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Book Review: Hue 1968 (Mark Bowden)

I have a confession to make.  The first history I learned about the Vietnam War was from watching the move Rambo, in 1985.  Around the same time, and viewable on VHS (what’s that, Daddy?) if you missed it in the theater, were movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, the later set during the battle that is the focus of this book.  From these movies, naturally, I learned little real history, and haven’t learned much more about Vietnam since.  In fact, when I was a young lawyer at a giant law firm, I used to amuse myself by needling the senior partners, rich, aging hippies all, by telling them that I thought of World War I and the Vietnam War as roughly contemporaneous, and equally relevant to the modern age—that is, not at all.  They were not amused.

I had, and have, no real opinion about the necessity, sense, strategic conduct or winnability of the war.  But before there was Rambo, there was First Blood, in 1982.  And it’s that movie, with its focus on the unperson status of returned Vietnam veterans, treated with contempt as killers in an evil war, that really has the most relevance to this book.  That’s because Hue 1968 is a maddening combination of excellent you-are-there battle history (the genre Bowden is known for) and lazy, sleazy moral equivalence.  This is a book that reaches desperately to minimize the crimes of the Communists, maximize the perceived negligence of Americans and non-Communist Vietnamese, since it can find no crimes by them, and then conflate crimes with negligence.  And all of it is shot through, and topped off, with childlike, slobbering adulation for the American media types whose propaganda created the hatred of veterans that made First Blood a believable movie.

The core of the book is battle history, of course.  Bowden goes through the month-long battle day-by-day, beginning with the North Vietnamese buildup, successfully concealed from the Americans.  Some of his interlocutors are soldiers who fought for the Communists, which is very interesting—as one would expect, to a man (or woman) they held completely delusional beliefs about their cause, including that all the citizens of Hue, and South Vietnam, would rise up and throw off the oppressors’ yoke during the Tet Offensive.  Bowden does a good job focusing on several individual American and ARVN (South Vietnamese) soldiers, drawing (as is his forte) sharp, interesting portraits of each of them, and working them into the overall battle narrative.  This is all worth reading—though, after a while, each story feels the same, which is not helped by the cast of characters being immense and constantly changing.  (An oddity of this book is it has extremely few footnotes, and most are explanations, not citations.  And it has no index at all, something I have never seen in a major non-fiction work and which would have helped the reader trying to drill down into the six-hundred page narrative.  It does have excellent maps, though.)

Forming the backdrop of the battle accounts are endless identical criticisms of William Westmoreland, for his obsessive focus on a presumed coming attack on the huge American base at Khe Sanh, while grossly downplaying and almost ignoring the ongoing vicious struggle for control of Hue.  Westmoreland was doubtless someone who deserved a lot of criticism, but a little freshness or variation in the criticism now and then might be nice; the repetition comes across as obsessional.  This is not helped by Bowden insisting on always calling him “Westy,” for some reason, like they’re old pals.  It’s jarring—Bowden also insists on never capitalizing “Marines,” again a jarring, unexplained choice.

The only other relevant history is provided by a short Epilogue, where the end of the war is described as “In January 1973, President Thieu reluctantly signed his name to a peace agreement in Paris that ended America’s direct involvement in the war, although it continued to support his regime as the fighting dragged on for two more years.  Eventually the weight of Vietnamization became too much for the Saigon government to bear . . . . Under President Gerald Ford, the United States continued to provide substantial assistance to Thieu’s government, but its military was no match for Hanoi’s.  An offensive launched in 1975 quickly routed the ARVN.”  Missing is any reference to Congress cutting off funds to South Vietnam after Watergate, the massive supply of Hanoi by the Soviet Union, and so on.  As I say, this is not an area of expertise for me, but it’s pretty obvious this is a whitewash that relieves America and the Democratic Congress of all responsibility.  No information is provided about the brutal aftermath of Communist victory, other than skipping to today and noting “it is extraordinary how little resentment is shown toward Americans,” as though all Vietnamese were happy about the outcome of the war.

