Hue: One Battle Really Did Turn the Vietnam War

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A recently published book by Boston University historian Cathal Nolan, The Allure of Battle , argues that strategists, generals, and military historians have long placed too much emphasis on big combats in trying to win–or understand–the wars of which they are a part. Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968 , a exhaustively researched and obligating new account of the more controversial battle of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, might be taken as a kind of rejoinder to Nolan’s book.

Bowden, writer of the much-acclaimed Black Hawk Down , treats Hue as a microcosm of the Vietnam War. His account limned many of the ambitions, delusions, and delusions on both sides–those of key decision-makers, military commanders, and ordinary soldiers alike–that induced the war such a vicious and destructive tragedy. The story of Hue, like the story of Vietnam, is awash in paradox, irony, and senseless destruction. The Communists took the city knowing they could not hold it, and the Americans virtually destroyed the place wresting it back.

Bowden rebuilds the battle with extraordinary skill and dexterity, anchoring the narrative securely in the experiences of ratings of participants–mostly American Marines and soldiers, some South Vietnamese, and a astonishingly large number of Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers, and their advocates in the National Liberation Front. More than 150 veterans and survivors were interviewed at length for this project. Quite a few of the interviewees were very forthcoming, telling the author not only what they did and what they considered during the course of its combat, but what they felt about it, both at the time, and from the vantage point of today.

Bowden clearly did what journalists are supposed to do when conducting these sorts of interviews: He listened. Very closely. This is as much a book about what happens to peoples’ hearts, intellects, and bodies in the swirling chaos of urban combat as it is a history of a specific combat and an assessment of its strategic implication. We come to know a fair number of the participants quite well following completion of the story–one source of the book’s unusual power and authenticity.

The narrative changes seamlessly from context-setting background material about preparations for the operation, to grinding small-unit firefights, to discussions of tactical dilemmas faced by the officers leading the fight, to Big Picture strategy discussions about the Tet Offensive and its implications in Hanoi and Washington. With a novelist’s eye for evoking the grim atmospherics of a hellish locale and the characters within it, Bowden reconstructs dozens of scenes of heart-pounding combat, where primordial violence and dread mix with fortitude, boldnes, desperation, lightnes, and devastating loss.

Just what was the Tet Offensive? Early on the morning of Jan. 31, 1968, 84,000 Communist troops launched simultaneous assaults on more than a hundred South Vietnamese cities, towns and South Vietnamese Army( ARVN) installations. The attacks coincided with the beginning of Tet, the Vietnamese holiday that is like Christmas, New Year, and Easter all rolled into one. A truce had been arranged, and well over half of South Vietnam’s troops were on leave at the time Hanoi sprung the two attacks; so were a great many Americans.

One of the greatest surprise operations in the history of warfare, Hanoi’s” General Offensive, General Uprising” had multiple objectives. The most ambitious was to spark an uprising in the cities, in which the people and elements of the ARVN would confiscate the reins of power in the name of the Revolution, thereby making the American presence in the south untenable.

Another objective was to demonstrate the hollowness and ineptitude of the Saigon regime and the ARVN to the people of South Vietnam. A third objective, in the words of one of its chief planners, was ” to violate the will of the U.S. attackers, force the United States to accept defeat in the South and put an end to all its acts of aggressivenes in the North .” The most seasoned field commandants were deeply skeptical of their ability to trigger an uprising. Yet several of the key strategists in Hanoi, including the commander in chief of the North Vietnamese Army, Vo Nguyen Giap, believed that the shock of such a powerful country-wide offensive, coming simply weeks after America’s top field commandant, Gen. William Westmoreland, had assured the American people that” the end[ of the war] was beginning to come into view ,” might very well transgress America’s will to continue to seek victory in Vietnam.

Meticulous planning for the assaults on the part of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces–the Vietcong–and their political cadres went on for closely connected to a year. Gen. Westmoreland dismissed accumulating signs of a general offensive on the grounds that Hanoi was too weak and inept to coordinate such a vast undertaking.

But it was Westmoreland who was inept , not the Socialist. A diversionary campaign around the remote Marine combat base at Khe Sanh hoodwinked America’s top general in Vietnam into believing that a big Dien Bien Phu-style attack was imminent there. Just before the Communist launched Tet, Westmoreland ordered massive reinforcements to the northwestern corner of South Vietnam to meet the challenge. It never came.

