HUE 1968: FIGHTING THE VIETNAM WAR YET AGAIN

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A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart.” 

Goethe, “Faust

If there is truth in Goethe’s quote, author Mark Bowden believes in his heart that the American efforts in Vietnam were at best immoral and at worst verging on genocidal. In his new book Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Atlantic Monthly Press, 610 pp.), Bowden casts the U.S. Marine Corps as the moral mirror of the tens of thousands of communist troops sent by a tyrannical, oppressive cadre of thugs in Hanoi to perpetrate a bloody, maniacal attack on the peaceful citizens of Hue, South Vietnam.

Hue was the second largest city in South Vietnam, a picturesque town on the Perfume River in the northern part of the country. It was safe, peaceful, and prosperous prior to January 31, 1968, the beginning of the TET holiday, even in the midst of the war. Roughly thirty days later, the city lay in ruins, with as many as ten thousand citizens dead. Schools, churches, historical buildings and thousands of homes were rubble. This was the inarguable result of the invasion by the North Vietnamese Army, aided by the local Viet Cong.

The book begins with the inspiring and heart-warming story of a young girl in Hue as she becomes a tool of the communists, assisting them in smuggling arms into the city. As you read, keep in mind that she is living in a free land, attending good schools, and surrounded by a loving family and friends. She apparently set all this aside and chose to aid and abet an invading army who will destroy the city and slaughter its citizens.

Bowden’s factually challenged and sloppily edited (including paragraphs repeated verbatim in separate chapters) diatribe against the actions of the U.S. and South Vietnamese military during the battle is an almost laughable attempt to give the communists – a number of whom he interviewed — a chance to tell “their side of the story.”  Almost laughable because it is difficult if not impossible to find humor in the greatest atrocity in the Vietnam War, namely the communists’ systematic murder of thousands of noncombatants, buried alive in mass graves or executed with a shot to the back of the head. In the most staggering and shameful comparison in the book, Bowden speculates that twice as many citizens were probably killed by U.S. and ARVN artillery and bombing, with absolutely no factual basis for that statement.

Yes, and hunting accidents probably killed innocent people the same day the Manson family slaughtered Sharon Tate. Let’s let the Mason family tell their side of the story.

Apologists for the communists know no bounds when it comes to manufacturing moral equivalencies which condone atrocities. Make no mistake, people like John Kerry, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda and now Mark Bowden forgive and explain away communist evil if it serves the cause of denigrating the American war effort. It is meaningless to condemn acts of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong brutality if in the next breath the exact condemnation is used to describe Americans.

In Hue, for example, U.S. forces fought under strict rules of engagement that limited destruction and unintended civilian casualties. The communists had rules of engagement too — to slaughter and intimidate with inhumane acts against the helpless civilians on the death lists they brought to Hue, as well as anyone who looked like they might give the revolution a hard time in the future. The “crimes” committed by the people of Hue included allegiance to the government in Saigon, teaching children, healing the sick, managing the city government, being Catholic, being a child or elderly, and other such capital offenses.

Bowden is clearly impressed with the enemy. He fawns over North Vietnamese discipline and prowess. He’s “impressed with the enemy’s skill and resolve.” The “marines”  (a term Bowden refuses to capitalize, an affront to me and every other Marine) on the other hand are described with terms like petrified, shaking with fear, crying, bawling like babies, bewildered, worn out, scared, mutinous, terrified, frightened, and unnerved. He presents vaguely substantiated accounts of random Marine cruelty toward civilians, such as an alleged instance of deliberately running over a woman with a tank, and an officer supposedly attempting to shoot an unarmed teen civilian until stopped by an enlisted troop. His descriptions are slanderous, libelous and cowardly given the Marines depicted are likely deceased by now.

Bowden also repeats the highly discredited idea that the communists weren’t really defeated because they were not actually trying to win. All North Vietnamese planning documents for TET, which Bowden somehow missed in his diligent research, assumed that once the communists showed up in South Vietnamese cities the populace would rally to their side, pick up arms and drive out the Americans and their running dogs. But in Bowden’s account all the attackers, from the NVA grunt to the highest Red official, repeat the losers’ propaganda mantra—we never meant to capture and hold Hue anyway. The implication is that the NVA could have whipped the Marines, if they wanted to. Tell me another one.

Bowden, best known as the author of Blackhawk Down, writes combat scenes as well as any writer of the day. He has an innate understanding, it seems, of tactics, combat mind-set, motivations and weaponry. However, he also promotes the relentless false left-wing Vietnam War history taught in so many U.S. universities, as well as in communist countries. He believes, for example, that the Vietnam War was a purely domestic civil war, a communist trope devised in Moscow to discredit western intervention. And he inadvertently slips up when he admiringly describes a North Vietnamese soldier as having acquitted his skills after spending six years fighting in Laos. The good people of Laos would be surprised to learn they were engaged in the civil war in Vietnam.

Finally, nothing is quite so distasteful as attributing vast strategic wisdom and patriotism to North Vietnamese soldiers, while belittling the U.S. troops for their supposed lack of understanding and indifference to the reasons for their deployment to the battlefields of Vietnam. First, the North Vietnamese peasantry had absolutely no choice whether or not to join the parade to the slaughterhouse of South Vietnam. They did what they were told or were executed.

However American troops by and large understood why we were in Vietnam, whether or not they agreed with Johnson administration policies. Histories such as Bowden’s downplay or ignore the basic humanity, Judeo-Christian ethics and fundamental morality of the American forces. From birth, these young men were told that America’s destiny and obligation as a great power was to help others to be free. They heard it in President John F. Kennedy’s call to arms in his 1961 inauguration speech, and they lived it in the streets of Hue.

Phillip Jennings is an investment banker and entrepreneur, former United States Marine Corps pilot in Vietnam, Air America pilot in Laos, and founding member of VVFH. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War and other books.