Several months ago, my uncle and I had a discussion about aging and how health becomes more important as the years pass by. He recalled when he left the military following his service in Vietnam. His hearing is permanently damaged as a result of being stationed near the 50 caliber machine gun while out on patrol. Over the years, he has spoken about Vietnam on rare occasions but I know for a fact that he and millions of other veterans of the war, carry with them many dark memories and emotional scars from their time in a war that has been viewed negatively for several decades. Author Mark Bowden revisits the war in this phenomenal account of the battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968. My uncle was not stationed in Hue but in another part of the country and has told me many things about the war that made my skin crawl. For the United States Armed Forces, the battle of Hue and the Tet Offensive changed the war in Vietnam and the for the first time, it became increasingly clear, that this was a war that America could possibly lose.
Bowden opens the book by setting the stage for the events that led up to Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration that marks the first day of the lunar new year. American forces led by Gen. William Westmoreland (1914-2005) had assumed that Khe Sanh would be the place where the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would launch a surprise attack during Tet. Some downplayed the attack as rumors with no basis of truth. However, when the NVA launched its operation on January 30, 1968, it was a wake up call for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and Washington, where President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) became haunted by a war with no ending in sight. The book picks up pace at this point and it never slows down.
Instantly I was pulled into the story. Memories of Olive Stone’s ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ by Stanley Kubrick came back to me as different but very vivid portrayals of the conflict in Vietnam. Both films are classics but neither touches in depth on the Tet Offensive. This book is different and what Bowden reveals shows a side of the war that neither filmmaker had enough time or resources to cover. The story at hand follows the Marines and Hue is ground zero. The battle was bloody, protracted and tragic for both sides. The concept of a happy ending does not apply here. In fact, not one person Bowden interviewed, viewed the war in a positive light. What I did find was that there is bitterness, heartache and the question of why the United States became entangled in Vietnam to begin with. It is a question America has struggled to answer. Former Rand employee Daniel Ellsberg revealed much of what Washington was thinking when he provided confidential memos that have become known as the The Pentagon Papers. The memos are striking and reveal monumental failures among the brightest minds in Washington. We may never know all of the details regarding the decisions to become engaged in Southeast Asia.
I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart. The injuries and deaths among the Marines are nothing short of horrific. We meet many of them, learn about their lives and follow the paths they took to Vietnam. Some of them do not survive and for those that do, Hue became a permanent memory that would haunt them for years to come. What shocked me, among many things, were the ages of the Marines we become acquainted with. Some are as young as 18 years of age and deposited into a place that they see as hell on earth. The scenes are savage and young men are forced to make decisions and carry out orders that cause them to question what is truly right and wrong. The common adage is that war is hell and it certainly applies here.
The author focuses not only on the battle at Hue but also on the domestic issues raised in the United States. While Gen. Westmoreland, known to many as “Westy” gave figures on the death toll and the successes of U.S. troops, many were skeptical including the late American journalist Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), whose trip to Vietnam is covered in the book. Americans had started to learn that something was not quite right about the reports coming back from Saigon and Cronkite became one of the leading voices in holding Washington accountable to what was happening to the boys overseas. Cronkite’s findings and Johnson’s realizations are one of the pivotal parts of the book and for the troops in Vietnam, a sobering reality.
The book is primarily centered around Hue and is not intended to be a full discussion of the war’s origin. In fact, the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969), makes only a brief appearance in the story. The author never loses focus and the story remains on the dedicated Marines, the constant reality of death and the mission to retake the City of Hue. Throughout the book, we come to know many of them intimately and towards the end, Bowden relays what happened to some of them after leaving Vietnam and how they adjusted to life back in the United States. Each does their best to put Vietnam behind them upon rotating back to America. As I read the book, I could not help but to wonder where many other veterans of the conflict are. Undoubtedly, some are now deceased but there are many others who served and fought in Hue who have done their best to forget that experience. This book is a testament to the bravery and perseverance required by the Marines in Hue. It is also a painful look at the misguided policies of Washington that plunged America into a conflict with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
After finishing the book, I thought of the the Ken Burn’s Netlfix documentary series The Vietnam War, which I watched several months ago. The series is riveting and Burns captures the era and conflict perfectly through remastered archival footage and interviews with those who served. It is an amazing work of art and highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the Vietnam War.