Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”It would require twenty-four days of terrible fighting to take the city back. The Battle of Hue would be the bloodiest of the Vietnam War, and a turning point not just in the conflict, but in American history. When it was over, debate concerning the war in the United States was never again about winning, only about how to leave. And never again would Americans fully trust their leaders.”
The Tet Offensive took the Americans completely by surprise. The way the NVA and Viet Cong were able to move thousands of troops through Southern Vietnam and lead a coordinated attack against major South Vietnamese targets was baffling. Intelligence had alerted General William Westmoreland that there were enemy troops massing for an attack against Khe Sanh; so even when reports started filtering back to him that the Marines at Hue were in the middle of a shit storm, he just simply wouldn’t believe it.
It was precarious politically for Westmoreland to even admit there was a problem. As word started getting out about the assault on Hue and reporters began dispatching stories, it became apparent that, for a battle that didn’t exist, it was producing way too many American body bags.
Mark Bowden tells the story of Hue not only from the perspective of the American Marines and the ARVN but also from the perspective of the NVA and Viet Cong survivors. The Communists fully expected when they took the Citadel at Hue that the population would rise up and join their cause. They saw the South as subjugated people under the yoke of Saigon and the Americans. It was shocking to discover that the population of Hue was afraid of them and certainly did not see them as liberators.
Well, then the executions started. Almost 5,000 Hue civilians were executed by the NVA and Viet Cong for being perceived supporters of the Americans. What a wonderful way to win friends and influence people. By the end of this battle, over 80% of this beautiful, historic city would be in ruins. The civilian population would be moving like refugees in their own city as the battle swept them from one side to the other. Neither side was very discriminate about who they shot. As the Marines experienced more and more casualties and watched their friends being zipped up in body bags, the Vietnamese, whether enemy or ally, were beginning to be seen as Gooks.
”They got plumed. They were erased from the earth. One minute they were there, living and breathing and thinking and maybe swearing or even praying, just like him, and in the next second two hale young men, both of them sergeants in the US army, pride of their hometowns had been turned into a plume of fine pink mist--tiny bits of blood, bone, tissue, flesh, and brain--that rose and drifted and settled over everyone and everything nearby. It --or they-- drifted down on DiLeo, who reached up to wipe the bloody ooze from his eyes and saw that his arms and the rest of him was coated as well.”
The fighting wasn’t what the Marines were trained to do. As an organization, they had not fought a battle in a city since Seoul back in 1950. Colonel Ernie Cheatham dug through several footlockers that traveled with the Fifth Marines looking for any booklets that might help teach him how to fight a block by block street fight. Fortunately, he found a couple of old pamphlets that would prove helpful.
The United States population was already becoming weary and distrustful of the war in Vietnam. The Battle of Hue in 1968 was the point when those for the war started to become outnumbered by those against the war. ”On February 27, Walter Cronkite ended a special CBS News documentary with commentary bolstered by his own reporting at Hue: ‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and in Washington...It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.’ Weeks later, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”
I don’t know if there has ever been a newscaster before or after who had as much influence on the American people. If you lose Cronkite, you lose America.
After the bloody conclusion of Hue and the NVA and Viet Cong were stumbling back north with a fraction of the troops they sent south, there was an opportunity for the US to possibly put an end to North Vietnam incursions. The Marines who made it out of Hue were packing up, ready to head North to continue to push the advantage they had won. Politically, this was the beginning of the end of the war and this advantage, so obvious to the soldiers on the ground, was not exploited.
”Many of those who survived are still paying for it. To me the way they were used, particularly the way their idealism and loyalty were exploited by leaders who themselves had lost faith in the effort, is a stunning betrayal. It is a lasting American tragedy and disgrace.”
Maybe if the Marines had been allowed to keep rolling North after Hue, Saigon would look like Seoul or Tokyo. Those two cities benefited greatly from being allies with the Americans after the war. I hope my review has shown that this book is about more than just a battle. It is about a series of mistakes that actually led to the promise of an end to the war. The NVA and Viet Cong finding out that the South was not going to rise up to help them was demoralizing and certainly had those soldiers questioning some of the politically motivated beliefs that had been part of their doctrine.
Bowden will introduce you to the soldiers who fought at Hue. He will show you what tactical decisions were being made on both sides of the conflict. He will show you the influence of politics and the impact that a decision made in Washington or Hanoi had on the men and women in the foxholes on the front line. He will show you the growing distrust of leadership that ultimately turned Vietnam into a quagmire. He left me with much to ponder. Highly Recommended!
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