Hue 1968 (a book review)

Hue 1968
Encapsulates the entire Vietnam War in one terrible event.

“So, this is the end, from the eldest person, the most ancient one like my uncle, to little crossbred Vietnamese Americans–they all have been killed in the whirlwind of war.”

Nha Ca – Mourning Headband for Hue

On January 31, 1968, at the beginning of the Tet holiday in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong (the National Liberation Front), launched surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam. The North, confident that the general population saw the Americans as they did, as an imperialist power propping up a puppet regime in South Vietnam, intended to rally everyday citizens of the South to their cause through a citizen uprising. Though caught off-guard, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and their American counterparts were able fend off the attacks.

Except in one place: the city of Hue.

The North’s incursion into Hue in 1968 was so successful that within twenty-four hours they controlled most of the city. Only an American compound in southern Hue and an ARVN base, in a corner of what is called the Citadel, remained to fend off the attackers. But American military leaders couldn’t believe that Hue was really taken, or that such a large force of the enemy actually existed. Instead, the small contingent of soldiers at the American base were ordered to take back the city.

With Hue 1968, Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, crafts a monumental novel about one of the seminal events in the Vietnam War. It is in turns a raw and violent account of the people on the ground, and a look at how American politics and policies in the region helped fuel such a devastating disaster as the Vietnam War ultimately became.

The battle of Hue alone would last a month and turn into a compelling counter-argument to the narrative being spun by Washington and American military leadership. Even television news anchor Walter Cronkite made a trip to Hue to see for himself.

From the Viet Cong liberation fighters and the locals who sympathized with them, to the disillusioned American soldiers and the war reporters who risked their lives to follow them, to the scores of innocent civilians caught between the two violent forces, Mark Bowden leaves no side of the conflict untouched. He draws not only from the recollections of fighters on both sides, but also from the citizens of Hue who somehow managed to survive, including, notably, a Vietnamese writer and poet from Saigon who had the unfortunate timing of traveling to Hue for her father’s funeral and found herself swept up in the destruction. She would go on to write Mourning Headband for Hue, about her experience with the other civilians around her trying to stay alive.

America’s lack of understanding of both the North Vietnamese and the South is brought into sharp focus, as is the political ideology of the liberation front and their own lack of understanding of the South. But what really shines through is the toll the Vietnam War, like all wars, took on the innocents. The city would be virtually destroyed and thousands of non-combatants killed, either caught in the crossfire of bombs and guns, or through the Communist purges of civil servants, intellectuals, and suspected collaborators with America and Thieu’s corrupt Saigon regime.

Hue 1968 is an important read for anyone interested in the Vietnam War or war in general, in geopolitics, in imperialism, or for anyone who wants to see what happens when two peoples don’t understand each other at all and yet are willing to hurl themselves into one another in the name of what they believe is right.

End note: If you like Hue 1968, I suggest you also read Mourning Headband for Hue. Though it’s quoted several times in Hue 1968, the perspective is entirely Vietnamese and well worth your time.

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