A fe­ro­cious bat­tle por­trayed as a piv­otal mo­ment of Viet­nam War

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE -

HIS­TOR­I­CAL en­tirely con­vinc­ing, new book, “Hue 1968: A Turn­ing Point of the Amer­i­can War in Viet­nam.” Hue (pro­nounced Hway), Viet­nam’s cul­tural cap­i­tal and its third-largest city, was the set­ting for the most fe­ro­cious bat­tle dur­ing the of­fen­sive. Not since the early days of the French strug­gle against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, in 1946-47, had Viet­nam seen this kind of ur­ban war­fare, as North Viet­namese army and Viet Cong troops went up against Amer­i­can and ARVN units, of­ten block by block.

By the time the bat­tle ended, on Feb. 25, the U.S./ARVN side had pre­vailed, but the city lay in ru­ins. Al­most 6,000 civil­ians had been killed in the fight­ing, not in­clud­ing sev­eral hun­dred South Viet­namese civil ser­vants who were ex­e­cuted by com­mu­nist sol­diers. The Amer­i­cans lost 250 Marines and sol­diers, and 1,554 more were wounded. ARVN ca­su­al­ties ran ap­prox­i­mately twice as high. Deaths in­curred by what Bow­den refers to as “The Front” (short for the Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front, but con­fus­ing here in that the NLF would typ­i­cally refer to the Viet Cong alone, not the com­bined com­mu­nist forces) to­taled be­tween 2,400 and 5,000, de­pend­ing on which ac­count one trusts.

A vet­eran jour­nal­ist and the au­thor of “Black Hawk Down,” a grip­ping ac­count of the brief and dis­as­trous U.S. mil­i­tary cam­paign in So­ma­lia in 1993, Bow­den opts here for the same nar­ra­tive ap­proach that worked well in the ear­lier book: a day-by-day, some­times hour-by-hour, re­con­struc­tion of events. There is a po­tent im­me­di­acy to his nar­ra­tive, an al­most cin­e­matic vivid­ness, and the mo­men­tum sel­dom flags, even over more than 500 pages. Given es­pe­cially the mul­ti­ple armed forces in­volved in the bat­tle and the sprawl­ing cast of char­ac­ters, this is no small feat.

Not the least of the book’s virtues is its au­thor’s staunch re­fusal to speak in terms of he­roes and vil­lains, at least as far as the fight­ers and their lo­cal com­man­ders are con­cerned (the re­spec­tive se­nior civil­ian and mil­i­tary lead­er­ships come in for harsher treat­ment, de­picted as ar­ro­gant and mostly out of touch). Both sides, the au­thor shows, were ca­pa­ble of acts of courage and of ruth­less­ness; nei­ther had a monopoly on ded­i­ca­tion or self-doubt. The Viet­namese, so of­ten card­board fig­ures in his­to­ries of the war, here emerge as flesh-and-blood play­ers with their own hopes and am­bi­tions and fears – even if the ARVN mostly re­cedes from view as the story pro­gresses.

As he did in “Black Hawk Down,” Bow­den re­lies heav­ily on in­ter­views to bring the events to life. The rec­ol­lec­tions of Amer­i­cans as well as Viet­namese form a core part of his re­search and a core part of his nar­ra­tive. At times these in­di­vid­u­als ev­i­dently were able to re­ca­pit­u­late for him ver­ba­tim di­a­logue from half a cen­tury ago – ei­ther that, or Bow­den has a wor­ry­ingly ca­sual at­ti­tude to­ward the use of quo­ta­tion marks. More broadly, the au­thor’s min­i­mal­ist ap­proach to source ci­ta­tion makes it hard to know where he gets a lot of his in­for­ma­tion. Many chap­ters have barely any end­notes.

(More min­i­mal­ism: I’ve been read­ing se­ri­ous non­fic­tion his­tory books for a long time, and never be­fore have I flipped to the back for the in­dex only to be directed to a web­site.)

As be­fit­ting a bat­tle his­tory of this kind, the book has rel­a­tively lit­tle to say about the broader po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary con­text in which the en­counter in Hue oc­curred. When Bow­den does ven­ture into this ter­rain, he is not al­ways sure-footed. For him, as for many au­thors on the war, a prin­ci­pal prob­lem for the United States in Viet­nam was that its lead­ers sup­pos­edly did not un­der­stand the en­vi­ron­ment they had en­tered, did not com­pre­hend the Viet­namese, did not ap­pre­ci­ate the na­ture of the task be­fore them. He ap­prov­ingly quotes one Amer­i­can vet­eran of the bat­tle: “I do not think we re­ally un­der­stood much. … Our pol­icy mak­ers, I do not think re­ally had any grasp at all on what was go­ing to hap­pen.”

Color me skep­ti­cal. As Bow­den’s own ev­i­dence shows, se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials knew long be­fore the Tet Of­fen­sive that the ob­sta­cles in the way of last­ing suc­cess in the war were for­mi­da­ble and grow­ing; many of them in­deed knew it even be­fore they ini­ti­ated the air war and sent the first com­bat troops in early 1965. Al­though largely ig­no­rant of Viet­namese his­tory and cul­ture, they un­der­stood full well that the odds were against them.

For this rea­son one can ques­tion Bow­den’s as­ser­tion that Tet, and the Bat­tle of Hue, was “the pivot point” in the war, after which “the de­bate was never again about how to win but about how to leave.”

But fine: If some of Bow­den’s broader claims are ques­tion­able, what re­mains is still im­pres­sive. In “Hue 1968” he has given us an en­gross­ing, fair-minded, up-close ac­count of one of the great bat­tles in the long strug­gle for Viet­nam.

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