Hue 1968 [REVIEW]
Hue 1968 is the newest book by best-selling author Mark Bowden. It chronicles the battle for Hue City, highlighting both the heroics of those involved as well as the ways in which political leaders unnecessarily cost so many young men their lives. Hue 1968 is also a nice break from the ever-present Special Operations’ story. Bowden’sdeep dive into the not-so-sexy world of the Grunt is where we really begin to understand what men at war are capable of. This rare glimpse into Vietnam is not about men with green faces, but rather boys with red boots.
The Battle for Hue was the fulcrum of the TetOffensive and one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. In roughly one month of intense fighting an estimated ten thousand people lost their lives. Hue 1968 should be considered one of the best studies of urban combat as well as a crucial piece of the Vietnam Canon. Mark Bowden is most recognized for his 1999 recounting of the Battle of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down. Bowden has a remarkable ability to recreate the past through interviews and extensive research, and like Black Hawk Down, Hue 1968 is an immersive reading experience. Few nonfiction writers can recreate history in such an entertaining waywithout sacrificing information. Many authors struggle to find this sweet spot of detail-rich history while never allowing the reader’s eyes to glaze over.
In addition to being an exciting recounting of the battle, Hue 1968 is one of the most brilliant showcases of the Infantry. All other military jobs exist, in some way or another, to support them. The Infantry comprises the largest portion of the Marine Corps, has the lowest ASVAB requirements of any MOS, and has one of the shortest schools, but make no mistake; it is filled with some of the finest volunteers to perform the Corps’ least rewarding yet most important jobs. Few books highlight the beauty of the Infantry as well as Hue 1968.
The battle of Hue became the proving ground for modern urban tactics at the expense of over two hundred American troops. Most techniques taught today for Close Quarter Battle were learned in Vietnam and perfected in Iraq. The value of explosives, gas, smoke, and armor were quickly realized in Hue, though not before U.S. forces incurred heavy casualties. Bowden describes theeffectiveness of momentum, and what is now commonly referred to as violence of action. He writes, “Marines do not hesitate in combat. If the Corps has a defining philosophy, that’s it. In war, when the enemy is foolish enough to show himself, Marines go right at him and kill him, risks be damned.” Despite a lack of knowledge and experience with urban combat, this aggression ultimately carried the day in Hue. Additionally, the Marines’ ability to be creative and think outside the box allowed them to surprise their PAVN and Viet Cong adversaries. Bowden describes how one young Officer approached the unfamiliar battlespace,
“Neither he nor his Marines had ever fought in a city, nor had they been trained for it. The last time the Corps fought a big urban battle had been Seoul in 1950, a grinding fight that had lasted for almost a month and killed more than four hundred and fifty Marines…. The basic idea seemed to be staying off the streets. Walls and buildings were both your enemy and your friend. It was the kind of environment where you could be in mortal danger in one spot and two feet away you were safe. The way to proceed was to secure a starting position, and when you moved, you moved through walls, not around or over them. You blasted your way forward, blowing holes in anything that stood in your way. When you encountered the enemy in a building or bunker, you flattened it or gassed it or burned it. Then you send your riflemen in to clean it up.”
The use of armor in tight spaces at point blank range was also new. Veterans of Korea and World War Two had trained with Armor in open, rural spaces. Integrating Infantry and Armor amid densely populated cities occurred far less during America’s previous wars, and doctrine was not yet up to date. In Hue, fear of collateral damage finally gave way to frustrations born of slow progress and mounting casualties.
“At first the four tanks were useful mostly for shock value and as moving cover. The crews had strict orders against firing their big guns and, in the case of the ‘Zippos’, the flamethrowers without high-level approval. But the day after he was wounded, driving with his neck and head still wrapped like a mummy, Andregg had broken the rule. The platoon he was escorting had come under fire from a building. The angry Lieutenantjust a few feet away from him out on the street kept screaming, ‘Fire your gun! Fire your gun!’
‘This is a fucking Zippo!’ shouted back the tank commander, Charlie West. The two kinds of tanks looked the same, but at that moment the lieutenant seemed indifferent to the distinction.
‘Shoot your fucking gun!’ he screamed.
Andregg, the gunner, hated being trapped between conflicting orders. Fuck it then, he thought. On his own he pressured up the napalm tank and lit it, sending out a bright orange spray, two hundred and fifty gallons of liquid flame, splashing the target building from top to bottom. It went up like cardboard. Anyone inside was toasted. The grunts were uniformly happy about it.”
Hue 1968 is a truly remarkable story, ripe with rich descriptions of combat, however, what sets this book apart is Bowden’s critical eye of the American commanders. For a tragically long time, American leadership was in denial about the scale of the Tet Offensive, especially regardingwhat unfolded in Hue. Those in Washington refused to acknowledge the flood of reports coming from those on the ground. General Westmorland, the top military commander in Vietnam, was guilty of breaking one of war’s most unbendable rules; never underestimate the enemy. The majority of the resulting consequences landed on the Marines of 2/5, who were tasked with retaking a city held by an entrenched enemy nearly ten times their size. Bowden’s thorough research into the battle reveals a disturbing pattern of politicians and General Officer’s treating American troops as expendable, with no concern to casualty rates. The arrogance of American commanders resulted in 216 dead Americans. Shortly following the battle, General Westmorland, the commander of all American forces in Vietnam, stepped down. President Johnson quickly lost popular support and subsequently announced he would not be running for another term. The battle for Hue permanently altered the course of the Vietnam War. Hue 1968 is a stark reminder to military leaders of the importance of listening to your troops and the dangers of premature conclusions. A final takeaway from Hue 1968 is the importance of pride in one’s unit and confidence in one’s comrades. Time and again, when leaders fail and troops find themselves in the direst of situations, so long as they believe in the organization they are a part of, they will find a way to succeed. Hue 1968 is a must read for fans of military history.
Mac Caltrider served in the United States Marine Corps as a rifleman from 2009-2014, during which time he deployed twice to Afghanistan. He holds a Bachelor of Art in History from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Mac is an avid reader and shares his love of books along with his growing pipe collection on Instagram through @pipes_and_pages