- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Like his epochal best-seller “Black Hawk Down,” Mark Bowden’s “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam” is the story of a battle. Like “Black Hawk Down,” it is smart, well-reported and hypnotic in spots. Also like “Black Hawk Down,” it might very well become a motion picture (Michael Mann has optioned the rights to it and is contemplating a miniseries version.)
But Bowden didn’t initially want to write it.
“About 10 years ago, an editor suggested it,” Bowden said. “I didn’t really want to write another story about a battle, didn’t want to go down the same road twice, but he encouraged me to look into it a little bit.”
The more Bowden examined it, the more the battle began to fascinate him — it became clear that the Battle of Hue, which took place over about a month in January of 1968, was, as he puts it, “a lens on a larger experience in the Vietnam War.”
“I think it was the fact that it was, at the time, the third largest city in Vietnam never fully registered with me,” Bowden, who was 17 (“and certainly paying attention to the war”) at the time of the battle, said.
The pocket version: The Battle of Hue was but one aspect of the Tet Offensive, the multipronged surprise attack launched by Communist North Vietnamese forces against the U.S.-backed south. Tens of thousands of troops attacked more than 100 towns and cities. It was the largest such attack to have been launched by either side at that point. U.S. troops were stunned and, in Hue, severely outmanned. While southern troops eventually rallied, the battle for Hue took a solid month, and the city was destroyed.
While the south was able to beat back the northern offensive, the battles came less than three months after Gen. William Westmoreland had told the American people that the end of the war was close at hand. Tet and Hue spelled the beginning of the end for widespread U.S. support of the war, which is to say that Americans at large had not exactly been informed by those in power that the northern forces could even mount such a coordinated, canny attack. The public was shocked.
“I hadn’t been completely aware of the scale, of what a horrific struggle it was to get the city back,” Bowden said. “Studying it transformed my understanding. I now think of it as one of the major battles fought by American forces in the 20th century.”
The Battle of Hue was one of the grimmest of the war in general and of Tet in particular, and Bowden, working with two translators and a Vietnamese colleague at the University of Delaware, examines the battle from many different angles, American and Vietnamese.
“People were eager to talk about their own experience, especially the American vets,” Bowden says. “It was a particularly horrific one that stayed with them all their lives and that they learned to live with. Unless someone is being interviewed, people don’t usually have the opportunity to tell their story in detail, which can be cathartic.”
The Vietnamese vets were more reticent. “The Vietnamese vets were a little different in their willingness to talk about themselves,” he says. “I encountered a kind of reluctance to talk about their own experience. We would start talking and I would get a spiel about how the community or country or unit did. When I would ask, ‘Well, what happened to you?’ there was sometimes a bit of confusion, (with subjects saying), ‘Why would you be interested in that?’”
That being said, Bowden says that even now, nearly 50 years after the war, it was very clear that the war remains vastly more important to the Vietnamese, day to day, than to Americans.
“With Americans returned, it was a piece of their lives,” Bowden says. “They signed up or were drafted, they were there a year or 13 months, they counted down the days on the calendar before they left. To the Vietnamese, this was their life and their country. They fought against the French and Japanese, then the Americans, then the Cambodians. What we see is the Vietnam War was to them one phase of a much, much longer war. The American war was just a chapter.”
As he wrote the book, Bowden reflected on what lessons could be learned (and what lessons have been ignored, perhaps over and over again) by the American military.
“I think I came to the conclusion that that was in fact never a war that could be won,” Bowden says. “Even if we somehow set up a colony there, we would be fighting today. In the largest sense, the blindness of the American military command to the impossibility of victory was rooted in racism and arrogance.”
Bowden thinks the smaller lessons are just as profound. “Pay attention to your field commanders,” Bowden says. “There were all these small units of Americans who were not listened to over and over, who were not paid attention to when they said this battle was suicidal. Some of the men I spoke to, it’s been 50 years and they are still angry about the way they were used at Hue.”
After all, Bowden says, “anyone who has worked for a large organization know that there are often people at the top who ignore what those on the ground are saying. It’s not uncommon to find people in leadership roles for whom reality doesn’t intrude. But when you are a military commander in a war and you are not willing to adapt your thinking to changing reality on the ground, that can get a lot of people killed.”