Mark Bowden, the journalist and acclaimed author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, talks to Fred Chiaventone about his new book Hué 1968.

Your latest book deals with the battle for the city of Hué in Vietnam in 1968. What inspired you to look into this particular engagement?

First of all, it was a great story. Easily the bloodiest single battle fought in the war, it involved tens of thousands of people, civilians and combatants, and nearly levelled Vietnam’s ancient capital. It was also the centrepiece of the Tet Offensive, which was an important turning-point in the war. It shocked America and South Vietnam, led to LBJ’s decision not to seek re-election, swelled the anti-war movement, and changed the debate over the war in the US from how to win into how best to leave.

The war was not going well for the North Vietnamese by early 1968. What did they hope to accomplish with the Tet Offensive, and was there consensus among their leadership?

It was and it wasn’t going well. The Communist Party’s hope of winning the war before America’s full investment in it had been dashed, and by most measures its progress had been stalled. But three years into full-scale engagement with the powerful US military, it had not been crushed nor had it been greatly diminished.

Most measured the war a stalemate by the end of 1967, and, under the circumstances, a stalemate was a significant achievement for Hanoi. They were, in fact, so emboldened by their relative ‘success’ that the Tet Offensive was envisioned as a final winning-blow.

The enormous visible build-up by the US had enabled the Party to brand the war more persuasively as a simple struggle for independence. Its planners believed the people of South Vietnam’s cities would rise up to secure their ‘liberation’. More realistic leaders, including Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam’s top general, Vo Nguyen Giap, did not share this assessment, but it was the announced goal of the ‘General Offensive / General Uprising ‘.

Just how badly did American intelligence misread the military and political situation in not anticipating the offensive?

Tet certainly ranks among the worst failures of American military intelligence. Speaking of Hué, in particular, a force of about 10,000 NVA regulars and Viet Cong was assembled outside the city in the months prior without tripping any major alarms. This was a tribute to the enemy’s skill and demonstrates the level of popular support (or at least acquiescence) Communist forces enjoyed in the rural areas of South Vietnam.

Attacks were launched with complete surprise on more than 100 cities and towns, and Hué, the third largest city in the south, was virtually taken over within hours. The success, while quickly countered in most places, reflected General William Westmoreland’s conviction that the enemy was incapable of major initiatives in any but the most remote regions, and also his near obsession with defending the marine outpost at Khe Sanh, which he believed would be the focus of the Tet Offensive.

Westmoreland’s belief in his own theory of the battlefield was so strong that even days after Hué was overrun, he continued to insist, in public and in private, that it had not happened. This blindness contributed to the deaths of many Americans, who were repeatedly ordered to attack far superior enemy positions with inadequate forces.

In the army, we are frequently urged to consider ‘lessons learned’ from operations to determine what one should or should not do in future engagements. In looking back at the battle for Hué, what do you think are the most valuable lessons to take away from this fight?

So many. From a tactical perspective, the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Ernie Cheatham is very instructive. Unlike Westmoreland, who believed so firmly in his own theory of the battlefield that he ignored information that contradicted it, Cheatham began by admitting to himself how much he did not know.

Before going to Hué to assume command of his battalion, Cheatham found old Marine Corps manuals and spent the night giving himself a crash course in urban fighting. He rounded up weapons that would prove especially useful – Ontos, recoilless rifles , bazookas, and tear gas – and arrived in the city with a coherent tactical plan… which worked.

Unfortunately, Cheatham’s knowledge was not conveyed to Major Bob Thompson when he took over command of the American effort inside the Citadel, where many men were killed and wounded, initially relearning the lessons Cheatham’s battalion had absorbed in the previous weeks.

The Army’s efforts outside the city illustrated the shortcomings of deploying light infantry in the field without sufficient air, artillery, and armoured support. Urgency topped prudence, and hundreds of American troopers were sent up against numerically superior, entrenched enemy positions.

Overall, I would fault the relatively blind decision to begin retaking Hué before understanding the enemy’s strength – this, I suspect, reflected arrogance and racism, two factors which, combined with deep cultural ignorance, poisoned the entire American war effort.

After more than a decade with forces committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, do you see any parallels between US involvement in these theatres and our protracted and ultimately futile effort in Vietnam?

The one lesson that jumps out at me is that American and Western values are not universally shared. Democracy, a form of government we rightly prize , is something that must emerge from the peculiar history and culture of a nation. It cannot be imposed or gifted.

Both theatres also illustrate the limitations of military power. Given a clear enemy and mission, the US military can accomplish a great deal, but it cannot remake a nation. The big question in both Afghanistan and Iraq is the same one we faced in Vietnam: given our inability to sort things out to our liking, how long are we willing to postpone our departure?

This is an extract from an exclusive interview with Mark Bowden. Read the full interview in issue 89 of Military History Monthly.

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