tv Hue 1968 CSPAN June 10, 2017 2:06pm-2:50pm EDT
and we're back now live from jones college prep high school in chicago and the chicago tribune's annual lit fest. starting now mark bowden talks about his recent book, america's involvement in the vietnam war. >> good afternoon. good afternoon and welcome to the 33rd annual chicago tribune printers row lit fest. i'd like to give a shout out to our sponsors. this program is being broadcast live on c-span 2's book tv. at this time i'd like to throw it over to our interview, chicago tribune film critic michael phillips. [applaus [applause]. >> thank you, thanks for coming
out today and it's my pleasure to talk with mark bowden about his new book hue 1968. for those of you who don't know his resume', he's a national correspondent for the atlantic, contributing editor "vanity fair," a writer, and author of many books on subjects all over the-- literally all over the world, from colombia and pablo escobar, an account to d-day, to the killing of usama bin laden, many subjects. probably best known for blackhawk down, an account of the 1993 raid in somalia that led to two-u.s. army blackhawk helicopters being down over downtown mogadishu and the
grueling 15-hour result. and the new book, which is out this week from atlantic monthly press is a very different scope, i'd say, than blackhawk down. it's also being made into a mini series already. the thing hasn't been out three days, and the producer and director of what's going to be between eight and ten hours in the end, of this mini series is michael mann and he has said this, i like this description. he says, in mark's book, there are no background people. people ab tracted into statistics or body counts. there's a sense that everybody is somebody as each is in the actuality of their own lives. the brilliance of bowden's narrative, achievement of intervowing hundreds of people on all sides and making their human stories his foundation is
why hue 1968 raises to the emotion emotional of for whom the bell tolls and on the western front. high praise. >> bless him. [laughter] >> from partisan character, but thank you for sitting with us. >> my pleasure. thank you for inviting me. >> host: can we talk a little first, just to kind of orient folks who may not be as familiar as they should be with the bloodiest of the vietnam war battles. i think that's controvertible. >> right. >> host: i wonder if there were key misconception of the tet offensive that kind of helped focus your book five years in the making. >> guest: i was-- frankly the more i learned about this battle, the more
surprised i was that it wasn't widely known and remembered. it is remembered within the military. people who are part of the military, the army or the marine corps are very familiar with what a terrible fight this was, but the general public, i think, in part never really understood exactly what happened in large measure because the commander, the military commanders in vietnam, general westmoreland and his staff so aggressively downplayed the tet offensive. they claimed that it amounted only to small scale attacks, which was true in most of the cities in south vietnam, that were rapidly put down. hue was definitely not that. it was an enormous battle that lasted 24 to 30 days involving u.s. cavalry units and the united states marine corps, took a terrible toll on the
citizens in the middle of the city, kind of trapped in the cross-fire. so, it's a battle, it's kind of a rip in the fabric and civilization and terribly dramatic and ultimately, i think changes the world. this was an episode on that scale. >> host: 15 hours was the core sort of timeline in blackhawk down, this was as you say, up po to 30, 40 days. and things happen out of those margins, battles don't come out of nowhere and they don't end when they end. and tell me how that necessitated more of a different structure, more of a mosaic, if you go with that characterization. >> i think there is a similarity in the structure as i went about reporting blackhawk down and this in the same way. this was, as you mentioned, a
much bigger scale and a much bigger challenge and i ended up speaking to a lot more people. but i try to build these stories from the ground up. me, i'm far more interested as a writer in the experience of the individuals who were caught up in that struggle, either both american soldiers and vietnamese soldiers and civilians. one of the soldiers who was in this battle, by the way, was andy westin who is in the front row here, andy. if you want to stand up. >> host: stand up. [applaus [applause] >> and andy is one of many americans veterans who i interviewed. the great they think about andy was he was writing letters home almost every day so my narrative is full of these wonderful letters that andy wrote during the battle. >> host: let's read that first segment we talked about here. hue is the third largest city,
i believe. >> sure, kind of like the chica chicago. >> host: not that we've ever been equated to a battlefield before, but let's-- this is an early part of the book and we should say the book actually begins, the narrative proper begins with one of many people we meet in hue 1968, which is the story of a north vietnamese villager. >> ktmung. a 18-year-old girl whose father has fought against the french, grandfather fought against the french. her older sister was skilled fighting against the south vietnamese army and americans and she herself had been taken and interrogated and waterboarded when she was like 16 years old. so she was someone who had a
very deep hatred of the south vietnamese army and the americans, who was completely committed to fight. i thought it would be an interesting way to introduce to american readers the story of the battle that we think of as an american. >> host: we're so use today demonizing the enemy, especially in fiction, but not even nonfiction accounts of this war. so, this is a description of hue, and the tet offensive that took place around the lunar new year? >> right, tet is the annual new years celebration. it's the biggest holiday in vietnam. in january, 1968, there were fewer than a thousand arvn troops stationed in the city and surrounding area and a smaller number of americans. as the holidays approached, a large portion of the former were looking forward to a long holiday furlough.
