on Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press) and Mourning Headband for Hue by Nhã Ca, tr. Olga Dror (Indiana Univ Press)

In his early career as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mark Bowden wrote a breakout feature on Joey Coyle, an unemployed longshoreman who found a bag stuffed with $1.2 million on a Philadelphia street. John Cusack played Coyle in the 1993 film adaptation Money for Nothing. Next, Bowden’s first book appeared, narrating the highs and lows of the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles football season. In 1999, when his Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War was nominated for a National Book Award, Bowden left the newspaper and launched a string of high-tension current histories such as Killing Pablo and The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.

HueCover.jpgBowden now brings his snappy narrative mode to Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, the telling of the costly 24-day battle at central Vietnam’s citadel city located 680 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City and five miles from the seacoast. The fighting began on the night of January 30, 1968 when the North Vietnamese Army (National Liberation Front) and its southern Viet Minh allies simultaneously attacked more than 100 locations throughout South Vietnam -- the Tet Offensive. At Hue, 250 Americans died and 1,554 were wounded during the building-to-building retaking of the city. Bowden vividly portrays the actions of Marines as they struggled to engage entrenched communist forces down narrow alleyways and through the wreckage of what had been an imperial city. He also deftly indicts the American senior military leadership for its failure to respond to information on the ground – and its subsequent dispatching of forces into fatal situations. At one point, an Army battalion blundered onto the doorstep of NLF headquarters north of the city, pinned down without air support.

HueSoldiers.jpgBut was Hue itself “a turning point”? It certainly occurred during the key turning point, namely Tet. Bowden insists that televised images from Hue, suggesting that the NLF’s will to fight had not abated through years of body counts and vast expense, caused Americans at home to weaken their support of the war. But as bitter a battle as Hue presented, it was hardly the singular visual gut-punch that Bowden claims – and other pictures exceed it in memory. On January 30, network news showed images of the American embassy in Saigon itself under siege. Communist forces attacked General William Westmoreland’s headquarters. In the most memorable video sequence of all, the chief of South Vietnam’s national police drew his revolver and shot a prisoner in the head on a Saigon street. The Tet Offensive ultimately died down – but on February 27, Walter Cronkite concluded his broadcast of the CBS Evening News with these shattering words: “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” Uncle Walter’s war-weary face may have been the most critical image of all.

As the Americans forces pressed on at Hue, the Communists began executing nationalist sympathizers en masse. It is estimated at over 10,000 Vietnamese of all affiliations were killed during the month. One especially valuable aspect of Bowden’s effort comprises the interviews he conducted with Americans – but the stories of the city’s citizens are mainly afterthoughts. Caught between armies at war, Hue’s inhabitants and their dire situations may have the most relevance to today’s conflicts -- in Yemen, Syria, Sudan and western Africa, wars are waged against the populace through starvation, indiscriminate shooting, and aid blockades.

Mourning_Headband_for_Hue_cover_081714.jpgRegarding Hue, the prominent Vietnamese writer Nhã Ca provides the local accounts that fill the chasm in Bowden’s book. First published in 1969, Mourning Headband for Hue (Giải khăn sô cho Huế) was written by her while the smoke of battle lingered. Told in the present tense, this jittery diaristic narrative darts from moment to moment. Upon the shock of the first gunshots, Nhã Ca seems to have instantly recognized the significance of what she and her community were about to experience:

I manage to collect many trifling bits of stories, everyone telling something different about the first several days when the Liberation Army came to Hue. I gather some of them while I am at the church and some when we just arrive at An Định Palace. The very thought of eventually getting to An Định Palace had cut in half the misery of the difficult road leading there because I knew that as soon as I set my foot there, I would hear people chattering about what was happening: “Here, there are airplanes of our [Nationalist] army. They call on residents to try and move to the right bank of the river.” “The right bank is here.” “There are rumors that our side lets planes take off to reconnoiter; the planes have been under their [the Communist forces’] fire that shoots up in a torrent and they have to fly very high so that they can’t be seen.” “But really, elder sister, did you hear all these announcements made through loudspeakers from the airplanes?” “Of course I did. How is it, fellow countrymen, that you did not hear them? They said that everybody must run to the right bank of the Perfume River, right here. People in other areas are stranded. People from areas up there, Phú Cam, Bến Ngự, Từ Đàm, no one has come back here from those places at all.” “Is it possible to cross Tràng Tiền Bridge?” “Not at all! They completely occupy the post office.” The post office was at a strategic location from which access to the bridge could be controlled. Each person has one’s own story, and I learn only vaguely about the general situation in the city. I tell my mother and my uncle that we are on the right bank and I’m certain that it’s safe here. But as soon as we find a place to sit and before we are able to take a handful of rice brought all the way from home, the guns explode again, and we slip into the middle of a battle. I lie down between the legs of a table, filled with the odor of people and of dogs, and I wait for death.

ietBao_Writing_Competition_-_Viet_Bao_photo.jpegNhã Ca’s translator, Olga Dror, took on this project specifically for the work’s illumination of the plight of civilians during wartime. Her own parents had survived the German bombardment of St. Petersburg during World War II. Nhã Ca’s difficulties continued long after the war; she paid a steep price for detailing her life in Hue. After Saigon fell in 1975, she and her husband were imprisoned by the Communist government for "cultural sabotage.” Mourning Headband for Hue was exhibited in the Museum of American War Crimes as evidence of her treason. Finally in 1989, the couple and their children were granted political asylum by the Swedish government and later emigrated to southern California where they founded the daily newspaper Việt Báo.

“In America, the Vietnam War is still taught in high schools and universities from a predominantly leftist liberal viewpoint.,” she said in a recent, candid interview. “Over the years, literature sympathetic to the North Vietnamese perspective continues to be translated and published. Meanwhile, southern Vietnamese views about the war are paid scant attention. It has taken less effort for Jane Fonda to apologize for her photograph on the North Vietnamese army's anti-aircraft gun than for intellectuals to redefine how the Vietnam War should be taught in American schools. Although I have seen a shift in perception, changing this biased approach takes time.”

Mourning Headband for Hue represents a rejection of both communist renditions and the more benighted leftist views of the war. The people of South Vietnam, she tells us, were abandoned to their fate. Furthermore, in her country, where people from the same family fought against each other, “there is no joint remembrance, no communal ancestors' altar, no resolution.”

For Bowden, Hue signifies the grinding factors of the Vietnam war: American military victories negated by homefront war-weariness. The dramatized facts of battle now make for entertaining reading. But for Nhã Ca, remembrance is a portion of survival , recognizing those with no voice, no popular history to peddle. The mourning headband is worn to observe the deaths of relatives whose corpses were piled together. Hue has come to signify the disparate vectors of memory: the battle as told by Bowden is still sharply recalled by Americans who fought there, and the helplessness of citizens is a perennial catastrophe.

[Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Published June 6, 2017, 608 pages, $30.00 hardcover.
Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968. Published July 11, 2016, 378 pages, $22.00 paperback]