Daily Archives: 11 August 2017

Hue 1968: The People, Trapped

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4739-4764:

NHAN DAN, THE people, had nowhere to go. Far from being liberated by the invading Communist army, they had been trapped by the Tet Offensive in a nightmare of bloodletting. For some it began on the first day, but as the battle entered its second week, it encompassed all.

At first there were enough eager converts to swell the sails of the true believers. The young commissars proclaimed the war all but won. Citizens were rising up not just in Hue, they said, but throughout South Vietnam. Independence and reunification were at hand! For Xuan, the poet propagandist, these first days were like a dream. Small red flags came out and flew from dwellings up and down the crowded streets. Even some of his old friends who had shown no enthusiasm for the revolution were now active recruits. At his political headquarters in the post office inside the Citadel, there were three lines of people waiting to sign confessions about their past sins and to enlist in the righteous cause. Some told him they had been inspired by his rhetoric, that he had spoken to their hearts.

Nguyen Van Quang, the local organizer who had smuggled arms into the city and then led troops through Chanh Tay Gate, moved in with a local family. They prepared celebratory feasts with food they had collected for the holidays and shared freely.

It felt right that the revolution in the city’s streets was being led by Hue’s own youth. After all, in China the zealous young Red Guards were upending their own society with Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.” All over the world in 1968, like some global fever, young people were challenging authority and demanding change. While in the United States and Europe “revolution” was an excuse to sell pop music, stage protests, and hold festivals, it was being played for keeps in Asia. Young people were not just challenging their elders but pushing them aside, expelling, imprisoning, and in many cases executing them, all the while extolling the young as the righteous vanguard, their very youth a badge of purity. They were, by definition, forward-thinking. And in Hue they were armed.

In stories and songs and lectures the commissars celebrated the people as the wellspring of all power and virtue, but there was, nevertheless, need for instruction and guidance. Some things would have to change. Decadent Western influences were everywhere, and not just in politics. The modish hairstyles and short skirts favored by the more fashionable girls, for instance . . . these were unseemly and un-Vietnamese, as were wealth and corrupting ideas. With an army behind them, the commissars were hastily remaking Hue in their own image.

The first priority was the city’s defense, and for this everyone able was put to work. Then there was the business of correcting errant thinking. For this there were public lectures on the seven tasks of all party members and on the slogans of Uncle Ho, which were to be memorized and shouted in unison. The Front had issued stern prohibitions on looting, but the commissars and their local militias had a different understanding. They saw strong revolutionary logic in confiscating whatever was needed—food, shelter, supplies . . . or those things that caught their eye. They took cars, scooters, and bicycles. Boys and girls in Hue were amused by the young rebels trying to ride them. There was prudent acceptance of this plunder.

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Hue 1968: Vietnamese Strategy

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4314-4330:

[Viet Cong Lt. Hoang] called his strategy for resisting the coming counterattack bam vao that-lung dich (“hold on to the enemy’s belt”). It was how he hoped to overcome the Americans’ overwhelming firepower. The marines would typically hammer an enemy line with bombs and shells before advancing. By “clinging to their belt,” Hoang meant keeping his men so close to marine lines that it would be too risky for them to shell—he did not believe reports that Americans would not use heavy weapons in the city. His battalion was arrayed in two flexible and irregular defensive lines, one directly across the street from the marines and another two blocks back. During an attack the front line could bend in one place and hold in another. It would hold off an assault for as long as possible, and then fall back to the second line. If the attacking marines failed to occupy and hold the block they had just taken, as had mostly been the case so far, Hoang’s men would move back up at night, always staying directly across the street. If things worked out as he planned, this would force the marines to advance with small arms alone, evening the fight. In that kind of fight, Hoang believed his men had the advantage. Most were veterans with far more experience than the marines, and so long as their lines of supply stayed open they could resist for days, maybe even weeks, bleeding the marines for every square foot.

By necessity, military commanders are realists, and to Hoang it was already apparent that the “general uprising” part of the Tet plan was not happening. While some had rallied to the cause, and others seemed willing to follow orders to help dig and carry and cook (keeping their true feelings to themselves), there had been no swell of popular support. The citizens of Hue had either fled or dug in. What he saw were people in shock over the violent disruption of their lives. Refugees ran to the countryside, if they could get there, or huddled in places they hoped would be safe: in churches, behind his defensive lines, or behind the American ones at the compound and now the university. They were not rallying to one side or the other; they were trying to stay alive. They hung close to the front lines for the same reason that he stayed close to the marines, to escape bombardment. So Hoang had no illusions about keeping Hue permanently. But he was going to make the Americans pay to take it back.

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