Hue 1968 – M. Bowden

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know // the place where youth and laughter go. (S. Sassoon)

One of the things that always amazes me when I talk from my friends from the US is their deep distrust in the government.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trust Ms. Teresa May with anything I hold dear, but at least I have a vague belief that whilst she may be screwing me over, she will be honest about it.

Not so people from the US. They aren’t even surprised anymore at any political scandals. In a way, they expect to be lied to. Nothing surprises them – except when people were telling the truth.

I always wondered where this attitude came from. Shouldn’t Germans, for example, with their experience of government overreach, be much more wary of “Big Government’?

One reason why that’s not the case is the Vietnam War. Or, as Mark Bowen in his excellent book about the Tet offensive explains, it was all down to Hue.

I’m not going to talk about the actual fight on the ground. Even though that is a story worth telling – and Mark Bowden tells it extremely well. He follows individuals through the battle – it is worth noting at this point that he also gives us the Vietnamese Point of View. This dedication to telling both sides of the story is praiseworthy (even though the US narrative outweighs the Vietnamese side 2:1).

Suffice to say that the fight was gruesome and horrible. The brutality is most shocking in small details – like when Bowden cites a fact that Medics only survived on average for three days.

(They were more liable to injury and death because they ran out of cover to tend to their injured comrades, disregarding their personal safety.)

(Humanity’s capacity for both absolute evil and absolute good is never as strikingly demonstrated as in war.)

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“Their effort, despite a strong showing in Hue and a few other places, seems doomed.” (Gen Westmoreland)


But what most interested me about this book – what compelled me to pick it up – is what the fight in Hue did to the American Psyche. Because America was never the same again.

To understand that, you have to see the things as they were before. This was a generation of young men who grew up trusting their Elders. Their fathers and uncles had fought in Europe, Japan, and Korea. Just as their fight had been against fascism, it was now their duty to fight against Communism.

As Kennedy said in his inauguration: the torch had been passed to a new generation.

And this generation believed. They believed in their country and its destiny to bring peace and freedom to the world. They believed in their Elders, who asked them to fight. And they believed in their mission, which was to combat Communism.

In America then, as in America now, war was stitched deep in the idea of manhood. Frew questioned the draft, and opposition to the war was regarded as un-American.

Then came the Tet Offensive.


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“Personally, I think they (Vietcong) suffered a severe defeat.” (Johnson)

It was a logistical masterpiece. North Vietnam was able to conduct simultaneous surprise attacks on nearly every city, town and major military base throughout Vietnam. A war that had been so far defined by Jungle warfare turned urban.

And the US Command… was completely blindsided. They didn’t see it coming at all. And even worse, when it did happen, they didn’t understand just how bad the mess they were in was.

In their mind, it was simply inconceivable that their enemy could invade and occupy South Vietnam’s second-largest city. The attackers of Hue ran into virtually no opposition and took the city in mere hours.

General Westmoreland, the military leader of the American effort in Vietnam, refused to believe an attack has happened. Which meant that the few American forces in the city of Hue didn’t get the support they need.

And this is where the real scandal comes in. Not in their lack of preparation. It was the unwillingness of Westmoreland and his Senior Staff to face the truth and own up to it.

Instead, they ignored it. While Marines were dying by the hundreds, they kept insisting that everything was going fine – both to the President and the public.

President Johnson declared the Tet Attacks a ‘failure’ less than a day after they started. Meanwhile, Marines were outnumbered 10:1 in the city. Hue didn’t fit the narrative of the war that the Johnson administration wanted to tell, so it was dismissed.

Except that reporters on the ground spoke the truth.

The US Military allowed News Reporters to go pretty much everywhere within Vietnam. This meant that reporters were present during the worst fighting in Hue. And they reported back to the US that what the President and his Military Commander were saying wasn’t the truth.

The journalists reported on the severity of fighting, of the sacrifices and losses, they spoke about the lack of sufficient support, of how futile this fight was.


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CBS Reporter: “How many times have you been hit?” Marine: “You mean today?”

The fight in Hue lasted three weeks. After those 21 days, the question was never again about winning. Instead, Americans were talking about how they could leave this country. Opposition to the war now entered the mainstream and the fundamental trust between the governed and the government was forever lost.

Hue became a metaphor for the entire war. It showed the inadequacy of their local partner. It showed an absolute lack of short-term strategy and long-term policy goals. It showed the denial command was in about the truth.

Hue was the first in a series of profound shocks to America’s faith in its leaders. All of the following shocks, ironically, can be traced back to Hue, as well.

Just one example – Nixon only became President because Johnson didn’t seek re-election, mostly because of the Vietnam disaster left him with no chance of getting a second term. Of course, Nixon is the only US President to resign.

For years before Hue, the American leaders had been lying about the scope and progress of the Vietnam war for years. They had consistently enlarged it despite doubts that the effort could succeed.

Instead, they wasted an entire generation in their ill-conceived war. They used those young men, particularly their idealism and loyalty. They betrayed the youthful idealism of their own people.

And that, in my opinion, is the biggest scandal of them all.

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“This is a public relations problem –  not a military one.” (McNamara)

Other random bits that I couldn’t fit into the above: 

  1. Vietnam was the first conflict in human history where communication technology was good enough that Generals didn’t have to be on the ground. Hence, they had no feel for the level of difficulty that their troops faced. And, as in Westmoreland’s case, they could make up their own version of the war, as they wished it happened.
  2. Between the Vietcong and the Americans, the civilians of Hue were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Especially after the Vietcong started a cleansing program of ‘enemies of the State’. It is impossible to know how many Civilians perished or got killed, but Bowden pegs it at 20,000.
  3. The similarities between the conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan never cease to amaze me. Just for starters – in both cases, the US was/is propping up an unstable local partner that cannot enforce its laws without US support. And in both cases, the enemy has a sanctuary area that the US cannot reach. In Vietnam, this was Laos, in Afghanistan, it’s Pakistan.
  4. If you ever need an example of how absolutely vital the Freedom of Press (and a Free Press) is, look no further. The reporters that were on the ground showed the world what was really going on, and proved the President to be a liar. It makes one wonder what is going on in today’s war zones, where journalistic access is heavily restricted.
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“How could this happen?”  Walter Cronkite

And one last bit… So the Commander of the forces in Hue wasn’t trained in urban fighting (neither were any of his troops). So he took a couple of old handbooks from the Korean War and gave himself a crash course. His most important lessons are listed below.


  1. Stay off the streets.
  2. Walls and buildings are both your enemy and your friend.
  3. Secure a starting position and slowly expand safe zone outwards.
  4. when you move, move through walls; not around them.
  5. When firing at buildings, aim at window frames, not to shoot through the window
  6. Postpone retrieving fallen men from the street until you have taken the opposite house or yard.
  7. Cover all predictable points of exit before beginning an assault.
  8. Shootout glass out of windows immediately.
  9. Inside a building, keep shouting so that everyone knows where everyone else is.


Next week – 

We’re not leaving Vietnam yet. Instead, we are going to look a bit more at a couple of things that Bowden mentions in passing – the psychological toll the battle (and the Vietnam War in general) took on its Veterans. We are going to talk about Trauma and how people survive it, but we’re going to do it in a way that is intriguing and fascinating.

(Will we ever go back to happy stuff? I hear you ask. Soon, I promise.)

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