The initial success of many of the Communist assaults at the end of January was insured by the absence of U.S. reaction forces close to the key targets. In Saigon, Communist commandos assaulted a number of allegedly impenetrable targets of symbolic significance, including the U.S. Embassy compound. Vietcong sappers penetrated the compound with ease, and then engaged in a seven-hour, operating handgun battle with American security force before they were all killed or captured, and order was restored.

Initial reports by a flood of journalists at the scene had it that the Vietcong had temporarily taken over the Embassy. They had not, but in the wake of Tet, tens of thousands of stunned Americans continued to believe the early reports.

Throughout the country, many provincial capitals and ARVN installations were overrun. After a day or so of chaos and embarrassment, the Americans and ARVN mounted formidable counterattacks and reversed Communist gains within a few days pretty much everywhere.

The most notable exception was Hue, the elegant cultural and intellectual capital of old Vietnam, a city of 140, 000 spirits. The old part of the city north of the Huong River contained an enormous fortress, enclosed by thick, 26 -foot high walls. Here, where Vietnam’s emperors had lived in the 17 th and 18 th centuries, was a maze of pagodas and dynastic mausoleums, narrow streets, alleys, courtyards, and even a royal palace. It was “ve called the” Citadel. South of the river was the modern half of the city.

Vietcong sappers and political cadres had slipped into the gently defended city in civilian clothes several days before the first wave of assaults, and prepared the style for a brilliantly executed assault by two regiments of North Vietnamese troops. As reinforcements poured in, Communist political commissars set up a revolutionary administration within the city confines, and proceeded to execute some 2,000 South Vietnamese public officials and sympathizers, and bury them in mass graves.

It fell to the U.S. Marines at nearby Phu Bai combat base and elements of the 1st ARVN Division to wrest the city back from the adversary, while U.S. Army units struggled to cut off North Vietnamese supplying and reinforcement lines from the A Shau Valley to the west. For 25 days, the Marines and the North Vietnamese hammered away at one another at phase blank range, opposing block by block in miserable climate. The Marines were tasked with clearing out the southern half of the city, with its big government builds, university and hospital. That took a bit more than a week, at which point they intersected the Huong River under heavy flame and doggedly fought their route through the Citadel along with the ARVN.

Very few books about the Vietnam War aimed at a general audience paint a nuanced portrait of America’s enemy. Hue 1968 is one of the few. It offers readers a deeply informed exploration of the experiences and thinks of commandants and ordinary troops, and of their non-combatant supporters. Many of the latter were young women who worked clandestinely for months documenting the routines and locating of Allied soldiers, and engaging in exceedingly dangerous smuggling operations to get weapons and explosives inside the city before the two attacks. Bowden’s coverage of the “other side,” which highlights the extraordinary level of commitment and dedication of the Revolution’s foot soldiers, devotes this volume a richer texture, and more balance, than any of the earlier books on Hue.

The most intense fighting took place in the tight confines of the Citadel in the third week of the combat, by which point the Communist defenders had burrowed profoundly behind roadblocks of rubble–the byproduct of American air strikes and artillery–and reinforced battle positions. Bowden’s account of the block-by-block fighting between the Communist and the Marine is graphic, disturbing, and powerful. Fear, indignation, raw heroism, sheer hatred, and despair swirl all around the battlefield, amidst the clack-clack-clack of AK-4 7s and M-1 6s, and the percussive detonations of heavy guns. Death comes in an astounding variety of ways to Americans and Vietnamese alike, and it’s everywhere 😛 TAGEND The Marines were using flamethrowers to burn bodies on the street, mostly in an effort to control the reek. Hue had become a city of the dead. It was still damp and cold and gray and was choking on its incinerated remains. The wet air absorbed the smoke and the fouled odors of close combat until you is not merely inhaled it; you wore it and savoured it–ash and cordite and the reek of rotting flesh. There were corpses everywhere, twisted and in pieces, in every stage of disintegrate. On the littered city streets they rotted where they had fallen or where, in some places, they had been hurriedly tossed or bulldozed into heaps. Dead puppies, dead cats, dead swine, dead people … the margin between life and the hereafter was tissue thin. You could die by lifting your head at the wrong moment, or by taking a step in any direction, or by doing nothing at all. Any piece of wall or home or chunk of debris large enough to hide behind was as precious as life itself, but offered only the illusion of safety. You tried to cheat the odds by making yourself small and still, but the round that killed you might come any time, from any direction. If you had to move, to step into the open, you did so in a mad dash toward some new glob of cement or plaster that might be a refuge .

