A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press. 608 pp. $30
Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
About 20 years ago, Mark Bowden tried to sell a book proposal about a battle involving U.S. military troops overseas with upsetting results. No publisher seemed interested, even though Bowden had already established himself as a top-notch journalist and book author. Then Morgan Entrekin at Atlantic Monthly Press said yes, and Black Hawk Down became a best-selling phenomenon, as well as a major motion picture.
Bowden, a former Inquirer reporter, went on to complete eight other books but never intended to focus on military battle scenes at such length again. Then Entrekin suggested a book on the most important battle of the Vietnam War, in the city of Huê during 1968; it resulted in about 10,000 deaths of American and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, and it changed perceptions of the war permanently.
Bowden said no, but he eventually switched to yes as he recalled his interest in the Vietnam War as a high school student. The timing felt right. About 50 years after the battle of Huê, many participants agreed to talk to Bowden without hostility. Previously sensitive archival material in the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam had become available to journalists. What Bowden could not read due to a language barrier, he hired Vietnamese researchers to translate.
For readers who enjoy learning about battle tactics and bloody encounters, Bowden delivers, as he did in Black Hawk Down. The book offers so much more than that, however. For readers who care little about military strategy or precisely how each combatant died, Bowden offers copious context about why it matters what occurred in Vietnam at the beginning of 1968 - why it mattered so much then, and why it matters so much in 2017.
For some of us (such as myself) old enough to have experienced the news of Huê in 1968, the disastrous consequences for the U.S. government and military seemed highly publicized at the time. Bowden dissents: "The Battle of Huê has never been accorded the important position it deserves in our understanding of the Vietnam War" - and all American incursions into other nations since 1968, Bowden says.
Because President Lyndon Johnson, his aides, and military commander Gen. William Westmoreland originally lied about what occurred at Huê during the 24-day battle, the actual results, when learned of by American voters, "delivered the first in a series of profound shocks to America's faith in its leaders," Bowden writes.
Focused as he must be on battle fatalities for portions of the book, Bowden demonstrates in horrifying detail how Westmoreland's miscalculations about the strength of about 10,000 North Vietnam armed fighters infiltrating Huê led to unnecessary deaths and injuries among U.S. Marine and Army troops. Bowden explains how those deadly miscalculations could have been avoided if the command staff had accepted evaluations of lower-level field commanders, or even an assessment from the Central Intelligence Agency.
When not focusing on American or Vietnamese government or military personnel, Bowden is masterful in introducing characters whose names have often never appeared in the news but whose actions help explain the complications for the United States of becoming involved in faraway wars involving nearly invisible enemies.
For example, Bowden opens the book with Che Thi Mung, an innocent-looking 18-year-old woman who lives in the Huê urban area and who would seem to be part of the South Vietnamese populace the United States was trying to protect. But Che despises the South Vietnamese regime and has joined the North Vietnamese (Viet Cong) resistance to help sabotage the American incursion.
In the second chapter, Bowden introduces American soldier Frank Doezema of Shelbyville, Mich. His tour of duty in Vietnam is almost over, and he is chafing to return home from his posting in Huê.
Both Che and Doezema disappear from the narrative for a while, but readers are quite likely to intuit they will meet both again. So many of the individual sagas are heartbreaking because of all the loss and destruction that eventually benefited no one in the long run. The once-beautiful city of Huê suffered destruction; Bowden finds those nightmarish days of battle fresh in the minds of Huê residents nearly 50 years later: "It is said that there is a victim under every square meter of ground."
In the epilogue, Bowden becomes didactic at times, commenting that "[t]he whole painful experience ought to have, but has not, taught Americans to cultivate deep regional knowledge in the practice of foreign policy, and to avoid being led by ideology instead of understanding. . . . At the very least, Vietnam should stand as a permanent caution against going to war for any but the most immediate, direct, and vital national interest, or to prevent genocide."
Bowden dedicates the book to Gene Roberts, longtime Inquirer editor. Roberts did his best to tell the truth of the Vietnam War while a journalist there.
Steve Weinberg is the author of nine books. He is writing a biography of Garry Trudeau, whose Doonesbury strips helped change perceptions of the Vietnam War.