long-time VVAW member.