in this peaceful city during tet, it was traditional to send cups and papers with lit candles floating down the river like flickering, prayers for health, for success, for the memory of loved ones, an i way or departed, for success in business or in love and perhaps for an end to the war and killing. it made a moving collective display of vast flotilla of hope, many thousands of tiny flames. they would wind down the wide water without sound, flowing past the bright lights of the modern city to the south, framed to the north by the fortresses' high black walls. people would line both banks, to favor the spectacle, and sending their own offerings. it was the gesture of beauty and calm, of harmony between the living and the dead, an
expression of vietnam's soul placed far from the horrors of war. not this year. >> let's jump ahead to one other thing. thank you. [applause] >> thank you. >> host: we meet many, many characters in mark's book and one of them is-- his name is richard leffler. and i think in any good account of any war, you have the famous actors and the less famous. your book deals with lbj, with westmoreland, walter cronkite among other media, figures who ended up, really kind of redirecting the american perception of the war, as a winnable, you know, exercise. and this is one of many, like the one we meet at the beginning of the book. this is one of many characters we didn't know until now.
>> this now, we're in the middle of the battle where it's raging in the city. there was a steady roar of gunfire and explosions, but with the eclipse and intervals by the sound of a shell fired from one of the war ships anchored 15 to 20 miles east in the south china sea. the biggest of their guns were 16 inchers, which measured the width of the barrels bore. the gun itself was 50 times that long. it could hurl a projectile as heavy as a small car 25 miles. it would emerge in the general din as a low whistle that grew louder as it approached until it became a thing felt as much as heard, passing above the opaque ceiling of clouds like an airborne locomotive. the hurling projectile went with so much force it dressed on the eardrums. and when it hit the ground, even at a great distance, the
earthquake shook, the walls crumbled. it felt i can liao -- like the end of the world for richard leftie leffler. leffler was 18. he had no idea what was going on. he had never heard of tet or hue, which he pronounced hue instead of hue. he now knew nothing of ho chi minh. he could not kind r find vietnam on the map. and this was just something he was obliged to fight. months earlier he had been a tough guy, small, scrappy or and tough so he thought. he was from a town by philadelphia the land rises steeply from the schylkill
river. he was too young for a union job and too rambunctious and unruly for school. his father didn't work, he drank. with a blood of six his mother had more than she could cope with. leffler ran wild. he discovered that a boy didn't have to be big to win a fight, just willing. the key was to fear painless than the other guy. this gave him, despite his size, a swagger in his neighborhood. life had been shaping up just fine until the local magistrate, a barber, eid the is yourly teen dragged into his shop by the police between umpteenth time, with a snip of the scissors, you again, you have two choices, my man, they really want to put you in juvy. i have to put you in somewhere and just like that, lefty was a mari marine. [applause]. >> guest: inventory .
>> host: that's good, thank you. >> i have to talk about the research because it's a considerable undertaking. how do you map-- first of all, how did the experience on blackhawk down, among others, prepare you for, kind of hey, how do i map out. who am i going to talk to about this that we haven't heard before? >> it benefitted, i think, having written blackhawk down, with the realization, you don't have to understand the thing you're writing about before you start. you just need to dive in. and you begin talking to one person after another, after another, and over a period of time, you begin to form a kind of mental mosaic that's the story that you want to write. at a certain point, when you have the shape of the story, or in this case of the battle, in your mind, now you can begin directing your efforts towards the kind of people you have not yet spoken to, you recognize,
for instance, most of this battle was fought with by marines in the city, but there was also a major fight outside the city fought by the first of the 7th cavalry, the u.s. army troopers, of whom andy was one. at a certain point i real leased, i need to find the army guys who fought in this battle. and that process proceeds until-- and then you speak to vietnamese soldiers and i begin to form a very, i think, much richer idea of what actually happened. >> and in that-- you keep working like that, in this case, over five years until you actually feel that you understand something you want to write about. and how many trips to vietnam did you take? >> i took two trips to vietnam, each was two to three weeks long, but hired a fellow there, his name was denny and hue is a
younger military officer, too young to fight in the war, but savvy finding retired generals and how to deal with the department of the. in working for me, plumbing the archives and looking for historical documents and memoirs, then he began interviewing on my behalf so when i came for the first time to hue, he had set up two and three interviews a day for a solid two weeks. so i would interview heavily during that time and come back with 40 or more interviews, which i would then have to have translated and transcribed and translated. so it was a laborious process, but i felt if i had the opportunity, which i did not have so much in blackhawk down. i did go to somalia and did i best i could to tell that side
of the battle. it's difficult, mogadishu is an extremely violent and dangerous place. vietnam, has become welcoming to travelers and journalists. i i had the opportunity and i felt i needed to take advantage of it. it was, you know, you keep chipping away at it like the thousand mile journey. >> host: did you get to the point in this book, maybe different than the other books, where you hit a wall on the research and that you're in a quagmire, maybe a vietnam-like quagmire? >> i didn't, maybe because i've been writing so long. when i was a newspaper reporter, and starting out. often the stories would take me a day and i would think, gee, i have two or three days to work on this one. and an editor would call and say we need that story now.
