If I've lost Cronkite...

Huế 1968 Tells The Story of Vietnam's Forgotten Battle

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, talks his new book ahead of a Houston visit.

By Nicholas Bell October 17, 2017

Though Mark Bowden has written ten books since his popular retelling of the Battle of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down, his newest work, Huế 1968, is the first time he has written about a battle since that famous book-turned-movie debuted in 1999.

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Huế 1968 captures the Battle of Huế from the fall of the city on the night of January 30 to the recapturing of the citadel on February 25. Aside from a famous battle sequence at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the battle remains relatively unknown. Bowden’s book, as well as the FX mini-series planned to follow, might lend more exposure to the subject.

The third largest city in Vietnam at the time, Huế was a symbolic city in the war. The former capital was largely seen as an intellectual hub situated in the center of the country, and, as chronicled in the first section of the book, Hanoi had been planning the Tet Offensive in order to incite a popular uprising across Vietnam.

Houstonia caught up with Bowden for an interview about the infamous battle, the media landscape, and the upcoming 8–10 hour series about this book.

When I first started reading the book, I wasn’t really familiar with Huế, but I was familiar with the Tet Offensive. I was wondering if you could explain where Huế fits into the Tet Offensive.

The Tet Offensive shocked everyone primarily because it was so widespread—there were attacks throughout South Vietnam. Every major city or town was hit, but only in Huế, however, was the entire city destroyed. There had been an anti-war movement prior to the Tet Offensive. but it was, as I describe in the book, relatively marginal—essentially the kind of people who tend to oppose all wars: pacifists, moral leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Charles Coughlin. After the Tet Offensive, the anti-war movement moved into the mainstream. So, even though there remained a majority of popular support for the war, the anti-war movement really began to pick up steam.

How many days of research does it take to write about one day in the book?

It’s kind of hard to say, because what I do is I interview people. I get them to tell me their stories, and in some cases, an account of the events of a given day might include overlapping stories of 10 or 20 different people. Let’s just say there’s a lot of work that goes into reconstructing everything in the book, but certainly the events of a day. I’m also drawing on research—books that have been written, army records, marine records, things like that.

A lot of your books have a similar approach in that they give an account of a single event in history. How do you determine the topics you want to write about?

Since I make a living by writing stories, if I’m curious about something, I start working on it. In the case of this book, I lived during the Vietnam era, and it impacted my life. I’ve always been interested in it. The chance to go and really seriously research what happened there and why was an appealing one to me. In this case, when I started looking into the Battle of Huế, I thought that it really had not been given the weight or significance it deserved.

At what point in your research do you determine a timeline that’s significant enough to encompass that single event in history?

Cleary, the Battle of Huế was something that was in planning stages for almost the entire year before it happened, and the actual battle lasted for weeks after I finished my story. I try to find an effective narrative line to define the borders of the story I’m telling. In this case, the storyline I’ve written begins very neatly with the storming of the city and the raising of the enemy flag over the citadel and the day that that flag got taken down. I identify that as really the end of the battle, even though fighting continued in some places in Huế for weeks and even months later. It's a creative decision that you make as a writer.

We live in an era of "fake news." Do you think political polarization and the abundance of niche media outlets is going to make it more challenging to determine public consensus for writers or historians in the future?

That’s a good question, and I don’t really know the answer. That fragmentation of the media has complicated the picture across the board, so it would certainly complicate any effort to build public support for a war. I think that there are very few modern wars since World War II that have enjoyed broad popular support for long. The Iraq War had a large, overwhelming popular support for a while, and then it started to go badly, and that support eroded.

The Walter Cronkite speech towards the end of the book, it was during his “Who, What, Where, When, Why” report, and it was pretty openly distrusting of General Westmoreland’s narrative of the war. It seems as though that speech is regarded as the blunt truth being told by the bearer of bad news, but I feel like today a statement like that would be cast aside as a political statement from a talking head.

I think you’re right, and I think today there is no media figure comparable to Walter Cronkite whose opinion would be that influential.

On that note, FX landed the rights to turn the book into a series, with Michael Mann and Michael De Luca reportedly involved. What do you think it is about your writing that makes your books appealing to Hollywood, and so translatable to film and video?

I think that I try to immerse the reader in the moment. When I write stories, even though they’re often about historical events, I’m not a historian—I’m a journalist. I build my stories from the ground-up as opposed to the top-down. I’m far more interested in what the experience of the battle was through the eyes of Vietnamese, Americans, and civilians, and I construct the story in that way. That makes for a much more dramatic piece of storytelling, and I think that cinema is very immediate and direct and it needs that kind of granular narrative in order to work. 

Mark Bowden reads Huế 1968, Monday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet St. 713-523-0701. More information at brazosbookstore.com.

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