A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
By Mark Bowden
Grove Press/Atlantic – £20.00
According to Karl Malantes – whose astonishing novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010) I reviewed upon publication – this book is ”an extraordinary feat of journalism.”
Indeed, with unprecedented access to war archives in both the US and Vietnam, and in conjunction with an array of interviews with participants on both sides, writer, journalist and reporter, Mark Bowden, herein narrates each stage of this crucial battle through a fine literary prism of multiple perspectives.
Played out over twenty-four days of the most harrowing fighting – which ultimately cost somewhere in the region of 10,000 combatant and civilian lives – the Battle of Hue was without any shadow of a doubt, the bloodiest battle of the entire campaign.
When it ended, the American debate was never really the same again.
It was no longer about winning the war in Vietnam per se, but how best to leave the country; which for all intents and ideologically political purposes, Bowden brilliantly reconstructs amid these 539 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Vietnamese Glossary, Source Notes and Index). This ought hardly be surprising given the calibre of Bowden’s writing, whose previous thirteen books include Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo.
While having been to Vietnam and seen for myself the relatively primitive, albeit deadly, organic means by which the North Vietnamese fought their American foes; I also stumbled upon the broad and inbred trajectory of vast humility. A quality, which, perhaps unbeknown to the Vietnamese themselves, is systematically endemic within the everyday fibre of their being.
As much is candidly brought to bear on numerous occasions throughout Hue 1968 – A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam; perhaps none more so than in a particularly pertinent if not poignant section of ‘Part Five: Sweeping the Triangle,’ wherein Bowden writes:
””I have something to say,” she said.
Quang asked her to unfold her arms. He was younger than her son.
”I am a wife,” she said. ”And a mother. These two” – she motioned to her husband and son – ”are guilty. It is known. They have done the nation wrong. As a mother and a wife, I am begging you for forgiveness.”
Quang let them go. Both father and son thanked him profusely. Puffed up with his own magnanimity, he told the son, ”Your mother has just given birth to you for the second time.”
Such generosity was the exception, so much so that Quang was later censured for it.
”Since they were aware of their mistakes and reported on their own son, it wasn’t necessary,” he argued in his defense. ”What mother isn’t hurt if her husband and son are in this position? It isn’t about one side or the other, it’s about being human” (my italics).
He forgave the police lieutenant who had nine children. The man had not reported himself; he had been arrested. Under the rules, it meant he had to be sent away. But Quang weighed the fate of his wife and children and told the man, ”You have to live to raise you r children. I forgive you because your nine kids are still too young. Your crimes are way too clear to forgive, but because of your children I here let you go home.”
Brittle as well as immensely (relentlessly) powerful, Hue 1968 traverses the Vietnam War in such a way that’ll make many readers sit-up and think. Not to mention maybe re-read what they’ve just read. Perhaps one of the many reasons being that it brings home what took place in Vietnam in 1968, as if it took place only yesterday – which really isn’t an easy thing to do. Let alone capture.
Replete with maps and a number of sterling black and white photographs, this book is an absolute must read for anyone remotely interested in The Vietnam War.