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Mark Bowden is one of the greatest investigative journalists of our time.
“Black Hawk Down,” his comprehensive work on the experience of US troops in Mogadishu, has drawn renewed attention to the often-forgotten history. This also culminated in the film, which remains a favorite of the military veteran community.
His most recent book, “Hue 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam,” is equally comprehensive and compelling. The book is a master’s job, five years of work.
The Battle of Hue was the longest and most expensive fight of the entire Tet offensive. On the morning of January 31, 1968, a coordinated attack by 8,000 North Vietnamese army regulars, Vietnamese infiltrators and Vietnamese civilians quickly captured much of the city in a single night.
The American and South Vietnamese troops were unfortunately outnumbered in Hue. Facing the Communist forces, there was the 1st ARVN Infantry Division and 200 of their American and Australian advisers within the MACV compound. By the time the sun rose that day, the Communists were in control of the city south of the Huong River – with the exception of the MACV complex.
View from a marine machine gun position on the outer wall of the citadel of Hue during the Tet offensive of 1968.
The MACV Marines were to go on the offensive, fighting their way across the river to save the brilliant and highly respected ARVN General Ngô Quang Truong and what was left of his 1st Infantry. Then they had to expel the Communists from the area.
Hue would become a case study in urban combat, the first time since the Korean War the Marines would fight in a city like this. The battle lasted nearly a month, turning 40% of the city’s buildings into rubble and claiming the lives of 380 ARVN soldiers, 147 Marines, 74 US Army soldiers, 8,000 Communists and more than 5 800 civilians.
It was also the turning point in popular American support for the war.
Bowden’s book covers the history of the war up to this point, particularly from a 30,000-foot view from the White House and General William Westmoreland’s MACV headquarters. What is truly unique and fascinating about Bowden’s style are the personal narratives that bring the story to life.
“Hue 1968” is a captivating tapestry of non-fictional narratives, with personal stories of people on the ground woven into the history and politics of war. The enemy is no longer a mass of nameless and faceless targets; the NVA and the VC are characters from the history of the Vietnam War, with names, families and lives. With these stories comes the understanding of why the McNamara doctrine of “limited war” would never have worked against the Vietnamese.
The book gives eyewitness testimony to a young Vietnamese girl who turns against the Southern regime and becomes a Viet-Cong agent just as much as it follows young enlisted navy radio operator Jim Coolican, who was stationed at the MACV complex. . Personal accounts from all sides of the conflict thus continue throughout the book.
Bowden traces the details of a young VC as he crosses the Ho Chi Minh Trail and moves to infiltrate the city. He even painstakingly documents the “logistical miracle” – as one US Navy captain called it – of the movement of men and arms from the Tet offensive in South Vietnam.
NVA and VC soldiers attack the city of Hue in South Vietnam, January 1968.
If you know the history of the Vietnam War, you know what is going on in the Tet offensive and it turns the pages. No matter how familiar you are, you can see the war from all sides – the NVA, the VC, the ARVN leadership, the American troops, the American leadership, even the views of Ho Chi Minh and of North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap are covered in detail.
The fall of Hue was the most successful attack in the entire Tet offensive and even then the city was recaptured on February 24. Both sides have adhered to their own propaganda. The Communists believed the South was ready to rise up against Thieu’s despotic regime and expel the Americans – they just needed a helping hand to get started.
Viet Cong forces climb onto an abandoned US-built marine armored vehicle during the Battle of Hue.
The north came to depend on this uprising for the long-term success of the offensive. The Americans and South Vietnamese were caught off guard as they believed the enemy was weak and could not launch an attack of this magnitude, let alone capture a city like Hue.
Until the Tet Offensive, a majority of Americans believed the war was going well and believed government officials who used statistics and body counts to insist that American involvement may soon end. Body counts were not the metric used by the Communists. For the north, their success was defined by killing or injuring as many Americans as possible, destroying the ARVN, and inciting a popular uprising in the south.
The Marines hold a Viet Cong flag which they ripped from the provincial headquarters in Hue.
The United States claimed a military victory in Hue but Hanoi would never be intimidated by a limited war. The prolonged violence and media prejudice against the war after the Tet offensive also eroded public support for it.
The United States began a strategic withdrawal from Vietnam the following year and left it completely in 1973. South Vietnam fell to the Communists two years later. Hue was only the beginning of the end.
Mark Bowden is an award-winning author and correspondent for The Atlantic. He is also editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. Filmmakers Michael Mann and Michael De Luca (who produced the 1995 Heist film “Heat”) have purchased the rights to “Hue 1968” and plan to turn the book into a miniseries.