By: Aidan Clarke, Contributor
On Jan. 30, 1968, North Vietnamese regulars and elite units of the Vietcong launched a simultaneous surprise attack on major cities throughout South Vietnam. Americans, having been promised “light at the end of the tunnel,” instead woke up to see North Vietnamese forces inside the U.S. Embassy, and in control of Vietnam’s ancient capital, Hue.
Over the next eight weeks, American and Republic of Vietnam forces would engage in one of the most brutal urban battles in American history, with over 600 Americans killed. Those back home were left to wonder, ‘how could this happen?’
Seeking to answer that question is Mark Bowden’s “Hue 1968,” a definitive history of one of the Vietnam War’s most horrific battles. Bowden has emerged as a profound writer of current events, with bestsellers such as “Black Hawk Down” and “Killing Pablo.”
“Hue 1968” offers an unparalleled account of the events preceding the Tet Offensive, thanks to the cooperation from the Vietnamese government, which granted Bowden interviews with a number of Vietnamese veterans and access to sources previously unseen to American eyes. This humanizes a previously faceless enemy, helping us to understand the complex motivations, and fears of those who fought on both sides of the battle.
The book is also able to offer a panoramic glimpse into the U.S. in the Vietnam War. Readers can see the perspective of grunts and officers, journalists and civilians, politicians and their constituents. Much like Black Hawk Down, the book juxtaposes the rhetoric and maneuvering of the political classes, with the tragic realities of those sent to fight and die in a country they had never heard of. Fascinatingly, a similar contrast is described on the North Vietnamese side as well, as North Vietnamese soldiers discovered that they had also been lied to. Expecting to be welcomed as liberators, and promised that their victory would end the war, they were shocked to see American and South Vietnamese forces gradually drive them out of the cities and back into the jungles, while they suffered mass casualties.
Bowden’s writing is brilliant. While maintaining a broad and accurate historical perspective, he is able to retain the heart pounding suspense that define his previous books. Bowden tells the story of soldiers and Marines, trained to fight in jungles or the vast Steppes of Central Europe, forced to adapt to fighting house by house, street by street, inch by inch, against an enemy who did not wear uniforms or follow rules of engagement. He also tells the story of civilians, who struggled to survive not only the battle itself, but also the North Vietnamese death squads. These squads killed up to five to ten percent of the population of the city while the battle still raged. “Hue 1968,” leaves the reader feeling betrayed, perplexed and melancholy, and perhaps that should be the benchmark for a history of America’s war in Vietnam.
“Hue 1968” is a masterpiece of popular history. Bowden refuses to yield to dogmatic arguments, instead focusing on portraying the truth of a horrifying battle. “Hue 1968” is open to readers of all levels, and provides an enjoyable, enriching and educational account of one of the most important chapters in the history of our nation.