My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“As the subtitle says, the Tet Offensive in February 1968 was the beginning of the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War. The US top military, led by General Westmoreland, failed to discover the build up and failed to respond appropriately once the attacks started. “”Nowhere in [Westmoreland’s] understanding of the war was there room for the size an quality of the force that had taken Hue. So the MACV [headquarters] in Saigon and General LaHue in Phu Bai, simply refused to believe it had happened. Reports that contradicted this high-level understanding were dismissed as unreliable, the cries of men facing real combat for the first time, and panicking. Against the certainties of the American command, the truth never stood a chance.”” [Loc 2527] Westmoreland’s estimates of the enemy force was 500 “”off by a factor of twenty.””[Loc 2527″”””
The result of the ignorance and denial was to send Marines and Army “”on a fool’s errand immediately on arrival at the compound [of Hue]””[Loc 2010] “”Westmoreland seemed almost oblivious to the largest single battle of the Tet Offensive, if not of the entire war, under way in Hue. His forces there were badly outnumbered, struggling, and dying.””[Loc 3206]
And the enemy was not what had been experienced before. “”[Marine Calvin] Hart had come to Vietnam expecting to fight amateurs, little men in black pajamas and conical hats who were no match for United States Marines. But the enemy encountered in Hue was tough and professional, every bit their match. These fighters were uniformed and well-equipped, and they set up defensive positions and fields of fire as good as anything taught by the Corps””[Loc 7421]
As American deaths mounted in the face of the Army commands assurances the battle was nothing, the American public started to turn against the war. Perhaps the biggest force of change in America’s understanding of war was Walter Cronkite’s reporting after his visit to the war zone. If you are younger than maybe 50 you may not have an appreciation of Cronkite’s impact on public opinion. He was the anchor of the CBS news when there were only three or four national networks. Cronkite’s nightly newscast was the most watched. “”[W]hen he interviewed Westy in his crisp fatigues and with a chrome0-plated AK-47 in his office as a prop, the general seemed even more cocksure than usual. He repeated the official line that Tet had been a big success for his forces. He declared the battle of Hue over. He said that US forces and ARVN troops had soundly defeated ten thousand NVA and VC troops there – blithely contradicting his earlier assertion that there were no more than a few hundred enemy soldiers in the city.l Then Cronkite flew to Hue, where ten minutes on the ground was enough to show none of it was true. The battle was still raging.””[Loc 5865] When he returned to the states he delivered a pessimistic editorial on the state of the war. “”Cronkite’s cautious pessimism had tremendous impact and made it much harder to dismiss those who opposed the war as ‘hippies’ or un-American. It was hard to image an American more conventional and authentic than Walter Cronkite.””[Loc 8118] “”Tet had exposed Westy as an untrustworthy source of information, not just to the press and public, but even in his secret communications to the White House.””[Loc 7989]
One of the book’s biggest strengths is the view of the battle for Hue from the North Vietnamese side. Bowden was able to interview participants from The Front and the NVA, providing a narrative of the lead up to the battle. His other strength is his gripping storytelling of the battle from the American side. The description of Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Cheatham’s analysis of a battle situation where troops are pinned down by a machine gun shows the stuff heroes are made of: “”Cheatham studied the problem himself. He crawled out to a telephone pole and waited for the gun to fire. It was using green tracers, so he could see the trajectory of its rounds. He noticed that when it shot at things to its left, … the rounds were low, but whenever the gun shot to its right …, the aim was high. This suggested that the gunner’s field of fire was obstructed by something on that side, something that forced him to aim the gun up. If he was right, Cheatham figured there was a spot near him out on the street where a man could stand up and still be too low for the machine gun.””[Loc 4543] It takes a real soldier to keep cool in the heat of battle like that.
Bowden’s biggest weakness is discounting the impact of the battle of Khe Sanh on the battle for Hue. Bowden continually hammers on Westmoreland for his moving forces to Khe Sanh for the coming offensive. But if my understanding is right, the battle of Khe Sanh was actually happening at the same time. The Tet Offensive and attack on Hue was February 1968 while the battle of Khe Sanh went from late January into the spring of the same year.
All in all the Marines and Army officers who were leading the men in battle were made victims of the higher ups who simply refused to see the battle for what it was. “”This refusal to face facts was not just a public relations problem; it had tragic consequences for many of the marines and soldiers who fought there. If the extent of the challenge had been weighed realistically at the outset, if commanders had heeded the entirely correct CIS assessment on the first day, and if they had listened to their own field commanders, they might have held off the counterattack until they had readied an appropriate level of force and more effective tactics.””[Loc 8341] There is a lesson here for all leaders – not just military: be open to new information and act on it.