Denial and Disaster

Hue, firefight

Denial and Disaster

Mark Bowden, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017, reviewed by WILLIAM HARTLEY

For those of a certain age it is sobering to realise that the men and women who fought in this 26 day battle are now in their sixties and seventies. The Tet offensive of February 1968 and the ensuing battle to retake the city of Hue may once have been seen as another wearisome episode in a war which was to drag on for seven more years. Yet as author Mark Bowden shows, it was far more important than that.  

Tet was the Vietnamese equivalent of the Chinese New Year. In the weeks leading up to the holiday the North Vietnamese had been infiltrating thousands of troops into the south. At Hue these troops aided by local civilians invaded the city, seized key installations and began the revolution. The North Vietnamese leaders had assured their troops that there would be a popular uprising against the American supported regime of President Thieu. This of course didn’t happen. Like most civilians, the South Vietnamese preferred to hang back and see who was likely to prevail. In Hue, 10,000 North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong took over the country’s third largest city and began dealing with senior supporters of the Saigon government.

Bowden explains how at Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), General Westmoreland (‘Westy’ to President Lyndon Johnson) had convinced himself that the Tet offensive was an elaborate diversion because the real aim was to attack the garrison at Khe Sahn. Westmoreland believed that the Hanoi regime wanted to re-run their defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu and consequently forces were held back to defend the place. He seems to have overlooked the fact that during the Tet offensive, Khe Sahn was the only place not attacked.

Despite an extremely accurate CIA assessment, senior officers at MACV failed to appreciate the scale of the North Vietnamese occupation of Hue, believing there to be only a few hundred enemy troops in the city. This was to have disastrous consequences for the soldiers and marines who were sent to recapture Hue. Company strength forces found themselves being met by NVA regiments.  

In his postscript to the book, Bowden suggests that fifty years after an event is a good time to be researching a book; there are still survivors available to be interviewed and though he concedes that memories can fade or be distorted, the vivid first hand accounts they provide, augmented by letters and diaries, more than make up for this. Bowden travelled to Vietnam to talk to North Vietnamese veterans; elderly men who despite the presence of party officials were prepared to concede that they had gone too far in ‘re-educating’ the South Vietnamese and who soon realised that the idea of a popular uprising was a myth fed to them by their political masters in the north. Others are still resentful of the fact that they were ordered to evacuate Hue when American firepower became too overwhelming. They felt that the US could have been made to pay some more before the withdrawal took place.

The sense of denial by Westmoreland and his senior officers worked both upwards and downwards. Scarcely a mention of Hue was made in his communiques to President Johnson. Instead, he represented the whole offensive as a desperate last throw of the dice by an enemy whose move had been both anticipated and successfully beaten off by US forces. It is unfortunate that Bowden wasn’t able to include some explanation of why MACV headquarters was behaving this way. Was it a form of institutional groupthink of the sort that convinced the German military that Stalin had no further armies left? At Hue, marine battalion commanders were being accused of weakness or a lack of aggressive spirit when they reported being beaten back by North Vietnamese firepower.

The marines and soldiers who went in had gained their combat experience campaigning in the jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam. They had no knowledge of urban warfare and some naively looked forward to the idea of getting out of the jungle. One enterprising junior officer, recognising his ignorance of this kind of fighting, remembered that battalion headquarters possessed a small library of manuals. He spent a couple of hours reading up on the subject before collecting the weapons and equipment that he thought would be of assistance.

Wisely, Bowden recognises that the battle to retake Hue was in essence a squad level action with ten to thirteen men being deployed. As a consequence, he concentrates on the fighting at this level and the book is a great piece of storytelling. Veterans on both sides recount their roles in the battle. Nearly fifty years on it can now be appreciated that this was one of the most important battles fought since the Second World War, a Stalingrad for the 1960s. The North Vietnamese may have lost but it was an important step towards the beginning of the end for US involvement in the country.

The experiences of individual marines can make for truly horrific reading. Eighteen-year-old Richard Leflar was hurled into the horrors of street fighting and loaded down with weapons and ammunition by unsympathetic comrades. Breaking cover, he was blown into a hole and came to in darkness lying on a pile of corpses. Another teenager Alvin Grantham, shot through the chest, was zipped into a body bag by a marine who paused in the act calling out, ‘this one’s still alive’. Operated on before the anaesthetic has begun to take effect, Grantham was shipped to Japan where he contracted malaria then typhoid before returning home 50 pounds lighter.

The battle took place in drizzle and misty conditions quite unlike the Vietnam of steaming jungles, which added to the misery the troops had to endure. Although the efforts of the South Vietnamese forces fighting in Hue receive less coverage in the book, Bowden doesn’t forget the war correspondents such as Michael Herr and the remarkable Cathy Leroy, a French photo journalist fond of showing off the shrapnel wounds in her legs. These people shared the risks with the troops and told the real story of what was going on in Hue. Bowden records moments of black humour too. Having recaptured the radio station, the marines broadcast the Righteous Brothers’ hit You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling to the North Vietnamese.  One marine recalled the irony of the Saigon government’s anti-smoking campaign in the midst of the war. At the end of it all with 250 soldiers and marines dead, plus 1,554 wounded, Westmoreland was replaced and Johnson announced that he wouldn’t stand for re-election

Hue 1968 tells a story which over the years has faded into the morass of the Vietnam war. Bowden has done an excellent job in bringing it back to prominence as arguably the single most important battle fought in that protracted conflict. The author keeps the story local and human, often letting the veterans do the talking. It is arguably the best book about the horrors of urban warfare since Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad.

Hue City, 1967, wounded American soldier & colleagues

BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service

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