JANUARY 1968: THE TET OFFENSIVE is exploding across South Vietnam. At Hue, a large number of North Vietnamese regular army units (NVA) are in the field alongside Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas for the first time. American commanding general William Westmoreland’s plan seems clean and simple: Draw the enemy into open battle, then destroy it with superior firepower. For grunts on the ground under siege, however, the view is very different.
This is the view offered by Ultimate Warfare, a Military Channel series that aired earlier this year and now heads for rebroadcast. Each episode focuses on a battle where, like at Hue, outnumbered American forces are locked in a do-or-die situation. The 10 selections come from five wars: World War II (Midway, Leyte Gulf, the Bulge, Okinawa); Korea (Chosin); Vietnam (Hue, Khe Sanh); Iraq (Baghdad, Fallujah); and Afghanistan (Kandahar). The format is familiar but well executed, with eyewitness accounts, period footage, reenactments, CGI, and commentary from historians. The series emphasizes you-are-there operational perspectives, conveying the battlefield’s blood and grit, unforeseen swerves, and rank fears.
The episode on Hue is a good example of how this works. Though Vietnam’s ancient imperial capital sits astride vital supply routes, it is poorly fortified. South Vietnamese regular army troops (ARVN) are quickly flushed by an NVA division augmented by VC, who dig in and are reinforced. “But nobody knows what’s going on in Hue—not even the people being attacked,” observes historian Andrew Wiest (author of The Boys of ’67).
Two U.S. Marine companies sent to reinforce ARVN are told their mission will take only a few hours. Lance Corporal Barney Barnes recalls: “We had no idea what we were getting into.”
Outside Hue, blistering fire pins the men down in rice paddies. Soon all 2,500 Marines riding in to counterattack crash to a stop, hampered by piecemeal deployment, poor intelligence, and rules of engagement banning bombing or artillery to protect the old city’s dozens of historic monuments. The hyperaggressive jarheads are forced to play unaccustomed defense. Even after they take the offensive and the rules of engagement are modified, these jungle warriors face a Stalingradlike grind of room-to-room fighting—although, one notes, “We didn’t know anything about urban warfare.” They have to learn quickly or die.
After a month of slogging through booby traps and rubble, the Marines have lost 142 dead and 857 wounded. They finally retake Dong Ba tower and the city, and across South Vietnam, allied forces push back the Tet attacks. But Westmoreland’s triumph proves hollow: Americans, shocked and confused by the carnage on the TV nightly news, increasingly turn against the war.
Gene Santoro is a New York–based writer and reviewer.