“Hué 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.” By Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly Press. 594 pages. $30.
Vietnam was halfway around the world from Oxford, but there were ways we heard about the war.
Our scoutmaster and his patrol were camped in the mountains above the Ho Chi Minh Trail, so close to the enemy that they were forbidden to load their rifles. One afternoon, because they couldn’t use their rifles, they were driven out of their tents by a troop of orangutans.
Our Mississippi History teacher had his jeep blown up just after he landed. He crouched down in the ditch beside the road, scared stiff but ready to shoot back. He waited forever, but the enemy never came.
Our Sunday School teacher, a cheerful young officer who taught ROTC classes at Ole Miss during the week, skipped away from the lesson plan one morning and drew a blackboard sketch of how the Viet Cong planned ambushes.
On the Channel 3 news, there was one day each week when they listed the casualties. Usually the number of men killed in action was in the low hundreds. Then there came a late afternoon when the figure was different: more than a thousand American dead. There was plenty of news from Vietnam that week, stories of Foreign Service staff shooting Vietnamese commandos inside the American embassy and helicopter pilots making daredevil landings under enemy fire, but the casualty figure stands out in memory. It was February 1968—the start of the Tet Offensive, which is the subject of Mark Bowden’s history, “Hué 1968.”
Hué was the second-largest city in South Vietnam. It was overshadowed by the massive walls of the Citadel, the former capital of Vietnamese emperors. Capturing Hué would be a stunning military victory with immense cultural and political resonance. It was not merely Viet Cong guerrillas in black pajamas who attacked the city. It was battalions and regiments of North Vietnamese soldier—fierce, disciplined young men in dark-green uniforms who battered U.S. Marines and manhandled Army battalions.
“They had come on the run, some shouting party slogans, mostly men but also women, most of them young, by the thousands,” Mark Bowden writes in “Hué 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam,” his account of the battle. “They poured across the city’s many bridges, through the fortress gates, swarmed up the wider avenues, and fanned out into side streets. Along the rivers and canals they came on sampans. The banks on the outskirts of the city were littered with the small plastic and bamboo rafts they had used to float their weapons and ammo across. They came on motorbikes and in Jeeps, the NVA in their clean, new green uniforms, the VC in khakis or worn black pajamas … Most believed they had come to stay. They were true believers, picturing the scenes in Hué playing out at the same time in cities throughout South Vietnam, the war’s great and final act.”
The fighting in Hué went on for a month. Bowden, who also wrote “Black Hawk Down,” builds up the story from more than 160 interviews, with both American and Vietnamese veterans. (Other soldiers, who did not survive, speak through their letters home.) He captures the careful plans laid by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (which had smuggled in rifles and grenades for months beforehand); the confusion of the early fighting (the Vietnamese overran so much of the city that they had trouble regrouping and could not drive the Marines out of one last quarter inside the Citadel); and the bitter intensity of the street-by-street, block-by-block combat that followed.
Recapturing Seoul, in 1950, had been the most recent time that the American military fought inside a city. To recapture Hué, the Army and Marines called on bazookas, rocket launchers and tanks (bad weather and local politics prevented air strikes and artillery barrages). Particularly useful were the Marines’ Ontos, light armored vehicles mounting heavy 106mm recoilless rifles.
“Walls and buildings were both your enemy and your friend … The way to proceed was to secure a starting position, and when you moved, you moved through walls, not around or over them,” Bowden explains. “You blasted your way forward, blowing holes in anything that stood in your way. When you encountered the enemy in a building or bunker, you flattened it or gassed it or burned it. Then you sent your riflemen in to clean up.”
The individual stories in this book never blur. A Viet Cong cadre recalls her underground work (while carrying home water from the public fountain, she flirted with loose-lipped South Vietnamese sentries). A tank crewman remembers what happened when they blew open the bank vault. Somberly, a Marine recalls how his platoon pulled two dozen dead enemy soldiers out of a bunker: “more enemy soldiers than any of them had ever seen at one time, alive or dead … They seemed oddly young and small and skinny, until it occurred to him that he and his fellow Marines were all young and skinny too, only taller.”
This book is a worthy successor to Bowden’s searing, compelling “Black Hawk Down.” Bowden skillfully fits his witnesses’ stories together into a panorama of the fighting, but there comes a point when his history of the battle moves past each veteran’s personal experience. The book has no index and doesn’t need one. It underlines what the casualty figures showed that night 50 years ago: that the war in Vietnam had suddenly become more than what we had heard about it.
Allen Boyer, the Book Editor of HottyToddy.com, is a native of Oxford. His most recent book is “Rocky Boyer’s War,” on the air war in the Southwest Pacific.