Mark Bowden didn't set out to be a war writer.
The reporter, of Kennett Square, covered a range of topics during his 24 years at the Inquirer, including local crime and the Eagles, whose 1992 season formed the subject of his first book, 1994's Bringing the Heat.
Yet it was Bowden's retrospective coverage of war that got him onto the national stage, with the publication in 1999 of his second book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, a minute-by-minute account of a 1993 American military raid in Somalia. The book was later adapted into a hit movie.
His latest book, Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, chronicles one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the Vietnam War. Bowden will speak about the book with Inquirer editor Bill Marimow at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Huế 1968 is a detailed, multifaceted account of a battle that lasted 24 days. Bowden speaks to dozens of men and women present during the fighting, sparked off when the North Vietnamese invaded the city of Huế on Jan. 30, 1968, as part of the massive surprise attack known as the Tet Offensive.
The battle to reclaim the city took the entire month of February and involved intense house-to-house fighting among U.S. Marines, South Vietnamese forces, and their allies, including Australia. When the dust settled, 216 Americans had lost their lives, with 1,584 wounded. Estimates vary widely, but communist forces also executed thousands of civilians before they were pushed out of the city.
The battle proved to be a turning point in public perception of the war, especially when it was discovered that American leaders had lied to downplay the extent of destruction and carnage.
Bowden's book is reportedly being developed into a miniseries by writer-director Michael Mann (Heat, Public Enemies).
What brought you to the Vietnam War?
You know, I lived through the years of the Vietnam War, and like many families, mine was torn in half by differing opinions. I was 14 or 15 when it started, and I remember having strong arguments with my dad. … He would always challenge me and say, "Well, how do you know that?" … And that's what started me reading newspapers. I remember subscribing to Time magazine and reading it cover to cover.
The war brought you to journalism?
My mom would always take me to the library, and I would just randomly take books off the shelves because I was curious about them. But I started to become more focused in my reading. So in a way, the Vietnam War was something that really became important to a lot of my intellectual pursuits and would lead me to journalism.
Why focus on the battle of Huế?
I'm … drawn to dramatic stories that, if you dig deeply, can be a kind of lens on the whole experience of the war. And the battle of Huế was the largest and the bloodiest single battle of the Vietnam War. I think it includes just about every element of the war in Vietnam, from our relationship with the South Vietnamese, to the nature of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, to the politics of the war, to military strategy.
Critics praised the way you told the story in Black Hawk Down from multiple perspectives, through the eyes of numerous soldiers who were there. You do the same here, but the scope is dramatically different.
I don't think I could have done this book without having done Black Hawk Down before. But yes, the scale here was huge. You can give a minute-by-minute account the action in Black Hawk Down, since it unfolded over 18 hours. Huế continued for a full month. And while it was theoretically possible to interview every American soldier who was in Somalia that day – I think at one point there were 100 on the ground – here we're talking about tens of thousands of people, including civilians.
I imagine there was never a question of not including the perspectives of the enemy, of people who fought on the North Vietnamese side.
I thought it was essential to this project. Every story has two sides, and of nothing is this more true than a battle. You know, when I went to Somalia for Black Hawk, I did with considerable difficulty try to get that perspective. In the case of Vietnam, things there have opened up so much that one of the incentives for writing the book was that, for the first time, an American could try to capture the Vietnamese perspective as well as the American one, and I just thought that would make a powerful story.
Your interviews focus on everyday soldiers, not their leaders on the field or the politicians in charge.
For me, what brings a story to life are the people at the center of it, the people for whom it matters the most, and I think that's the first thing you learn as a reporter.
Surely, that's not the best way to achieve historical accuracy.
This is kind of the sweet spot for journalists. We are almost 50 years from the event, which means there's an immense amount of historical material I can take, but most of the participants are still alive, and I think the value of what I do is to find those people who were there and tell their stories. This can't be the sort of academic history that relies on documentation for every detail. It means I'm relying to a great extent on the memories of the participants … and memory is not perfect.
What did you hope to discover?
I tried to understand each person's motivations, how they felt about what they were doing. I would ask did they join the Marines, how they ended up in Vietnam. … Initially, I was more interested in how they felt at the time. Later in the conversation, I also asked how people felt about it now, years later. And I think this really helped to inform my understanding of them as people.
The Vietnam War was surrounded for decades with controversy. Fifty years on, is there something like a consensus about the war?
I think there's a broad consensus now that it was a tragic mistake for the United States to get involved with Vietnam. Not everyone shares that point of view, but my sense is that most people now feel this way. … There's a consensus that the United States poorly understood what was happening in Vietnam and that a great many very patriotic and decent Americans fought with good intentions in Vietnam in a cause that I believe was doomed from the start. And hopefully, it can now be seen as a cautionary tale of how the United States projects its power around the world.