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Media Digest | The Battle That Changed the War

By Jerry D. Morelock
8/1/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

There were hundreds of battles and thousands of smaller engagements during America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but most Americans today likely have heard about only a few. Notable among those few is the 1968 Tet Offensive, the coordinated series of surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong beginning
Jan. 30, 1968, that became a decisive turning point in the war.

Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a disastrous failure for North Vietnam. It produced as many as 100,000 North Vietnamese casualties, failed miserably to elicit a popular uprising in the South against the Saigon regime and virtually eradicated local “homegrown” Viet Cong insurgent forces throughout South Vietnam. (Although so-called “Viet Cong” units fought until the war’s end, after Tet they were manned mainly by Northerners shuttled south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to fill the depleted VC ranks.)

Yet, the Tet Offensive also produced a stunning political “victory” that can arguably be called the singular turning point of the war.

The battered Communist forces may have lost the military means of winning the war on the battlefield as a genuine insurgency, but the offensive’s surprise, ferocity and cost in American lives caused the U.S. political leadership and much of the public to lose their faith in the country’s military commanders and, more important, their will to persevere until final victory.

The dramatic—failed, but photogenic—attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, witnessed by a press corps that remained in the capital for most of Tet, and the bitter house-to-house fighting in Vietnam’s ancient imperial capital, Hue, were shown to Americans in stark, bloody images that seemed to put a lie to months of overly optimistic military announcements that the war was all but won. Clearly, it wasn’t. But neither was it lost—at least not on the battlefield.

The 1968 Battle of Hue, fought mainly by U.S. Marines against NVA and VC forces that had quickly captured the city at the offensive’s outset, was a hard-fought, street-to-street slugfest typical of 20th century urban warfare.

Indeed, nearly two decades before the Tet Offensive, Marines had fought and won a similarly brutal battle in Seoul, South Korea. They captured the city from North Korea’s Communist forces in September 1950 at the cost of 313 killed and 1,433 wounded.

The battle to retake Hue in January-February 1968 cost the Marines a nearly identical 216 killed and 1,584 wounded.

Veteran journalist Mark Bowden, acclaimed author of the book Black Hawk Down, about the downing of an American Black Hawk helicopter in a 1993 Somalian conflict, has written a massive, compelling history of the signature battle of the Tet Offensive.

Bowden’s Hue 1968 is a terrific addition to existing scholarship on the subject. Drawing on more than 50 interviews with participants from all sides of the fight, Bowden has written an impressive, meticulously researched account that totally immerses readers in the battle as his narrative ranges from the highest level of power to the troops engaged in desperate combat on the ground.

This new book is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the battle that, more than any other in the long Vietnam War, decided its outcome.

This reviewer’s only minor quibble is that a complete bibliography of sources would certainly have been a wonderfully useful aid to future historians of the battle and the war.

Published in the October 2017 issue of Vietnam magazine.

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