Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
by Mark Bowden
(Atlantic Monthly, $30)
Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, has written “another instantly recognizable classic of military history,” said Steve Donoghue in CSMonitor.com. An account of the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War, Hue 1968 “wades into much deeper historical waters” than Bowden’s 1999 best-seller did. But his methods are the same. Drawing from military archives and some 150 interviews with survivors, he immerses readers in a ground-level cinematic narrative that captures the blood and the gunfire, the risks and mistakes, and the death and destruction that across 24 days killed some 10,000 soldiers and citizens and reduced the historic city of Hue to rubble. The miscalculations of leaders in Hanoi, Saigon, and Washington, D.C., contributed mightily to the carnage, but you don’t have to agree with Bowden’s conclusion that neither side won to be haunted by the stories he tells.
The “heart and soul” of the book is the up close experience of war that Bowden draws from scores of witnesses, said Glenn Altschuler in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The fighting began Jan. 31, 1968, when 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas seized the city in a surprise overnight attack. The assault was the centerpiece of the Tet Offensive, the wave of attacks that Hanoi’s Communist leaders hoped would ignite a popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government and the U.S. forces supporting it. A few hundred U.S. Marines stationed in Hue were ordered to fight back, without air support, and predictably suffered massive casualties. But the civilian uprising never occurred, allowing replenished U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to eventually retake the city and chase out the invaders, who had by then executed hundreds and perhaps thousands of civilians.
I served in Vietnam, and Bowden’s vivid depiction of the arrogance of America’s military leaders “brought back many memories, most of them angry,” said Karl Marlantes in The Wall Street Journal. I have no trouble believing that Marines were called cowards when they reported how outnumbered they were or that their superiors seemed less concerned with their men’s lives than with preserving Hue’s historic buildings. Such poor decision making is prevalent in foreign wars that have no clear objective, which is one of the reasons every American should read this “extraordinary” book. “To understand what it is to be human, you must understand war.” What’s more, “it is reasonable to hope that the more people who read and learn from books such as Hue 1968, the more will lend their weight in the war against folly.”