Not since his New York Times best seller Black Hawk Down has Mark Bowden written a book about a battle. His most ambitious work yet, Huế 1968, is the story of the centerpiece of the Tet Offensive and a turning point in the American War in Vietnam.
By January 1968, despite an influx of half a million American troops, the fighting in Vietnam seemed to be at a stalemate. Yet General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces, announced a new phase of the war in which "the end begins to come into view". The North Vietnamese had different ideas. In mid-1967, the leadership in Hanoi had started planning an offensive intended to win the war in a single stroke. Part military action and part popular uprising, the Tet Offensive included attacks across South Vietnam, but the most dramatic and successful would be the capture of Huế, the country's cultural capital. At 2:30 a.m. on January 31, 10,000 National Liberation Front troops descended from hidden camps and surged across the city of 140,000. By morning, all of Huế was in Front hands save for two small military outposts.
The commanders in country and politicians in Washington refused to believe the size and scope of the Front's presence. Captain Chuck Meadows was ordered to lead his 160-marine Golf Company against thousands of enemy troops in the first attempt to reenter Huế later that day. After several futile and deadly days, Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Cheatham would finally come up with a strategy to retake the city, block by block and building by building, in some of the most intense urban combat since World War II.
With unprecedented access to war archives in the US and Vietnam and interviews with participants from both sides, Bowden narrates each stage of this crucial battle through multiple points of view. Played out over 24 days of terrible fighting and ultimately costing 10,000 combatant and civilian lives, the Battle of Huế was by far the bloodiest of the entire war. When it ended, the American debate was never again about winning, only about how to leave. In Huế 1968, Bowden masterfully reconstructs this pivotal moment in the American War in Vietnam.
"Narrator Joe Barrett's voice, always scratchy, careworn, and haggard, has just the sound this book needs to carry it forward. He sounds like an old boot and offers no quarter when detailing the battle's ravages, both in terms of men and American strategy." (AudioFile)
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Outstanding Military History
Until I read Mark Bowden's outstanding Hue - 1968, I hadn't really appreciated the significance of Tet and Hue as a turning point in the Vietnam war. This is military history at its best, combining detailed research with clear, objective and compelling analysis. In other contexts, the level of detail would be confusing but Hue was such a complex and fragmented battle that Bowden is able to assemble all the disparate elements into a coherent narrative. It is only in the detail that you see the disconnect between the higher levels of command on both sides and the tactical actions on the ground. Bowden is balanced and objective about the significant failure of US generalship at theatre commander and formation level and his indictment of Westmorland, LaHue and Tolson in particular is salutary. In Bowden's view, the indictment is not just of incompetence but of wilful and arrogant self-delusion, which they translated into unrealistic and bombastic orders which got a large number of their subordinates killed and wounded in futile attacks. Bowden's review of the military-strategic and political context is also compelling but is more familiar territory. His judgment that the Press reporting was accurate, objective and in the public interest contrasts starkly with the popular misconception in the US that the Press unfairly influenced the US people to turn against the war. This book is definitive and a landmark in the literature of Vietnam, standing with the handful of books which provide real and original insight into a tragic and misdirected war.
Bowden's account of the shock and impact of the initial Front assault on Hue and shock and disbelief it achieved amongst the US troops. His account of the early defence of the MACV compound in Hue is memorable. His later portrayal of street fighting to recover the Triangle brings to life urban combat and we see a privileged view of what it was like for both sides and for the civilians caught up in the fighting.
Joe Barrett is masterful. He narrates with real understanding and sympathy for the subject, avoids melodrama, has an engaging and lively voice which draws you to the narrative and keeps your attention. You really feel his deep engagement with the personalities involved and this creates an impression of intimacy which is the strength of the audiobook format. One of the best and in stark contrast to the narrators of other audio books who have little understanding of or sympathy with their subject and an inflated view of their thespian abilities. Joe Barratt avoids both traps and is a master of his craft.
It's military history. I read it with objective and detached interest. That said, Mark Bowden has interviewed many of the personalities in the book and has an obvious rapport with them which translates into many moving and human passages.
A fine book and one that particularly suits the audio format. Thank you to Mark Bowden and Joe Barrett for many hours well spent listening to their words.
Very insightful book
- Mr C T Walsh