Hue, 1968 by Mark Bowden – Military History or Leftist Propaganda?        

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A Critical Review by Nicholas Warr 

Despite its recognition as a New York Times bestseller, the receipt of many awards, and the recognition and praise from the literary world Mark Bowden has received since the publication of Hue, 1968, this book is filled with way too many misconceptions, flaws, critical omissions and dozens of outright errors and falsehoods to be taken seriously. In my opinion, this book gets nowhere near the status of “factual history.” While it brings forth many valid events of the battle, it also pushes a regurgitation of anti-war, anti-American rhetoric.

At this point, you, the reader, may ask, “Who is this guy, and how can he possibly make these statements?” Let me illuminate you.

My callsign was “Charlie One Actual.” I was a Marine 2ndLieutenant assigned as the platoon commander for 1stPlatoon, Charlie Company, 1stBattalion, 5thMarines (C/1/5). I was there, in the middle of the battle from the initial assaults on 13 February 1968 to the bitter end in early March. I saw what happened, up close and ugly. I know there was plenty to criticize about our high-ranking leadership’s decision-making, but Bowden got most of the important points wrong. In fact, this book reads more like anti-war, anti-American leftist revisionism than factual history.

Although I counted nearly 80 significant errors, omissions or outright falsehoods in this book, I will focus on the three I feel are the most egregious.

  1. S. Marines of all ranks are force-fed USMC history during our training. We learned that every single combat campaign in France during World War I, the South Pacific during World War II, and during the Korean War could have easily become catastrophes if not for the gut-wrenching courage and determination of just one United States Marine. That was true during the second phase of Operation HUE CITY, the battle for the Citadel Fortress.Lance Corporal Paul Cheatwood was that one Marine, who, on the 16thof February 1968, after four terrible days of all-out urban warfare with not an inch of progress, risked everything to save his fellow Marines, and in the process secured a critical beachhead. A squad of Bravo Company Marines had finally crossed phase line green, occupying the first house across that bloody street, but were being systematically shredded by a horrendous enemy crossfire from two enemy machine gun nests. Although his job as a mortarman required him to stay behind to provide supporting fire, Paul took the initiative and crossed that street under heavy enemy gunfire; he then successfully destroyed both of those enemy positions, single-handedly, suffering many serious wounds in the process, saving that critical beachhead and all who were in that pivotal house. Yet, there is not one single word in Bowden’s book about Paul Cheatwood’s heroism.

Shortly after this book was published, I reached out to Mr. Bowden to ask about this disturbing omission and he responded by saying that there were 10,000 “voices” in that battle, and he couldn’t possibly relate the stories of all of them. That may be true, but what Bowden failed to understand is that there are only a small handful of stories about the true heroes in that battle, or any other battle in Marine Corps history. The true heroes are very rare. Paul Cheatwood is, in my mind, that one Marine who risked his life but made an amazing difference, and his courage and determination under fire will never be forgotten by those of us who were there. On the other hand, Bowden used up many pages in this book to describe, in detail, the acts of just one young woman, a Viet Cong operative who played a very minor role in the enemy’s Tet Offensive, yet he could not spare a single word about a true American hero. Cheatwood’s family and friends must have been extremely disappointed and discouraged to learn that Paul’s courage did not rate a single moment of Bowden’s time.

This exclusion is symptomatic of the entire book, in which the enemy are often described in glowing terms as brave soldiers fighting for their country against the invading Americans, in a rather blatant attempt to establish a moral equivalence between American and ARVN forces, in comparison with the VC and NVA. This is pure anti-war rhetoric, and Bowden has bought it all, hook, line and sinker. Using just one appalling example, he quotes (without any commentary) an NVA soldier, who claimed that the Marines were very difficult to fight because they advanced by using human shields of Hue civilians; this is not only utterly false, it is a turnaround of the actual history, since the NVA on several occasions did use human shields in their attacks on the Marines. Bowden’s book does a terrible disservice to Marine Corps history on many fronts, but this hateful smear of the courageous Americans who fought in Hue goes completely beyond the pale.

Bowden also either inadvertently or purposely besmirched the reputation of the U. S. Marines serving in Charlie Company, 1stBattalion, 5thMarines. His book claims that on the morning of 13 February, Charlie Company was “several blocks back” from Alpha Company’s position on point, when Alpha came under attack in fact, we were one block back from phase line green where the enemy awaited us in force, and less than a block west of Alpha’s position at that time. Bowden further states that it took us “several hours” to go on the attack, claiming that we started our attacks at around 4:00 pm, when, in fact, as soon as Alpha pulled back and they were replaced by a platoon from Bravo Company, we were ordered to move up and move out, on the attack; our first fight against the NVA waiting for us that morning on phase line green took place at around 1100 hours.

The official USMC Unit Diary records confirm Charlie One’s tragic losses during that single day. Five of my Marines were killed outright, and another twenty-two were badly wounded and medically evacuated on 13 February 1968.

Bowden claims that our battalion commander spent the remainder of February 13thtrying to get his men back to Mang Ca (adjacent to the 1stARVN Division Compound along the northern wall of the Citadel, which was nearly a mile behind the “front line”) in one piece. Although Alpha Company did pull back to Mang Ca after being devastated by the initial enemy rocket attack, the Marines of Charlie 1/5 and that Bravo platoon on our left flank pulled back just one block from phase line green and spent the night in houses on the north side of that street.

Bowden did not do his homework, let alone perform focused, effective research on this battle, which is considered by historians to be critically important in Marine Corps history. Yet, because of all the awards and recognition, it gives me great pain to know that this is the book that our children and grandchildren will refer to. This is the book that young Marines will read in training. This is the book that attempts to look at every angle – the enemy, the anti-war movement, the complicated beginnings and the inglorious end of the war – yet this is also the book that allows critical learning and many truths to be lost to history.

Mark Bowden should offer an apology to all of us who fought in this historic battle and especially to the Cheatwood family.

References:

Recently published, detailed reviews of Mark Bowden’s book, Hue, 1968, here:

http://nicholaswarr.com/critical-review-hue-1968-mark-bowden