Bowden never inserts his own thoughts directly.  We are, for example, never told what he himself thought of the war—given that he was born in 1951, he was about the same age as most of the men dying in Hue, yet that obvious reflection appears nowhere in the book.  Nor are we told how he avoided being conscripted himself—presumably, he was in college, and was therefore deferred (a practice I simply have never understood).  Yet we are given many details about him personally, as those relate to one topic only—his relationship to the media figures lionized in this book, which I discuss further below.  In any case, while this is certainly a reasonable stylistic choice, to not insert the author unnecessarily, the reader can’t escape the lurking suspicion that Bowden is hiding something that reflects poorly on him in the context of this book.

This summary makes Hue 1968 sound like a reasonable, if narrowly focused and perhaps overly long, book.  It is not a reasonable book.  The problem comes in in the interstices.  Nearly every page contains moral equivalency, apologetics for the Communists, and inflated accusations against Americans and the ARVN.  It’s not that Bowden is the new Jane Fonda, who, let’s not forget, was open about her personal desire to kill American soldiers.  Bowden is not completely a propagandist for the Communists:  for example, he writes about the famous photograph of South Vietnam’s national police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shooting a Viet Cong officer prisoner in the head, that “this fellow had been busy that morning shooting scores of people in cold blood.”  Bowden does not note, though, that Loan had personally that day witnessed the murder of one of his officers by the man executed, along with the officer’s wife and three small children.

But with a few exceptions like this, bad actions by the Communists are covered with a warm, gauzy film, ascribed to unknowable causes with unknowable perpetrators, explained away, or simply minimized.  You can be sure the “wife and three small children” would have entered the story if the Viet Cong had executed an ARVN officer who had done the same—but no American or ARVN soldier did anything like that during the battle.  Any American or ARVN action is always given the worst possible construction—even though, with Communists, the actual examples given of atrocities are innumerable, and not a single American or ARVN deliberate killing of any civilian or prisoner shows up, not even as hearsay.  The worst Bowden can point to is that assembled North Vietnamese prisoners were sometimes “kicked and slapped” by the ARVN, which obviously pales in comparison.

Still, Bowden keeps reaching, page after page.  Thus, when an American soldier shoots a woman trying to escape the city to the North Vietnamese camp outside, having been given orders to shoot absolutely anyone leaving on that path, he is worried he shot a civilian just trying to get away from the battle.  He is very relieved that the woman is found with a map of all the American gun emplacements in the area, and is thus obviously a spy.  Bowden’s verdict?  “The map, of course, was also exactly what people would make before trying to pick their way out of a dangerous spot.”  Maybe—but when every single story ends with some similar stretching attempt to either exculpate Communists or make Americans look bad, the reader begins to realize that Bowden has an agenda, and it’s not to relate history with a neutral eye.

Or, after the battle, Bowden notes in passing the thousands of dead, many bound with bullet holes in the head.  But most “were probably victims of the intense artillery bombardment.”  Of course, there are a few exceptions, barely worth mentioning in between castigating “Westy.”  “One of those who had been killed was their late father’s cousin, a senator, who was said to have been buried alive.  Many more—the exact numbers would be hard to pin down—had been rounded up and executed.”  But no matter:  “There was plenty of blame to go around for all this killing, and neither side had the time or the means to sort it out.”  No real differences to see here; just move along.

