Hue 1968 – War and Economics

The Battle of Hue

Mark Bowden has written an amazingly detailed account of the Battle of Hue. The battle occurred during the Vietnam War Tet Offensive of 1968. His publisher Morgan Entrekin, who convinced Bowden to write the book, saw Hue as the most significant battle of the twentieth century and a way of writing about the entire Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese goal of Tet was to infiltrate troops to the South, simultaneously attack major cities, and create a popular uprising that would decisively end the war. At least that was the propaganda told to the VC troops who would expose themselves to the superior American and South Vietnamese war machine.

Bowden is also the author of Blackhawk Down and Killing Pablo, among others. He is a great storyteller, and his books are addictive reads. He did a phenomenal amount of research for the book. It contains perspectives from not only the U.S. soldiers who participated in the battle but also from the VC side. I couldn’t put Hue 1968 down.  

Bowden provides an overview of the political situation that led to our entry and escalation in the war and the defects of American leadership, both politically and militarily. With the hindsight of 50 years, I believe Bowden’s analysis is an accurate assessment but misses a significant piece of the bigger picture. An explanation of this ignored component of our continuing perpetual wars is explained in Part II, War and Economics, and is the intent of my review of Hue 1968.

Going back two centuries, Hue is the ancestral palace grounds of Vietnam. It is a walled, fortress Citadel surrounded by water and composed of dense residential, commercial, and government facilities with ornate homes, buildings, landscaping, and Vietnam’s palace. Before Tet, Hue had been untouched by decades of war with China, Japan, France, and the U.S.

Over the year before Tet, the North infiltrated some 85,000 troops, ammunition, and supplies into South Vietnam in preparation for the Tet Offensive.  The U.S. and South Vietnamese were unable to detect the massive buildup, and Tet was a complete surprise.  While the attacks at other cities, including Saigon, were quickly repelled, the VC overran lightly defended Hue and took almost complete control of the city.  Barely surviving the initial onslaught were the American MACV compound just south of the Citadel and the South Vietnamese ARVN base located in the northwest corner of the Citadel itself. The VC also gained control of the Triangle, a densely populated area across the Huong River on the south side of the Citadel, along with large parts of the countryside surrounding Hue.

One of the overriding themes of Hue 1968 is Westmoreland’s hubris and ineptness at prosecuting the war. The American leadership refused to believe that the North could capture Hue in the middle of American and ARVN occupied territory and grossly underestimated their troop strength.  U.S. military commanders initially responded by ordering a severely outmanned Marine battalion to retake the Citadel. They were sitting ducks to the entrenched VC and suffered heavy killed and wounded while making zero progress. The VC had heavily fortified their fighting positions throughout the Citadel and the Triangle. Over the next month, recapturing Hue would require brutal door to door urban warfare, for which the Marines were not trained, with progress measured in literal feet.

Bowden puts you amid the Marines who were sent in to retake the city. It was the most brutal urban fighting in America’s history with many U.S. soldiers not understanding why they were in Vietnam in the first place. The draft swept them up and sent them to a foreign land with no sense of its history.  Many of the young soldiers had only a vague understanding that Vietnam was a geopolitical cog in the Cold War fo halt the spread of communism.  

Hue 1968 is a story of incredible heroism. Bowden’s account of the fighting is as descriptive and detailed as any war story I have read. A reader can’t help but think how he might have responded had he found himself in the battle. Marines braved machine gun fire on open streets attempting to advance. The toll was heavy with many killed and severely wounded. Marines never leave a soldier behind, and the rescue attempts on exposed city streets amid withering fire both saved and cost the lives of many Marines. The lifespan of a battlefield corpsman medic in Hue was three days. The Marines fought as if they were defending an American occupied city in their homeland. The book is a testament to the American fighting soldier despite the murkiness of the mission. America’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, was awarded to five recipients from the battle of Hue.

Hue, which was untouched before Tet, ultimately had to be destroyed to save it. The U.S. and South Vietnam military abandoned its initial attempt at retaking Hue while preserving its historic buildings.  Shelling and bombardment became the only possibility of progress. Artillery, airstrikes, tank warfare, and the door to door assault left 80 percent of Hue’s buildings destroyed. Caught in the middle were civilians inside the Citadel with no avenue of escape. Those who survived the VC death squads–the VC executed hundreds, perhaps thousands of city residents in communist revenge purges–became victims of indiscriminate bombardment.

After a month of heavy fighting, the Americans and ARVN retook the city and cleared the countryside.  The North suffered large losses of killed and wounded. The cost on all sides, American, VC, and civilian, was high. North Vietnam showed with Tet that South Vietnam would never be safe. The Hue death purges paved the way for the tragic boat people desperation when South Vietnam finally collapsed. 

Hanoi did not achieve its goal of a popular uprising.  It did accelerate the antiwar protest in the U.S. and broke the spirit of politicians and the American public for supporting a war that appeared to have no definable purpose or path to victory.  LBJ would not seek reelection and Nixon campaigned on bringing an honorable end to the war. While the Vietnam war would grind on for another seven years, Tet and Hue were the beginning of the end.

Hue 1968 is a riveting account of a battle that changed the face of the Vietnam War and I highly recommend it for those interested in military history.   

Part II of War and Economics will look at the significant missing piece of our involvement in Vietnam.  The same economic errors that poisoned our involvement in Vietnam continue to seed our current engagement in perpetual war.    

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