The light dissolves alternative facts
My father so felt that he should read Andersonville, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel hailed in some corners as the best ever written about the Civil War, that he tried several times to finish the 770-page work, without success.
Dad was a student of the War Between the States, you see. Swords hung above the fireplace in the home where I grew up. Knives and other artifacts filled the mantle. A possession most prized was a battlefield pencil sketch of a minor general.
Prominent on the bookshelves in the study were the six volumes of Carl Sandburg’s definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln. Dad had read them all.
But never could he conquer Andersonville, MacKinley Kantor’s book about a savage Georgia prison where 14,000 Union soldiers died. More than once, I saw him heft the tome and mutter, “I guess I’ll give it one more try.”
Of late, I made my second attempt at making it through Mark Bowden’s authoritative book on the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War and its bloodiest battle. Titled Hue 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam, it was a book that I felt compelled to read and, this time, I completed it.
I met Bowden (who is related to that retired football coach guy) years ago at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. Chautauqua hosts intellectual fairs that resemble a writer’s conference, and Bowden, when I saw him, spoke to Black Hawk Down, his book about a 1993 battle between U.S. forces and Somali militia fighters. I bought a signed copy.
In terms of pacing and length, Black Hawk is much more manageable than Hue, but I picked up Bowden’s latest book after I saw it reviewed in the New York Times, owing to my familiarity with the author and because I have long felt guilty about not knowing more about the Vietnam War, which I avoided via the luck of the draw. (I had a high draft number.)
Hue is about courage and foolhardiness and the death of young men and their dreams and, perhaps most tellingly, it is about delusion and dishonesty.
Despite mounting U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam casualties and other incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, President Lyndon Johnson, Gen. William Westmoreland and other leaders of the U.S. war effort far removed from the action on the ground stubbornly clung to the belief that the Tet offensive was, for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, a futile and suicidal mission. They claimed defiantly that the exercise had failed to surprise U.S. forces even though it was launched during a holiday truce. “Never,” writes Bowden about Westmoreland, “had a general so effectively willed away the facts.”
There was no way to square his claims with the reports of journalists in theater. In truth, more than 80,000 troops from the north had simultaneously struck more than 100 targets, but still Westmoreland couldn’t stop insisting that Hanoi was unable to carry out a coordinated attack. He believed in the inevitability of an American victory and a false doctrine of U.S. invincibility. Meanwhile, NBC News reported, “The communists may not be winning the war, as the Pentagon claims, but they don’t seem to be losing it either.” And so, it would all wind up.
Unprepared for urban warfare and badly outnumbered, U.S. forces sustained heavy losses in retaking the city of Hue, which had been captured by the communists — poor intelligence combined with bravado to produce bloodbaths.
In his play-by-play recounting of the battle for Hue, Bowden describes horrors of war that I never had read about before. I cannot un-see the picture Bowden painted in detailing the deaths of two men who were “plumed” by mortar fire.
In reading Hue, I thought back to Randy Evans, an artist I got to know when I lived and did newspaper work in Illinois. Evans had served as a medic in Vietnam and, back home, depicted war scenes in angry reds, oranges and yellows on large canvases. He let his art speak for him. Via Bowden, I now have a feel for what Evans could not talk about.
As a resident of the Florida Panhandle for decades, I was surrounded by military men and women with whom I did not interact. I wrote about changes of command from time to time and witnessed jets overhead and stood for color guards. That was all.
But Bowden’s book, like all fine literature and reporting, transported me to another time and place. And, back home, I have a refined appreciation for military service, for my good fortune, for the momentousness of a high number and for mistakes that we never should have repeated.