“The top Front commander inside the Citadel, Lieutenant Tang Van Mieu, believed the Americans were using civilians as shields.  He saw so many moving in and immediately behind enemy lines that it was impossible to fire on marines without hitting civilians.  But the same was true on his side of the line, and if the Americans were playing that game, he could, too.”  We are expected to believe that a top Communist commander actively involved in executing thousands of civilians for ideological reasons, a subscriber to a belief system that in every one of its wars of aggression across the past century has always regarded civilian collateral casualties as a matter of total indifference in achieving Utopia, only used civilians as shields because he thought the Americans were?  This in a city where the civilian uprising universally expected and relied upon for victory by the Communists did not occur at all, thus making it clear under Communist theory that all the civilians were collaborators with the enemies of Communism?  Not likely.  Bowden’s footnote to this officer’s claim actually says, “Each side has accused the other of this practice, and while it was not the official policy of either, it is easy to imagine individual soldiers or units taking advantage of the proximity of civilians under the circumstances.”  It’s only easy to imagine if your premise is moral equivalence, or more accurately, that the real demons were the Americans and ARVN.  Not to mention that “taking advantage of the proximity of civilians,” phrased using the neutral, passive voice always favored by Bowden when talking about Communist atrocities, isn’t what most people define as “using human shields.”

Pretty much everywhere Bowden chooses the least emotive word possible for the atrocities of the Communists, even when forced to describe horrors.  Thus, the mass killings by Communists are uniformly called “purges,” a word usually reserved for intra-Communist ideological purification.  “Near the Gia Hoi School, where the most notorious of the purges was being orchestrated, an entire family, including children, had been killed because a VC soldier believed their TV set was a method of communicating with the Americans.”  We are, of course, told no more about this “most notorious of purges.”  “[T]oddlers in one house were killed by VC soldiers who swung them by the heels and crushed their heads against a wall.”   “An older sergeant, a large black man, took [a newly arrived American soldier] into a bombed-out house on his first day and showed him a Vietnamese family, man and woman and children, all dead.  They had been wired together before being shot and set on fire.  ‘I know what you learned in high school, but this is what Communism really is,’ the sergeant said.”

All this is, of course, counterpoised in the next sentence with a supposed moral equivalent:  “Tinh Hoa, a bookstore owner, left his house to look for food and water and was shot dead—‘Some people guess that it was the Viet Cong who shot him, and other people are absolutely sure that it was the Americans, but whoever fired the shot, Mr. Tinh Hoa nevertheless got killed.’”  Totally missing here, and anywhere in the book?  Any suggestion, any at all, that Americans or the ARVN engaged in deliberate killing of civilians.  Realizing this suggests a lack of his precious moral equivalency, Bowden’s very next sentence is “American soldiers shot a dog that had fallen into the river.  As it struggled to swim back to the shore, the men continued shooting, not to kill the animal but out of sheer cruelty, to prolong its suffering by keeping it from reaching the bank—‘The dog gradually gets farther and farther away from the shore, howling plaintively; it’s absolutely heartrending.’”  So in one of the very few paragraphs in which Bowden discusses specifics of the innumerable atrocities of the Communists (as opposed to the endless paragraphs neutrally describing dead bodies and infrastructure devastation), equal time is given to a civilian whom nobody knows who shot, and to a dog (and elsewhere Bowden notes that dogs were always shot because they fed on human bodies).  The dog is “heartrending” and its treatment “sheer cruelty”; the wired, burnt and dead children don’t rate any adjectives.  And this is not me cherry picking a few examples to make Bowden look bad; this is the book.

Bowden sums up, “There were so many ways to die in Hue that it became impossible to sort causes.”  Our conclusion, naturally, should be “But there was blame enough for both sides.  The storm of war blew flat all semblance of law, logic, and decency.”  Accidental deaths in urban fighting are the same as deliberately killing children.  Nothing to see here, just the nature of war.  Move along.

Why, the reader wonders, does Bowden engage in this false moral equivalence?  After some thought, the reason becomes clear.  Moral equivalence has been the default mode of the Left with respect to Communism ever since the 1950s (prior to which they actively favored and helped the Communists, often by betraying their own countries).  It is hard to tell what Bowden’s personal politics are, but it is not hard to tell that he is desperate to ingratiate himself with the American journalist community, of which he is a member and which is nearly 100% hard Left.  He doesn’t (probably) favor Communism.  He certainly wants the cool kids to praise him, and they won’t praise him if he doesn’t validate their own actions to attack America during the Vietnam War and,  implicitly, all their politicized actions since.

