Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (2017), recounts the central battle of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. American and ARVN forces didn’t expect an attack and hadn’t detected a buildup of North Vietnamese forces. The North Vietnamese planned to take over the city amidst a civilian uprising which they thought the offensive would prompt. This was one of the costliest battles of the war in terms of civilian and military casualties on all sides, Although the American story has been that the U. S. was victorious in Hue, Bowden argues that at best the U. S. could claim a draw, and that in many ways it was a defeat. Psychologically, the battle was devastating to the American forces and to public perceptions of the war back home. It revealed not only that the North Vietnamese forces were well organized and professional but also that the American leadership made numerous poor decisions and disseminated misleading optimistic information about the war that created false impressions back home. Bowden uses many first-hand accounts, from soldiers in the field to military officers to civilians. He describes acts of heroism and bravery, moments of sacrifice. He also notes the frequent disorganization of the American forces, their racism (all Vietnamese were “Gooks”), the looting and random killings in which some of them engaged. Although his emphasis is the American forces involved, he gives detailed accounts of the South and North Vietnamese perspectives as well. The result is an account of the battle for Hue that is balanced, and thoroughly grim and depressing.
I was a senior in high school during the Tet Offensive and paid attention to television and newspaper accounts of the battles. I remember Walter Cronkite’s report in late February 1968 that had much to do with changing American perceptions of U.S. involvement in the war. I was beginning to wonder whether I would be called to serve. As a college student I would have a four-year deferment, but after graduation I would be subject to the draft. My draft lottery number, which I received in my sophomore year of college, was 108. At that point, draftees were being inducted with much higher numbers than mine. I did not want to serve. I fiercely opposed the war, and while I could have given you reasons for my opposition, fear of death and injury was a prime factor in my opposition. I didn’t buy the domino theory and didn’t see the point of risking my life for something that didn’t impact the home front. I didn’t want to die.
Bowden’s account of the battle for Hue is one of the most graphic, violent, and unsettling accounts of war I’ve read. Young soldiers, many of them my age at the time, were dying or suffering brutal injuries. They were not trained for urban combat, they themselves were afraid, and they lacked direction and purpose. They often lacked leadership. They fought because they were ordered to fight, because their companions were fighting, because they believed in what they were doing—there were many reasons.
I have often reflected on what I would have done if I had been drafted. But the last draft based on the lottery was in August 1972, and the last number called was 95