JULY 31, 2017
BATTLES FASCINATE. When we read stories of them, we tend to see humanity’s virtues in a venue unlike any other. We come away from these harrowing tales — concentrating mostly on men in combat — with a sense of righteousness in ourselves. Our descriptions of battle are thus often filled with platitudes: courageous warriors, sacrificing for their brothers, performing their duty in support of a moral cause, returning home as too-often-unsung heroes. The crucible of battle turns boys into men, creates bonds between warriors unknown in the civilian world, and illustrates the best of democracy in an untamed world.
And because such narratives are so compelling, and frequently dripping with patriotic pablum, we want battles to matter. The more than 23,000 Union casualties suffered at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, need to count for more than just a laundry list of dead and wounded. They need to be remembered for saving the Union, for helping put an end to slavery, for turning around a war that, to that point, had resulted in little more than a bloody stalemate.
This search for “decisive battle” has long engaged military theorists, historians, and generals and admirals alike. In a similar vein, acclaimed popular historian Mark Bowden seeks to find a comparable field on which to demonstrate why battle still mattered in the Vietnam War. The vivid but flawed result is Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, a 500-plus-page tome on the fighting inside a single city during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Tet still stands to many Americans as the high-water mark of US efforts in Southeast Asia. Before Hanoi launched its countrywide offensive into South Vietnam during the Vietnamese new year, “victory” still seemed attainable. By March, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his intention not to run for reelection, the enemy assault had left in its wake a disillusioned American home front and seemingly had initiated a slow, arduous withdrawal from Vietnam.
For Bowden, the three-week-long battle inside the Imperial City of Huế in South Vietnam’s Thua Thien province encapsulates the entirety of the 1968 Tet Offensive — the grim determination of communist fighters, the intrepid valor of besieged American marines, the abject suffering of the Vietnamese civilian population, and the craven dishonesty and strategic mismanagement of US military leaders. On the ground level, Huế 1968 makes for compelling, at times even difficult, reading. The killing is relentless. As Bowden raises his sights, however, he relies on overworked clichés that expose a limited grasp of the larger strategic and political issues in a long and complicated war.
The communist offensive that opened on January 30, 1968, engulfed nearly all of South Vietnam. Military forces from the National Liberation Front — popularly known as the Viet Cong — and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked the Saigon capital, South Vietnam’s six largest cities, and 36 of 44 provincial capitals. More than 80,000 enemy troops attacked across the breadth and depth of a country already reeling from years of hard fighting, economic strife, and social dislocation.
Though American intelligence had seen evidence of an enemy buildup just outside South Vietnam’s borders in late 1967, few in either the CIA or the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) headquarters believed Hanoi possessed the capacity to launch a countrywide offensive. Indeed, the head of MACV, General William C. Westmoreland, saw the marine outpost at Khe Sanh in northern Quang Tri province as the likely target of any upcoming assault. President Johnson himself worried that the 5,000 marines there might be overrun, providing Hanoi a propaganda coup on par with the French garrison’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu at the close of the French-Indochina War.
Yet Le Duan, the Hanoi Politburo’s general secretary, had bigger aims in mind. A major offensive might spur a general uprising among South Vietnam’s population, exposing the lies of American politicians who argued they were fighting on behalf of the Vietnamese people. Thus, Huế, like dozens of other locales across South Vietnam, came under assault in the early morning light of January 30. Taking Huế, however, offered a unique symbolic prize, for the Imperial City had been the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors and Vietnam’s capital until 1945.
Bowden excels in describing the horrific urban warfare that consumed Huế throughout much of February 1968. As in his earlier book Black Hawk Down, which told the story of the US military experience in Somalia through a single battle, he pulls the reader into the cross fires of combat with breathtaking results. In near frenetic pace, Bowden leads us through constricted streets and over bloody corpses with a level of detail that underscores the horrors, and vicissitudes, of modern war. He hammers away at the reader with a gritty mélange of decapitations, burns, amputations, and sucking chest wounds, enough to make even those with the strongest constitutions wince.
