A stirring history of the 1968 battle that definitively turned the Vietnam War into an American defeat.
On the first day of the Tet Lunar New Year holiday in 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces attacked the ancient city of Hue, the one-time capital of Vietnam and the country’s third-largest city. American forces scrambled to relieve the U.S. garrison there, amazed, as Bowden (The Three Battles of Wanat, 2016, etc.) writes, to be in an actual city after experiencing only “air bases, rice paddies, and jungle.” The battle occasioned not just surprise on the part of the grunts, but also a change in behavior on the part of the attackers, who had orders not just to liberate Hue, but “to look and behave like winners.” The tactic, to say nothing of the heavy losses inflicted on American and South Vietnamese forces, did indeed shift perceptions. The author observes that after Hue, it was only a matter of time before America would leave Vietnam, and in the bargain, ordinary American citizens would never again trust their government. Bowden delivers a series of brilliantly constructed set pieces, beginning with a moment of proto-social engineering in which a young, pretty Viet Cong learned about American troop movements in the city by flirting with GIs outside their compound. Devotees of Vietnam movies such as Full Metal Jacket will see several scenes come into real-life focus, with a football hero as commander and companies of troops bearing names like Hotel and Echo rooting out snipers and enemy columns, occasionally violating orders to save themselves by letting loose ground-fired napalm (“They caught hell for that—the commanders were worried about setting the city on fire”) against a smart, entrenched foe. Building on portraits of combatants on all sides, Bowden delivers an anecdotally rich, careful account of the complex campaign to take the city.
One of the best books on a single action in Vietnam, written by a tough, seasoned journalist who brings the events of a half-century past into sharp relief.