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.
Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, describes the battle by following the experiences of the Marines and, to lesser extent, the Vietnamese, who fought it. I had trouble keeping the many participants straight but that made the book no less compelling. It is long, 539 pages, excluding notes, but once I started reading I could not stop. The book is not for the faint of heart: casualties were heavy and deaths to civilians were many; descriptions are often gruesome. The fear, miserable conditions, stench and exhaustion are palpable. In the end, both sides claimed victory, but the battle changed the way Americans thought about the war in Vietnam.
It brings it to a life that makes the horrors of war immediate and very real to all of us. The writing is vivid. While he does write from an American perspective, he does show considerable respect for the Vietnamese.
Through the telling of the tale of American bravery, we come across some heroic characters and are reminded of the perfidy of politicians of all hues.
A bullet wound, as one soldier mentions, is not a neat round hole that we see in movies. It is mangled limbs, shattered lungs, skulls blown off. War is shitting in the trenches, not bathing, shaving, living in constant fear that the next minute will be your last.
The men who fight are the ones who deserve glory and respect. They are, sadly, expendable.
This is a brilliant book.