In 1968, more than 500,000 Americans and 800,000 South Vietnamese troops were fighting 400,000 Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese (NVA) soldiers. In early February, the enemy launched a surprise attack against dozens of cities and bases throughout the 400-mile length of South Vietnam. While most of the offensive was beaten back within days, it received enormous press coverage and badly shook the confidence of the military and political leadership in both Saigon and Washington.
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, the new book from Mark Bowden of The Atlantic, tells the tactical narrative of these events splendidly — albeit with a dubious epilogue focused on broader questions of strategy and foreign policy.
The most savage battle occurred inside the historic city of Hue in the northern part of the country. Ten thousand NVA seized the heart of the city, including the ancient citadel enclosed by stone walls 20 feet thick. For 25 days a confused, chaotic battle raged up and down the city’s streets. When it ended, most of the city was destroyed, and the death toll included approximately 250 Americans, 500 South Vietnamese and 5,000 North Vietnamese soldiers, plus 6,000 civilians killed in the fighting and another 2,000 executed by the NVA.
Bowden has stitched together dozens of riveting squad-level firefights, writing from individual points of view collected via dozens of extended interviews over four years of research. Via this accumulation of short stories depicting love, sacrifice, gore, madness, valor, blood, and horror, the reader follows the battle down the deadly streets day by day.
Journalists who shuttled in and out of the raging battle are quoted at length. In Bowden’s eyes, they are particularly admirable because they combine physical courage — intrepidly (if episodically) following after the squads — with intellectual honesty, exposing setbacks inexcusably denied by the military hierarchy. In recounting the battle, the observations of these journalists add color, depth, and pathos.
Bowden also adds to excellent past accounts — e.g., Nick Warr’s Phase Line Green and Eric Hammel’s Fire in the Streets — the perspective of the enemy. He traveled to North Vietnam and interviewed more than two dozen soldiers, both men and women. At several points in the book, he interweaves both sides’ perspectives on the same fight. The North Vietnamese were a superb light-infantry force — disciplined and determined to withstand hardship.
Unfortunately, South Vietnamese soldiers have scant voice in the story, although their losses were twice those of the Americans. The South Vietnamese fought hard. They deserved recognition. The vast majority of U.S. advisers — both at the local level where I served and in the major battles where the legendary Ray “E-Tool” Smith, a prominent figure in Bowden’s book, served — admired their doughtiness and developed a deep affection for our counterparts.
Bowden does not address why both sides fought so relentlessly. Regardless of their losses, the Marines smashed their way forward, one block a day, pushing the NVA back. Certainly the corporals and lieutenants wanted to say, Let’s take a break and get some fresh troops in here. Sometimes they said their orders were plain stupid and got them changed. But when that didn’t happen, they obeyed and went anyway.
For understanding the factors that underlay unit cohesion under extreme stress, the finest book is the novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It vividly portrays how tradition, heritage, discipline, and faith in leaders and devotion to each other combine to shape the 13-man squad, the 44-man platoon, and the 160-man rifle company.
In a city, the squad is the basic unit moving from house to house. A platoon covers a row of houses on both sides of a street, and a company advances down two streets. Four companies, about 700 men, constitute a battalion led by a lieutenant colonel. In Hue, most battalion commanders were a few streets behind the front lines. They were supposed to grasp the larger dimensions of the battle and accurately report their assessments to the colonels and generals in headquarters dozens of miles away. All too frequently, that did not happen.
Bowden does a first-rate job of showing how the realities of the front lines and the size of the NVA forces were willfully ignored by the higher-ups. He sets the scene and names those who failed their troops. Again and again, he cites “the valor of Americans . . . who were used badly.” Bowden does not conceal his anger at generals who dribbled their men into battles where they were outgunned and outmanned, and then relieved the hapless battalion commanders. Initially, Marine Brigadier General Foster LaHue dispatched two under-strength battalions, about 1,500 men, to push out 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. The overall commander, General William Westmoreland, receives particular opprobrium for deciding — against all rational evidence — to divert more and more forces to Khe Sanh, an obscure plateau in the distant jungle near the Laotian border.
* * *
Bowden describes Hue as “the point at which everything changed” and American political will began to disintegrate. A discouraged and bewildered President Lyndon Johnson was in the process of replacing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who no longer believed the war could be won. General Westmoreland had become an “untrustworthy source of information.” He had lost his credibility in Washington political circles and throughout the ranks of the press covering the war. Walter Cronkite, the oracle of America, visited with the Marines during the battle for Hue. A few days later, he appeared on CBS Evening News. “There is scarcely an inhabitable building in the whole of Hue,” he said. “If our intention is to restore normalcy . . . [Hue] is obviously a setback. . . . The only rational way out then will be negotiate, not as victors.”