Critics might suggest the author seems almost voyeuristically attracted to these horrors, but there is merit to unveiling the dreadfulness of combat. Perhaps the virtues we want to see in battle are gravely misplaced.
Detailing the human element of combat also provides us an opportunity to reconsider war as a two-sided story. Too often, Americans paint their enemies with such broad strokes as to erase their very sense of humanity. Bowden, though, skillfully weaves the Vietnamese communists and civilians into his narrative, demonstrating that far more than just US soldiers and marines sacrificed and suffered in Huế. He neither romanticizes nor vilifies those who fought for the other side. His interviews with participants should force American readers in particular to reevaluate some long-standing myths depicting the Viet Cong as ideologically driven communist automatons or South Vietnamese civilians as passive victims with little interest in the war’s outcome. For example, Bowden’s recounting of the communist purges targeting residents who supported the Saigon regime is both nuanced and perceptive.
That said, as the story progresses, the narrative lens tightens around the experiences of those US soldiers and marines battling in and around Huế. As in the war itself, the Americans still force their way onto center stage.
While senior military leaders come off as bumbling, out-of-touch commanders, soldiers at the battalion and company levels pay for the brass’s ineptitudes. As Bowden argues, the American chain of command simply “didn’t get it.” But it is difficult to determine whether the young men fighting in the ranks of South Vietnam’s army, the ARVN, better understood the battle they were fighting, for their voices are nearly silent throughout this book. Moreover, one wonders if the marines fighting and dying inside Huế really “grew accustomed to the smell of death” as Bowden dramatically maintains in what amounts to a gloss-over. Did the marines truly cease to find death troubling or, rather, did they compartmentalize the horror and hope it wouldn’t emerge in the form of nightmares?
There’s a larger problem with this approach. Demonstrating authenticity through vivid combat stories surely hooks readers at the ground level, but Bowden then leads them astray on the larger questions of military strategy. If the author is sympathetic to the young combatants unable to make sense of the battle in which they were engaged, he is uncompromisingly critical of the American generals apparently caught flat-footed by the Tet Offensive.
Without question, Westmoreland and other American generals underestimated Hanoi’s capacity to deliver such a stunning blow in early 1968. And, the MACV commander undoubtedly misread the enemy’s intentions when it came to the marines’ outpost at Khe Sanh. Yet while Bowden argues there was “plenty of blame to go around” for all the killing in Huế, he clearly wants most of it hung around the necks of senior US military leaders.
Westmoreland’s strategic leadership continues to instigate hotly contested arguments among veterans and scholars of the war, yet Bowden, quite frankly, adds little to the debate, simply trotting out a caricature of the general associated with works from the mid-1970s and early 1980s. More recent scholarship, from the likes of Graham Cosmas and Dale Andrade, paints a far more nuanced picture of Westmoreland and his command’s response to the Tet Offensive. Given his scant footnotes, it is difficult to trace how steeped Bowden is in the historical archives and scholarly literature on American strategy during 1967 and 1968.
A few more points demonstrate problems with Bowden’s shaky grasp of the bigger picture. For instance, in disparaging Westmoreland for his seemingly laser focus on Khe Sanh, at the expense of supporting the more important battle at Huế, Bowden offers no analysis of the NVA forces arrayed around Khe Sanh (which the North Vietnamese called the “Western Front”) and massed opposite the US-ARVN forces just south of the demilitarized zone in northern Quang Tri province. In fact, a total of 60,000 NVA troops operated along the Khe Sanh-northern Quang Tri front alone. One wonders how Westmoreland could have ignored these forces without running the risk of ceding the entire northern portion of South Vietnam to the enemy.
