Hue 1968—book review
History - American Released - Mar 05, 2018
January 31st marked the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam Tet offensive. The fiercest fighting took place in the ancient capital city of Hue (pronounced “Hway”). Mark Bowen, who gave us “Black Hawk Down” (1999), has written a book about it, entitled “Hue 1968” (2016). Below is my review:
The Vietnam War was thought to be all but over by January 1968. The commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, declared the end to be in sight. In Washington D.C., Lyndon Johnson’s special assistant for National Security, Walt Rostow, told New York Times reporter Gene Roberts that, apart from a few “brush fire episodes,” the United States had won the war.
So it came as a complete shock when, in the pre-dawn hours of January 31,1968, the Tet Offensive was launched with deadly fury throughout South Vietnam. The taking of Hue was the primary objective, a bold undertaking that Hanoi believed would spark an uprising of South Vietnamese civilians, turn the tide, and win the war at long last.
After 24 days of bloody and unrelenting fighting—with 10,000 dead and 80 percent of Hue in rubble—U.S. forces took back the city. The cost was so overwhelming that American debate over the war was never again about winning, only about how to leave. Ironically, the reporter told by Walt Rostow the war over, was on the scene during the battle of Hue. His name was Gene Roberts. According to the author, Roberts’ reports for the New York Times were the first and among the best to come out of Hue.
The author describes “Hue 1968” as “mostly the work of a journalist,” the result of four years of travel (twice to Vietnam), investigation and interviews with those who were there. He tells the story from the points of view of American and Vietnamese politicians and generals as well as those who did the actual fighting. The result is a gripping day-to-day account of troop movements, fighting inside and nearby the city, and of the U.S. high command that was completely out of touch with what was taking place in Hue. General Westmoreland believed the thrust of the Tet Offensive was going to be directed at Khe Sahn, and planned accordingly for several weeks despite overwhelming evidence that the real target was Hue.
In the first days of fighting, the U.S. high command did not believe reports from the CIA, or from those fighting on the front lines, that the well-trained and well-supplied National Liberation Front (combined North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces) had taken the city. Two companies—about 300 Marines—were ordered to attack a force far larger than anyone believed possible—10,000 Front soldiers who had sneaked into the city without detection. These marines suffered enormous losses as a result. When they informed the military command in nearby Phu Bai that they were vastly outnumbered, their reports were not believed. They were accused of exaggeration, timidity and even cowardice, and ordered to attack. As a result, entire units were badly decimated, by as much as two-thirds, and one unit almost completely wiped out.
Meanwhile, the U.S. command continued to send in small units while denying air, naval and artillery support for fear of damaging Hue’s historic buildings, and thereby embarrassing the U.S. All the while, a fleet of helicopters could not keep pace with the mounting casualties that needed to be airlifted to hospitals in Saigon. Confronted with overwhelming evidence, the U.S. command finally sent in the entire 1st Marine Regiment and part of the 1st Cavalry Division, plus aircraft and heavy artillery, and began taking back the city in grim block-by-block fighting.
Hue proved to be the bloodiest battle of the entire Vietnam War. When at last the few remaining Front soldiers fled for the countryside, Hue lay in ruins. Casualties—combatants on both sides as well as citizens—exceeded 10,000. U.S. Marines and soldiers killed were 250 and the wounded 1,554.
For most of the battle, General Westmoreland was in a state of self-denial, busy preparing for the attack on Khe Sahn that never came. It seemed Americans back home were better informed than the U.S. high command, having followed the daily news reports coming out of South Vietnam. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, a supporter of the war, was reading the daily news reports as well and becoming deeply disturbed. He flew to South Vietnam to see the battle of Hue for himself, something Westmoreland decided not to do. A few weeks later, Cronkite’s report on the CBS evening news confirmed what had been reported in U.S. newspapers for several years: America was losing the war, and the battle of Hue was yet one more example of U.S. high command playing fast and loose with the truth. Writes Bowden: “(Walter Cronkite) may not have declared an end to the war, but he had declared the end of something far more significant. For decades, certainly since World War II, the mainstream press and, for that matter, most of the American public, believed their leaders, political and military. Tet was the first of many blows to that faith in coming years. Americans would never again be that trusting.”
The first casualty of war is truth, someone once said. Both sides—U.S. and North Vietnamese—were guilty of withholding the truth in order to advance their cause. For U.S. soldiers in Hue, the results were tragic. Had their initial reports been believed, the outcome very likely would have been far different. Going in with full force at the outset would have avoided the slaughter and devastation that resulted. Fewer soldiers would have died or been wounded, not to mention the citizens of Hue trapped in the city by the incessant fighting, and the ancient city itself might have been spared.
Finally, the incredible sacrifices asked of those who did the fighting, American soldiers most of them 18-to-22 year-olds. Only a few of them actually volunteered for duty. None ever dreamed they would find themselves caught up in such a horrendous situation. Neither had the men who led them into battle, lieutenant colonels in their 30s who had volunteered for Vietnam to promote their military careers. The word “courage” seems hardly adequate to describe soldiers who, having seen so many of their own shot to pieces by snipers, are ordered to step into the line of fire for the upteenth time in a single day, knowing full well the odds of returning home alive or in one piece are slim indeed.
Whether you have no military experience or only a limited knowledge of the Vietnam War, the author makes events vivid and easy to understand. He reveals the battle for Hue as disorganized, and the fighting as gruesome and savage.
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