And what “victory” had Westmoreland been pursuing? For 32 months, the American military had divided its forces in an effort to achieve two objectives. Westmoreland pursued a strategy of searching in the jungles for North Vietnamese main-force units in order to destroy them. In Bowden’s judgment, the general “continually and falsely assured political leaders” that he could attrite the enemy forces to the point where North Vietnam would quit.
The other objective was called nation-building or counterinsurgency. It required deploying Americans units across 12,000 hamlets to drive out the local guerrillas and to persuade the famers to support the central government.
The American military did not agree which task should take priority. The Marines sustained about as many casualties in counterinsurgency/nation-building as in fighting the North Vietnamese divisions.
The American military did not agree which task should take priority.
In his definitive book American Strategy in Vietnam, Colonel Harry Summers argued that our generals were wrong to pursue a two-headed strategy: “Instead of concentrating our efforts on repelling external aggression as we had in Korea, we also took upon ourselves the task of nation building.” The American military could have rendered North Vietnam incapable of sustaining its offensive. Mining the harbors up north would have prevented Russian military aid. Bombing the dikes would have diverted manpower to subsistence farming. Large-scale ground attacks into Laos and north of the risible Demilitarized Zone would place the NVA army on the defense.
However, no such operations were undertaken. Instead, U.S. troops fought on the defense inside South Vietnam, from which the U.S. had essentially withdrawn by 1972. In 1973, the U.S. Congress declared a termination of all bombing, regardless of the continuing attacks by the North Vietnamese. Each year after that, aid to South Vietnam was slashed, while the Soviet Union and China steadfastly armed and subsidized North Vietnam. In April of 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers manning Soviet tanks rolled into Saigon as the last Americans escaped by helicopter.
* * *
In the book’s epilogue, Bowden writes, “the battle of Hue and the entire Vietnam War seem a tragic and meaningless waste. . . . As some of the nation’s more recent wars have helped to illustrate, ‘victory’ in Vietnam would have been neither possible nor desirable.” This exculpation by blanket denial is both mystical and bewildering. It does not fit with the focus (one significant 25-day urban battle) or the deep research of the book.
Yes, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are comparable to Vietnam in two particulars. First, in all three cases America insisted upon democratic nation-building that was resisted by the indigenous cultures and eventually exceeded politically sustainable resources. Second, in Vietnam, we conceded a vast sanctuary to our enemy; in Afghanistan, we similarly allowed Pakistan to provide aid and refuge to the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
However, unlike North Vietnam, the Islamist terrorists pose a continuing danger to America. Defeating them cannot be dismissed as “neither possible nor desirable.” There must be “victory,” narrowly defined as an end state that is tolerable to our security interests. Tell me where we are in three years if I follow your strategy should be the directive the commander-in-chief issues to his generals. And most certainly Bowden’s aversion to nation-building should be heeded in regards to our future role in Syria. Beyond that, though, it is not clear how geopolitical lessons from Vietnam apply to our ongoing wars.
Unlike North Vietnam, the Islamist terrorists pose a continuing danger to America.
Fortunately, Bowden’s musings on strategy and foreign policy are merely an out-of-place epilogue hastily appended. Essentially, Bowden has written a classic narrative about the role of grit and the individual soldier in urban battle.
Hue was not a tactical microcosm of the war; indeed, it was the singular exception in a war fought in the rice paddies and jungles. Of the 58,000 American fatalities during the war, less than 0.5 percent occurred during the battle to retake Hue. But Hue’s import is not restricted to history.
We have not seen the end of city brawls of hurricane force, and the nature of the savage fighting has not changed. Urban warfare is increasing as more of the world’s population leaves rural areas. In 2004, American forces twice assaulted the city of Fallujah. Eighteen thousand of the city’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. More than 120 Americans and thousands of Iraqi civilians and insurgents died. Were it not for modern medical techniques, about as many Americans would have been killed in Fallujah as in Hue. Today, the battles raging across Syria and Iraq are mainly urban. In Mosul alone, tens of thousands have died, with many thousands yet to come.
The tactics Bowden describes in graphic detail — avoiding the booby-trapped doors and instead smashing through the sides of buildings, clearing room to room, staying off any street or open area, moving always by bounds — are as vital today as they were in Hue.
— Bing West served in Marine infantry in Vietnam and has written nine books about our wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.