Not since his New York Times best seller Black Hawk Down has Mark Bowden written a book about a battle. His most ambitious work yet, Huế 1968, is the story of the centerpiece of the Tet Offensive and a turning point in the American War in Vietnam.
By January 1968, despite an influx of half a million American troops, the fighting in Vietnam seemed to be at a stalemate. Yet General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces, announced a new phase of the war in which "the end begins to come into view". The North Vietnamese had different ideas. In mid-1967, the leadership in Hanoi had started planning an offensive intended to win the war in a single stroke. Part military action and part popular uprising, the Tet Offensive included attacks across South Vietnam, but the most dramatic and successful would be the capture of Huế, the country's cultural capital. At 2:30 a.m. on January 31, 10,000 National Liberation Front troops descended from hidden camps and surged across the city of 140,000. By morning, all of Huế was in Front hands save for two small military outposts.
The 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 against thousands of enemy troops in the first attempt to reenter Huế later that day. 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 US 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 24 days of terrible fighting and ultimately costing 10,000 combatant and civilian lives, the Battle of Huế was by far the bloodiest of the entire war. When it ended, the American debate was never again about winning, only about how to leave. In Huế 1968, Bowden masterfully reconstructs this pivotal moment in the American War in Vietnam.
"Narrator Joe Barrett's voice, always scratchy, careworn, and haggard, has just the sound this book needs to carry it forward. He sounds like an old boot and offers no quarter when detailing the battle's ravages, both in terms of men and American strategy." (AudioFile)
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I KNEW This Book Would Sting Me . . . .
Joe Barrett is a top shelf narrator, particularly with this genre of literature.
General Westmoreland I suppose only because he was such a common thread in this well crafted tapestry, and while I was in country 1966, Chesty Westy was my commander. I am happy that his faults and lies were portrayed as well as his grand image.
The early morning breakout to the hills, being one of the three options the torn up and surrounded battalion came up with for ex-filtration. The men "Would rather die trying to live" instead of waiting to be over run.
As much as I could, yes.
. . . . and yet I clicked on play anyway. I was in 3rd Corps, Republic of South Vietnam for Tet 1966, assigned along with 11 other American pilots, crew chiefs, radio men and advisers to ARVN forces at Duc Hoa, Southeast of Siagon. The night sky lit up with tracers and my first reaction was that we were being over run. Not so, I was told by Captain Tompkins. It was Tet and this was their fireworks celebration. We lived in a pagoda next to a PSP air strip. Capt. Tompkins made me sleep on the top bunk with a flak jacket on. Tet 1968 became the talk of the base at Ft Stewart Georgia where I was assigned as a flight instructor. Then, I was still a believer and could not distinguish lies from fact.I want to say that I am angry in my old age because of the lack of moral values by LBJ and his posse in the 60's and 70's but it is something else. Hindsight makes me sorrowful over their misleading our country and the families of the 58,000+ that sacrificed their lives so that I could purchase a bag of frozen prawns at Costco labeled "Product of Vietnam". You have heard the debate about "Blood for Oil"? Well my war was evidently "Blood for Shrimp"!
My mother was a gifted artist when I left for MACV and she never painted again. I am told she spent the year on the sofa chewing ice cubes while watching the news. She even wrote the President asking why her son was fighting in that conflict.So even though I was an Army officer and pilot who lived in relative security while not involved in operations, the story lines here rang true as I handled many radio calls for medivac, air support, artillery and resupply. Until this week, I was naive as to the horrific battle at Hue, thinking that the battle of Ia Drang Valley in November of 1965 when I had been in country just 4 months was as bad as it got. It would be wrong to say that I enjoyed the book, however it did rivet my attention for 3 days and recalled many memories that had lain un-visited for decades.
I did not know many Marines over there as I was Army. However, I "knew" many of the characters in this book. The author took great care to be graphic . . . . to fill a reader's consciousness with the feel, sight, touch, sounds and smells of close quarter battle. I am sure Mr. Bowden took some "literary license" in portraying many of these Marines thoughts and feelings, but they did ring true for the most part. I have mixed feelings about the scene where the Vietnamese woman came to a dirty and battle weary squad of Marines wishing to trade sex for C rations. I suppose it happened, but I never heard of anything quite like that. In its own way, it was tender, and a damn sight better that men just forcing themselves on civilian women.
So if this is what you want, if you are curious as to why so many who came back from this "conflict" only to discover they can never quite get all the way back, then this book is for you. For me, I probably will not open it again. It was well done for sure, and I did learn a lot from it that I had not previously internalized about our . . . . my involvement in Vietnam. I believe Daniel Ellsberg was heroic in his actions and saved tens of thousands of lives. I believe General Westmoreland was the reverse of Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes". Rather than the crowd wanting to exclaim "Look, the Emperor has no clothes", it could have been said of Westmoreland, "Look, the uniform has no general".
- Bee Keeper