“Huê 1968” Author Talks Vietnam War Turning Point

U.S. Marines inside the Citadel rescue the body of a dead Marine during the Tet Offensive. Huê, Vietnam 1968. Photo By Philip Jones Griffiths.

The author of Huê 1968, Mark Bowden, talks about the turning point in the Vietnam War during a discussion with Black Hawk Down screenwriter Ken Nolan at the Buena Vista Library on Wednesday evening, September 27.

Bowden is the author of 13 books including Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo and Guests of the Ayatollah. He has just released Huê 1968, which examines the wealth of information on the bloody 26-day battle, looking at the conflict from both sides.

Huê 1968
U.S. Marines inside the Citadel rescue the body of a dead Marine during the Tet Offensive. Huê, Vietnam 1968. Photo By Philip Jones Griffiths.

“The Battle of Huê becomes a lens to the entire Vietnam War: the betrayed idealism, the lies, the strategic successes and blunders, the cruelty and waste, along with the undeniable heroism and sacrifice on both sides,” Bowden said in an author statement.

“There is Che Thi Mung, an 18-year-old village girl, who risked her life spying in the city for the Viet Cong, then led communist forces into southern Huê on the night the battle began,” Bowden further explained in an interview. “She then fought until she was badly wounded and carried out of the city.”

“There’s Richard Leflar, an 18-year-old marine from Philadelphia, who was dropped into the middle of the ferocious battle fresh off a plane from the States, and found himself, in the first few minutes, nearly blown up and left naked in a bunker with rotting bodies, too horrified to stay where he was, but too terrified, with the battle raging immediately overhead, to leave,” he continued.

“Leflar curls himself into fetal position and screams, but nevertheless pulls himself together and ends up fighting alongside his fellow Marines for the final weeks of the battle.”

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Terrified Vietnamese civilians in city of Hue February 3,1968. There were nearly 6,000 civilian deaths during the battle, which destroyed 80% of the city. Photograph by Kyoichi Sawada — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“We wanted to schedule the event here so that it would coincide with the running of Ken Burns’ new documentary on Vietnam (now running on PBS) thinking that this would tie into the interest,” explained Librarian Hubert Kozak, noting the Burns documentary and Bowden’s book come during the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War.

“Bowden’s book is really pretty powerful: realistic, gruesome and brutal at times. It is an important and heavily researched look at the politics and military aspects of the battle for Huê.”

“The thing that interested me most, however, it that it is above all a powerful depiction of what war is like, and what is experienced by soldiers in combat,” added Kozak. “It is, for the most part, a narrative of soldiers who behaved with honor and courage.”

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Wounded Marines on a converted tank used as a makeshift ambulance during the battle of Hue. The wounded soldier, Alvin Bert Grantham who had been shot through the chest, survived. Photograph by John Olson (Photo Courtesy Atlantic Monthly Press)

After an introduction by Vietnam veteran Mickey DePalo, who heads the Burbank Veterans Committee and was named 2017 Veteran of the Year for the 43rd Assembly District, Bowden and Nolan will discuss Huê 1968.

“Ken and I will probably talk a little about our experience with Black Hawk Down — I wrote the book, he wrote the screenplay — and why, after all these years, I returned to the subject of war, and battle,” said Bowden. “We will talk about why I focused on Huê in particular, one battle in a decade-long war, and discuss the various choices writers make when approaching a story.”

Marines assaulting Dong Ba Tower in the City of Hue, Feburary 15, 1968. Photo By John Olson. (Photo Courtesy Atlantic Monthly Press)

“Do you focus on a small number of characters or attempt to capture the entire sweep with a great variety of characters? In a true story involving, literally tens of thousands of people, each with their own story, how do you decide which to tell?” Bowden mused. “Part of that discussion will touch on why I think Huê was such a significant moment in the war.”

Bowden sees the dissection and discussion on the ways military and political leaders mislead Americans about the war with Vietnam as vital.

“It is what happened, and history is about what actually happened,” he emphasized. “If you believe there are things to be learned by studying the past, certainly the mistakes and deceptions practiced by military and civilian leaders afford useful lessons about how and why those in power do such things.”

“It also illustrates the importance of an independent, uncensored press in a democracy, so that citizens have at least a chance of learning the truth.”

Bowden doesn’t see any similarities yet between the lies that pushed America into Vietnam and the saber-rattling and goading invective recently pronounced by President Trump about North Korea.

“I don’t see any direct parallels, except that what led us into Vietnam was a very simplistic idea of what was going on in Vietnam, a willingness to project our national political priorities — stopping the spread of communism — on a part of the world where the reality was far more complex,” he said. “I think we as a country do this a lot.”

Huê 1968
After visiting Huê during the battle for the city, reporter Walter Cronkite (“the most trusted man in America) addressed his viewers in an editorial on February 27, 1968, saying “It seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” It was one of the decisive “media moments” of the war. (Photograph Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

Bowden will sign books after the discussion, which begins at 7:00 p.m. The Buena Vista Library is located at 300 N. Buena Vista Street in Burbank. The event and parking are free.