Bowden is clear about the agenda of these journalists. “War correspondents had become so uniformly antiwar that, to those running the war, they appeared intent on painting the worst possible picture.  There was some justification for that opinion.”  But Bowden never inquires, given the massive support for the war at home, and its support by most soldiers (whom Bowden uniformly portrays as clueless about the war and Vietnam), why this was or what effect it might have on reporting.  Instead, he simpers on about the heroism of these same reporters, never suggesting they are anything but paragons of virtue and neutral journalism.

Bowden particularly lionizes a pair of left-wing journalists:  Gene Roberts, of the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer (to whom this book is dedicated), and David Halberstam, incarnation of the self-absorbed Baby Boomers, both accomplishers of nothing important yet convinced of their world-bestriding importance.  (Halberstam’s pinched, ugly and ludicrous book The Fifties is perhaps the best example of the navel-lint-gazing of the Baby Boomers.)  Bowden praises Halberstam, in 1962, for verbally attacking the US Ambassador to South Vietnam, and being ushered out the Ambassador’s office as a result.  He seems to think this is some kind of heroic action.  Bowden notes that “In past conflicts, correspondents had been considered part of the team,” with the implication that was bad.  He never considers why, even in 1962, journalists had quit the team, and then went to work for the other team.  To inquire would be to raise unpleasant questions with even more unpleasant answers.  Better to natter on about supposed journalistic heroism, and receive the accolades of 2017.

Much adulatory ink is also devoted to Walter Cronkite.  Bowden ascribes Cronkite’s becoming a partisan against the war after the Battle of Hue to a feeling that he had been used by the government.  “If it had happened, he needed to correct it, even if that meant abandoning strict journalistic neutrality, one of his core beliefs.”  Bowden offers no evidence that was, in fact, a core belief of Cronkite, and he offers massive evidence that all other journalists covering Vietnam were active partisans opposing the war, and in many cases, favoring the Communists.  No doubt the government was putting a false spin on the war.  But isn’t it just as likely that the people who were really feeding lies to Cronkite were his fellow journalists farther down the journalist food chain?  Certainly, in my lifetime, the media has always been aggressive advocates for every leftist cause that rolls down the pike, and the idea of journalistic neutrality, though often mentioned as a touchstone, has always been wholly laughable, ending in what we see today, where the media is openly merely an extension of the more leftist elements of the Democratic Party.  “It was hard to imagine an American more conventional and authentic than Walter Cronkite.”  Many believed that, but it was obviously a fraud.  I remember Cronkite from my youth as a tendentious, not very bright, one-dimensional leftist, proponent of imposing world government, constantly attacking Christians and the “right-wing,” preaching environmental disaster while, of course, opposing a wind farm that might block the view from his luxury property on Martha’s Vineyard.  The same aging lawyer hippies I used to needle loved Cronkite, and I can see why.

Bowden realizes who is evil in this story.  He just wishes it were otherwise, so he pretends.  But the nature of his tale shows it, and it also shows that American reporters knew it, and concealed it.  Early in the book, Bowden notes that “Reporters who went out into the fields could see it for themselves.  The Viet Cong were not the idealistic warriors of American antiwar propaganda; they were vicious.  They relied on terror.”  Yet not in a single place does Bowden cite any reporter making any statement critical of the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese, while scores of statements criticizing America and the ARVN are presented, often times multiple ones on a page, both in reporting of the time and in simple conversations.  So Bowden admits that the Viet Cong were “vicious” and “relied on terror.”  Whatever the defects of the South Vietnamese government, no serious person could maintain it was as bad as the Communists.  But this entire book is devoted to projecting the necessary conclusion to the reader that they were the same, and that cripples what could have been an interesting work of history.

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