The end of January 2018 and the beginning of February 2018 mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Hue; Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam is the book I chose to read for the anniversary. It turned out to be an excellent pick. This book tells the story of the Battle of Hue, analyzes what happened during the battle, and explores its consequences, making it a good choice for a book that looks back on such a pivotal event in our History.
“It would require twenty-four days of terrible fighting to take the city back. The Battle of Hue would be the bloodiest of the Vietnam War, and a turning point not just in that conflict, but in American history. When it was over, debate concerning the war in the United States was never again about winning, only about how to leave. And never again would Americans fully trust their leaders.”
Bowden’s writing style is vivid and engaging. The bulk of the book describes what happened during the battle and how it was fought, with the epilogue looking back over it to analyze performance, pass judgment on actions and performance, and place it in historical context. Bowden tells the story of the fight for Hue through the eyes of its participants, not just US marines and soldiers, but VC and NVA soldiers, civilians caught in the middle, and the journalists that were covering the battle. Bowden describes the VC and NVA’s intentions, the fighting that occurred and the tactics used, the mistakes made, how the civilians caught up in Hue suffered and how the city was devastated, and how journalists including Walter Cronkite reported on the battle.
This book is well documented. Bowden uses both secondary sources and extensive interviews with participants as his research into the book. He uses the secondary sources, particularly books previously written about the war as the foundation upon which he builds the rest of the narrative using the experiences he gathered from the interviews.
“But there was blame enough for both sides. The storm of war blew flat all semblance of law, logic, and decency. To soldiers there was a kind of order—causes and lines to be defended, soldiers who were either friend or enemy—but to civilians it was just savagery.”
In my opinion, the epilogue is must read. In it, Bowden describes the failures of both American and Vietnamese leadership, both military and political. He compares the official reporting to journalists’ reporting and shows that the journalists were more truthful and accurate. He relates the how the experience of Hue changed those who fought in it. He describes how the battle, the lies told by officials, and the reporting on the war changed the way the American public felt about the war and viewed their leaders. He describes how the battle changed the way the residents of Hue would view their government during the battle and the government that took over after the war.
“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. The United States should interact with other nations realistically, first, not on the basis of domestic political priorities.”
This book is an outstanding read, much like his previous books such as Blackhawk Down and Killing Pablo, Bowden captures your attention. It really is a book that you don’t want to put down. It also touches your emotions. There are parts that will make you proud, there are parts that will make you angry and disappointed, there are parts that quite possibly will make you shed a tear. More importantly, it is a book to be learned from as there are lessons from Hue and Vietnam that should inform our decision making and policy in the present day. I strongly recommend reading this book to reflect on Hue on the occasion of the battle’s 50th anniversary.