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Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (2017)

de Mark Bowden

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6371736,604 (4.29)11
In mid-1967, the North Vietnam leadership had started planning an offensive intended to win the war in a single stroke. Part military action and part popular uprising, the effort included attacks across South Vietnam, but the most dramatic and successful would be the capture of Huế, the country's intellectual and cultural capital. At 2:30 a.m. on January 31, the first day of the Lunar New Year (called Tet), ten thousand National Liberation Front troops descended from hidden camps and -- led by locals like eighteen-year-old village girl and Viet Cong member Che Thi Mung -- surged across the city of 140,000. By morning, all of Huế was in Front hands save for two small military outposts. The American commanders in country and politicians in Washington refused to believe the size and scope of the Front's presence. Captain Chuck Meadows was ordered to lead his 160-marine Golf Company in the first attempt to reenter Huế later that day. Facing thousands of entrenched enemy troops, he reported: "We are outgunned and outmanned." After several futile and deadly days, Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Cheatham would finally come up with a strategy to retake the city, block by block and building by building, in some of the most intense urban combat since World War II. With unprecedented access to war archives in the United States and Vietnam and interviews with participants from both sides, Bowden narrates each stage of this crucial battle through multiple points of view. Played out over twenty-four days of terrible fighting and ultimately costing more than ten thousand combatant and civilian lives, the Battle of Hue was by far the bloodiest of the entire war. When it ended, the American debate over the war was never again about winning, only about how to leave.… (mais)
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I really love Bowden’s writing style. I’m a huge fan of [b:Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War|55403|Black Hawk Down A Story of Modern War|Mark Bowden|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1442149156s/55403.jpg|1041952] and I wasn’t disappointed by this one either. Bowden tells the story of one of the pivotal battles of the Vietnam war utilizing eye witness account, news stories and primary source information from archives and libraries. It was the first urban battle fought by the US military since the Korean War over 15 years prior. The story is told from both sides and also has some insight from the civilian perspective. There are stories of incredible individual bravery and also just plain luck, leaving the reader with the wonder how anyone survived this battle.

Bowden does a good job of summarizing the political environment surrounding the battle and the attitude in general of the American public to the war in late ’67/early ’68. The Tet offensive caught the American leadership completely by surprise and a week into the battle were still in denial as to the scale of the attack on Hue. Wesmoreland isn’t portrayed in a particularly good light, his repeated and blatant denials of what was really going on somewhat unbelievable but plainly reflected in the TV interviews and declassified communiques of the time. One of Bowden’s conclusions and main points is that the Tet offensive and its aftermath would forever change America’s attitude toward her leaders - they would never again be blindly trusted.

I highly recommend this book. If one is interested in the entire conflict, watch the excellent eighteen or so hour PBS documentary series on the Vietnam War produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. A whole episode is spent on Tet, with pretty much the same conclusions as Bowden. ( )
  amurray914 | Feb 27, 2024 |
History at its best. Bowden puts you on the bridge, dodging bullets. And you know why you're on that bridge and who screwed up to make it so. ( )
  ben_r47 | Feb 22, 2024 |
“But there was blame enough for both sides. The storm of war blew flat all semblance of law, logic, and decency. To soldiers there was a kind of order - causes and lines to be defended, soldiers who were either friend or enemy - but to civilians it was just savagery”

You know, as a real deal principled Marxist (wink wink), I should be staunchly and vehemently against this sort of thing. The American War in Vietnam was a reprehensible blot on the already blot-ridden history of “Western Civilisation” (bearing in mind that nearly all of history is, of course, constituted almost wholly by blots - but we have been particularly naughty in this regard). Bowden does try his hand at bipartisanship, although it does seem that for large swathes of the narrative the soldiers from the Front are just portrayed as cannon fodder for our good ol’ boys (admittedly the battle scenes, the descriptions of clearing houses and city tactics were enthralling each and every time - whenever a Zippo or an Onto is whipped out you kinda go ‘oh shit it’s go time fellas’) . I’m amazed that in the postscript he has to mention that he has received a fair amount of criticism for trying to don such a perspective, as a great deal of emphasis is placed on the North Vietnamese’s barbarity and skill - there’s no justification for anything they do, aside from showing how they wanted to stretch out the battle to drain the US’ motivation to fight (attrition of the national will). Bowden goes with the age old ‘lions led by donkeys’ approach, with General Westmoreland being portrayed as the biggest, most negligent dipshit in the armed forces at that time (Khe Sanh forever à venir).