Hue 1968 celebrates and celebrates all the men and women who opposed in this harrowing battle. Inevitably, though, the most colorful characters are the American Marines who did the lion’s share of the street fighting inside the Citadel. Among the Marine, Lt. Col. Ernest Cheatham , commander of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine stands out as a larger-than-life figure. A former defensive lineman in the NFL,” Big Ernie” had a deep, rumbling voice that could be heard in the midst of a firefight, a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour, and superb tactical hunch.

Cheatham lighted a fire under the stalled counterattack in the first week of the fight, and the officers and senior sergeants in the brigade plainly find his arrival on the scene as a godsend. The Marine in Vietnam hadn’t been trained in urban combat tactics. Cheatham, a Korean War platoon leader, devoted himself a quick refresher course with the help of got a couple of manuals he uncovered at the combat base at Phu Bai the day before he joined his brigade in Hue. He also scrounged a large quantity of heavy weapons, including 106 mm recoilless rifles and bazookas that could blow pits in the thick masonry walls that were everywhere in the city, and sent them up to his struggling battalion.

Improvising with what he had at hand–after all, it was the Marine way–he established a highly effective, sequential technique of attack: First came heavy mortar fire to destroy the roofs of enemy-infested houses. Cheatham called the mortars his “sledgehammers.” Next, tear gas in liberal sums was declined in. Then the tanks advanced, depicting heavy foe flame. Recoilless rifles blew pits in the walls, and finally, fire squads of Marines scrambled through the holes, and killed anything that moved.

And so it went, hour after hour, day after day.

Over the course of the book an extremely unflattering image emerges of William Westmoreland, whom Bowden illustrates as both strategically obtuse and deceitful in his reports to the American people and to his boss in Washington both before and after Tet. Westmoreland, of course, set enormous emphasis on the body count as an index of American progress. Bowden describes the body count index as” one of the greatest self-reporting swindles in history ,” and claims, correctly, that it served” as a substitute for strategy .” After the Communist seized Hue, Westmoreland repeatedly dissembled, refusing to admit that the city was fully in enemy hands. As a result, the initial counterattacks were woefully understrength, and many Americans lost their lives needlessly.

When all is said and done, Bowden concludes that” The battle and the offensive of which it was a part … altered the strategic equation in Vietnam. Debate concerning the war in the United States was never again about winning, merely about how to leave .” Thus, the author supports the conventional wisdom among resulting intellectuals of the war today: that while the Offensive and Hue was apparently tactical defeats for the Socialist, who took staggeringly heavy casualties in the fighting, they nonetheless constituted strategic victories for Hanoi.

Seen every night on the news across America for almost a month, the intensity of the fighting in Hue shocked tens of thousands of ordinary Americans who’d been told the war was just about to wind up in victory. And Tet forced the Johnson administration to re-evaluate its strategy in Vietnam, and to conclude that military victory was no longer an option. Bowden would certainly concur with historian Gabriel Kolko’s assessment:

For the United States, Tet was a long-postponed showdown with reality; it had been hypnotized until then by its own illusions, passions, and needs. The belated realization that it had military tactics and technology but no viable military strategy consistent with its domestic and international priorities constructed Tet the turning point in the administration’s computations. Those who had earlier favored the war finally made a much more objective assessment of the balance of forces-out .

Bowden’s discussion of Hue’s effect on the trajectory of the war, and of the war’s impact on the course of American foreign policy, absence the energy and punch of the combat narrative, but it struck me as perfectly sound nonetheless.

Anyone looking to understand what Vietnam was all about would do well to read Hue 1968 . Without a doubt, it’s one of the very best volumes to be written about Vietnam in the last decade.

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