You Had to Be There (Not That You'd Want To)

Mark Bowden's new book Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam recounts the Tet Offensive, the capture of the ancient provincial capital city of Hue by the North Vietnamese, and the ensuing epic 24 day battle waged by the Marines and the ARVN to recapture the city . . . the book is over 500 pages and a monumental day-by-day account of the heroism, atrocities, propaganda, misinformation, strategy, blunders, civilian casualties, destruction of ancient wonders, Communist purges, political failures, and-- amidst great effort and honor-- the futility of top-down command in warfare . . . Bowden interviewed scores of people from both sides, so while he focuses on American perspectives and tells the stories of many, many Marines and reporters who were at Hue and witnessed the bloodiest battle in the war, he also recounts civilian and North Vietnamese perspectives of the tragic month; the sum total of this grueling depiction is the ultimate expression of "I support the troops but not the war," although at times it's even hard to support the troops, who often busy themselves shooting dogs and civilians, prying gold fillings from the teeth of the dead, and committing other acts that could only occur in the moral vacuum of a chaotic, street-to-street, house-to-house plodding assault, where young men watched their friends get shot in the streets, tried to retrieve the wounded, were consequently shot and on and on-- the book graphically describes the many many deaths and injuries-- the Marines were used as fodder and many are still angry about this, none of the people higher up the chain understood the amount of NVA in the Citadel, nor how well entrenched they were, or that their supply chains were intact . . . they didn't understand how well-trained the NVA soldiers were, the generals thought they could be brushed aside with little collateral damage, they didn't understand that the spider-holes, trenches, towers, turrets, snipers, and occupation of the city created a maze of interlocking fire that just devastated our troops, nor did the people calling the shots understand the North Vietnamese strategy, which was simply to hold onto the city as long as possible, cause as many casualties as possible, and-- though the NVA knew they would eventually lose the battle-- they would win the war, because the American people and media (including Walter Cronkite) would finally realize that it wasn't worth the effort . . . so while the Marines heroically took back the Citadel, the generals (Gen. Westmoreland specifically) didn't realize that the death toll, the destruction of the city and its historical wonders, and the civilian casualties would drive Lyndon Johnson to bow out of the presidential race, and completely change the strategy in Vietnam . . . while the capture of Hue did not foment a fervent Communist uprising, and-- in fact-- many of the people in Hue (an educated, upper-middle class city) tried to stay out of the war and not choose sides at all, many of these people, the ones not killed by the initial battle, were killed by the Communists in purges . . . it was horrible and ugly on both sides, the genetically engineered IR8 rice didn't do the trick, nor did the Hanoi government, and while the war would slog on for several more years, as we tried to "seek honorable peace," the lessons were obvious and while we have gotten mired in places we don't belong, we at least know now that we have to "win hearts and minds" in order to achieve any kind of lasting success in a foreign proxy war (not that we're immune to this sort of thing, despite what we learned, we still managed to concoct Abu Ghraib . . . but that's still a far cry from the treatment of the civilian "gooks" in Vietnam, there was very little thought of collateral damage by the soldiers and the generals, despite the fact that we weren't fighting a war against Vietnam, we were supposedly fighting a war for the Vietnamese people . . . what a fucking mess, read the book).

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