Taking a critical stance toward the American War as an established prerequisite (unjustified shitshow, as one source has it the US were ‘effective heirs to colonial authority’), you still have to take your hats off to the heroism shown by some of the American troops out there, at least within the context of Hue provided here. Medics and amateur teenage soldiers alike threw themselves down to retrieve their wounded and dying fellow men, often catching stray rounds to the head and neck and dying where they stood. Their sheer balls-to-the-wall will to dig in their heels and not retreat when faced with incredibly unfavourable odds, surrounded on all sides by overwhelming enemy forces, is truly admirable. I do think that particularity can transcend the universal, the universal here being an ideological lens through which to perceive and sift events (not to ascertain some always-already preformed, holistic meaning, but instead a principled method of analysis/organon that provides valid formulations which are authentically wrought from events as and when they unfold). What am I saying here in concrete terms? American soldiers participating in an unjust war did good things, and can indeed be worthy of veneration and respect. Barbarism abounded, but the good stood as an undercurrent, the wellspring of the ethical came up, as it always does. We do not denigrate our ideological commitments by recognising valour, or perhaps we do, and the particular, the concrete situation, easily trumps the importance of ideological consistency (hell I've been reading Levinas, give me a break).

I also think, and this must have occurred somewhere and I just haven’t done the necessary research, that there needs to be serious thought dedicated to why the nhan dan (’the people’) didn’t rise up and support the effort on behalf of the Viet Cong? It can’t just be marked down to false consciousness, and the population of Hue can’t be branded as vulgar reactionaries, class-traitors, anti-revolutionaries etc. etc. something fundamentally wrong occurred, a massive miscalculation. Bowden asserts that it came down to pure survival instinct, and admits that the fight in Hue did show a chink in the armour when it came to the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese regime - they now had to make a choice, and then history did its thing and wrote itself (what is Saigon called nowadays, I hear you proclaim - and I’m also aware that ‘chink in the armour’ probably isn’t the most appropriate metaphor given the context… tut tut tut). Anyway, that’s enough thinking from me. Shoutout to my dawg Ernie Cheatham, that fucker was as hard as nails (the principled commie and love of Shane Gillis semper fi fuck yeah attitude within me are currently at war, who knows who will win??).

The Americans should have just listened to good old Uncle Ho - this wasn’t a question of containment and communism, it was one of national self-determination against colonial oppression, a cause the US (if it can truly say with a straight face that it rallies behind the ideals of freedom, liberty and all of its derivatives) should have been a proponent of. Pretty great book. ( )
  theoaustin | Dec 26, 2023 |
A balanced account of the 1968 battles in Hué constructed in the author's style from many first person accounts on both sides and from trapped civilians. Perhaps because of the hectic nature of the battle, the multiple simultaneous areas of action, and the number of people involved, the story can get confusing. The maps are helpful, but you will need a magnifying glass to see them on the Kindle. The sometimes chaotic nature of this assemblage is brought home in chapter 13, where Bowden starts to end his story with the longer and uninterrupted story of Alvin Bert Grantham. I found it to be the best and most moving part of the book. There is also an excellent epilogue with a laudably clear view of the whole battle and its consequences. If you are interested in leadership, this account has many fine examples of the best and the worst, from a corporal thrust unexpectedly into a battlefield leadership role to Westmoreland and LBJ at the top. ( )
  markm2315 | Jul 1, 2023 |
A well written history of the battle for Hue, during the Tet Offensive, in the Vietnamese war. It focuses on the American participation, largely ignoring the ARVN role. Well worth reading. ( )
  TomMcGreevy | Apr 30, 2023 |
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Hours before daylight on January 31, 1968, the first day of Tet, the Lunar New Year, nearly ten thousand North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietnam Cong (VC) troops descended from hidden camps in the Central Highlands and overran the city of Hue, the historical capital of Vietnam.
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In mid-1967, the North Vietnam leadership had started planning an offensive intended to win the war in a single stroke. Part military action and part popular uprising, the effort included attacks across South Vietnam, but the most dramatic and successful would be the capture of Huế, the country's intellectual and cultural capital. At 2:30 a.m. on January 31, the first day of the Lunar New Year (called Tet), ten thousand National Liberation Front troops descended from hidden camps and -- led by locals like eighteen-year-old village girl and Viet Cong member Che Thi Mung -- surged across the city of 140,000. By morning, all of Huế was in Front hands save for two small military outposts. The American commanders in country and politicians in Washington refused to believe the size and scope of the Front's presence. Captain Chuck Meadows was ordered to lead his 160-marine Golf Company in the first attempt to reenter Huế later that day. Facing thousands of entrenched enemy troops, he reported: "We are outgunned and outmanned." After several futile and deadly days, Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Cheatham would finally come up with a strategy to retake the city, block by block and building by building, in some of the most intense urban combat since World War II. With unprecedented access to war archives in the United States and Vietnam and interviews with participants from both sides, Bowden narrates each stage of this crucial battle through multiple points of view. Played out over twenty-four days of terrible fighting and ultimately costing more than ten thousand combatant and civilian lives, the Battle of Hue was by far the bloodiest of the entire war. When it ended, the American debate over the war was never again about winning, only about how to leave.

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