- Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden
War is hell. And “hell sucks.” Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr observed this in 1968. Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, confirms it in Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. He also does something else. He reveals the hell that Huế became resulted largely from decisions made by American and Vietnamese officials.
Delusion drove policies. This made them lethal. The Battle of Huế extinguished thousands of lives. From the perspective of “nearly half a century,” however, this appears as a “tragic and meaningless waste,” one that Bowden contends should elicit “permanent caution” about war for any but “the most immediate, direct, and vital national interest” (526). The case is compelling. Huế 1968 offers a riveting read. It possesses the urgency of a novel even as it shatters the “conspiracy of denial” around the battle (520). It does this by drawing on a variety of American and Vietnamese perspectives that Bowden sought out by interviewing numerous participants on all sides, both in the United States and in Vietnam. He puts these, along with reports from the time, to good use. He ably chronicles the battle’s details while demonstrating how Americans and others perceived them in real time. “Modern war,” he suggests, “is as much about perception as about reality” (543).
The insight informs Bowden’s approach and renders the horrors of Huế as incomprehensible. Certainly, they resonate as more macabre then any fiction might yield. This includes the exploits of US Marine Corps Lieutenant Allen Courtney, one who Bowden identifies as “the kind of man for whom war seemed invented” (362). Following a firefight where marines under Courtney’s command fought off an attack, a search began for a particular casualty suffered by the enemy, likely a Chinese advisor. The marines found the corpse where Courtney placed it, on a bridge, on a chair, legs crossed with a cigar in its mouth, and a copy of Playboy magazine draped across its [End Page 280] lap. Courtney’s superiors decided that bringing out visiting journalist Walter Cronkite for a look around stood as “ill-advised” and called for a court martial (363). Courtney’s men? They “loved him” (363).
Bowden is not one-sided in chronicling the battle’s many atrocities. There exists “blame enough for both sides” (455). Viet Cong soldiers, for example, targeted the city’s Vietnamese American toddlers, identifying them as future imperialists. They terminated these young lives by swinging their tiny bodies by the heels and crushing their heads against walls. Terror dictated perversity as an acceptable response. Bowden describes American soldiers who shot at a dog that had fallen in the river. They strove not to kill it, but to prolong its suffering by “keeping it from reaching the bank” (456). All this exacted an enormous toll. Nguyen Dac Xuan, a communist poet who joined the fighting in Huế “overjoyed,” grew increasingly “sore and spent” from digging graves (457). Meanwhile, it became “not uncommon” for American soldiers to “reach their hands up during a mortar barrage” (380). They sought an escape from hell.
Some struggled long to find it. Bowden follows two who returned to Pennsylvania where they hardly found heaven. Richard Leflar, a young Philadelphia who ended up in Vietnam as an alternative to juvenile detention, saw the worst of what the war offered. He witnessed a gang rape and murder by his own squad. He morphed from a terrified teenager into an enthusiastic killer. He spoke to Bowden about all of this with great “remorse,” working to “reconcile himself to the things he did in Vietnam, and the kind of man he became” (530). Fellow Pennsylvania Bill Erhart, wounded in Huế, returned home changed. In high school he supported the war and enlisted when he turned seventeen. After his service ended, he became a prominent antiwar activist and teacher, displaying blown up photos in his classroom he took from a Vietnamese adversary he killed.