Nor was Westmoreland, as Bowden alleges, “dismissive and even scornful” of Huế and other South Vietnamese cities under attack. A review of the general’s official reports in the first weeks of Tet disclose a corps-by-corps assessment of the enemy’s gains and setbacks, a concern over Hanoi’s plans to spur a popular uprising, and the deployment of American forces like the 1st Cavalry Division to deal with the enemy threat in South Vietnam’s two northernmost provinces. Nor does Bowden pay any attention to MACV’s efforts keeping open critical lines of communication, like the ever-important Highway 1, so allied forces in Huế could be continually resupplied. In short, Huế was only part of a much larger effort aimed at turning back the enemy’s grand offensive.
Bowden wants, desperately it appears, for Huế to have been the central battle of the entire Tet Offensive. It was not. Rather, Hanoi forced MACV to contend with a determined assault spanning nearly all of South Vietnam. That it took the allies longer to dislodge their enemy from Huế does not, in itself, prove that Huế was “a turning point not just in [the Vietnam] conflict, but in American history.” Such sweeping book-jacket categorizations, unfortunately, detract from Bowden’s main focus on the micro-tactical level of war.
We should, of course, note a certain school of thought that rejects the very concept of “turning points” in history, particularly in 20th-century conflicts. Battles surely influence the direction of wars: the 1942 Battle of Midway in the Pacific theater of World War II is an obvious example. Yet, by themselves, they do not predetermine wars’ outcomes. Was the war in Vietnam “unwinnable” for the Americans after fighting in the streets of Huế died out in late February 1968? History has too many moving parts to make it that simple. Key leaders in the Nixon administration, for example, had made decisions of their own about how best to prosecute the war — decisions that truthfully had little to do with the outcome in Huế.
Nor, in reality, did Huế mark a significant change in strategy for either North Vietnam or the United States. The gruesome fighting there proved in no way a catalyst for reconsidering American military strategy, and not because, as Bowden asserts, senior American officers engaged in a grand “conspiracy of denial” to downplay the battle’s importance. A review of MACV’s after-action reports from Tet and its command history covering 1968 more generally cast doubt on such egregious accusations. Moreover, Bowden attempts to have his story both ways. He applauds The New York Times reporters like Gene Roberts, to whom the book is dedicated, for bringing Huế to Americans’ attention, while accusing MACV of so limiting information on the battle that it barely registered at the time or has since.
More notably, LBJ’s political decisions — as early as the fall of 1967 — to place a ceiling on US troops while pursuing a variation on Vietnamization show clearly that policy and grand strategy evolved outside the strict realm of battlefield tactics in that administration. By ignoring the decision-making of political and military leaders, however, Bowden misrepresents Huế as the battle that fundamentally changed the American war in Vietnam. The truth is: It didn’t.
Without question, battles matter in war. They influence morale of armies. They often shape domestic support of politicians and the media. They can spur antiwar activism that force political leaders to reassess their policies. And they can serve as an indicator of a nation’s will to suffer the costs of war in hopes of attaining a political aim.
But the fighting in and around Huế in early 1968 begot only one outcome — continued stalemate. There was no high-tide at Gettysburg in the streets of the Imperial City that winter. Bowden strains to make Huế more important than it really was. But MACV’s attention was drawn to other important tasks during the 1968 Tet Offensive: defending Saigon, safeguarding major ports, attempting to restart a pacification effort that had been stalled by the enemy’s general offensive, just to name a few. And in the end, it was Saigon, not Huế, that always stood as Hanoi’s principal target.
Such truths should not detract from the pain, suffering, and sacrifices experienced by combatants and civilians alike as waves of enemy troops engulfed Huế. Bowden has done a great service in illustrating the hellish nature of battle in the most graphic of ways. Yet we should not be deceived into believing that meaning must always be attached to such sacrifices. As unsympathetic as it may sound, sometimes death in battle advances no political objective. And accepting this reality is perhaps the greatest perspective to be gained by following Mark Bowden through the streets of Huế in 1968.