>> i developed a habit early on as a reporter, sketching out for myself the structure of the story that i was going to write, if i had to write it right now. and that often happenedment if i got more, or learned something more, it would change everything because every time you interview someone new, your understanding of the story is enriched and very frequently radically changed. so that practice of always having structure in my mind of what i'm going to write has carried out and invaluable to me in doing much longer projects. and i do, and i'm aware of reaching a point where i have to stop reporting if i'm ever going to write the thing. and so, generally, the progress is, in the beginning about 99% of my time is reporting and researching, and that somewhere in midpoint, i'm writing half the time and interviewing and
researching half the time and in the end. 99% of the time is spent writing and i'm chasing down the last few things that i feel i really need to know. >> we don't want to wait until the very last 9.3 minutes to hear from you. so if you have questions for mark, we're going to-- you can line up behind that mic and we'll just, we'll hijack the conversation back, if the questions are uninspired. okay? but they won't be, they won't be. i have to bring this up to part of the atlantic monthly press release on the publication of the book, notes that, you know, one of the north's huge miscalculations was the people of hue, indeed the people throughout south vietnam would rise up to support the revolution. this, of course, echoes all through history, that sort of-- up to and including the invasion of iraq and i just
wonder if you can talk at all how your interviews in vietnam, if there was any perspective that really, that you got from people that helped clarify that for you. >> yeah, that's a good question, michael. you know, i found that most vietnamese civilians in south vietnam, anyway, were trapped. they had a violent independence communist movement on one side that would take retribution against those who joined up or served or accepted the saigon government, the american-backed government and most of these, especially people living in the countryside, people with no education, they just wanted to be left alone to live their lives and they would have ultimately viet cong cadres would come into their villages and they would be people who would be executed or young men who would be taken to serve
with them, or there would be arvn south vietnamese troops or sometimes american troops, and we had pictures of american marines torching homes and villages. one of the efforts was to clean people out of their ancesteral villages and herd them into what was called safe villages, which were essentially compounds, surrounded by barbed wire and fencing and i think anyone who understood the nature of vietnam's culture, you know, you're making enemies of the very people who you're trying to help in that case. so, there were miscalculations by-- certainly by the americans and by the south vietnamese, but as you mentioned, you know, i call them the song birds in hanoi, the propagandaists were just as
bad and had every speculation that their movement was hugely popular and people would rise up and support them, when the people didn't, which did not happen in hue, nor did it happen in other places in south vietnam, i think that engendered a great deal of anger and contributed to these purges and executions that took place during the time that the north vietnamese and viet cong owned the city of hue. there were no shortages. >> host: we won't be able to get to everybody in this round. the first question, quickly. >> quickly, to what extent did you rely on the official military histories about the battle and engagement and how would you characterize the quality of those official histories? >> i did read them and i used them a lot. i think, you know, they were valuable, very often, in providing an overarching frame
work for what happened. and they were generally, i'm thinking in particular, jack shuenson's history of the war of vietnam was very good with details. obviously the people writing these are not approaching the story in the same way that i am and they're relying strictly on american accounts. other books like the memoirs are william westmoreland, i found to be extremely unhelpful. he think he devoted all of about five sentences to the battle of hue, which to my thinking was the most serious battle fought by americans in the war. he from the beginning that hue had been taken and refused to see this battle as anything very significant. that persistence, you know, up until his death, he never really, i think, acknowledged what had gone on. >> and they were working off
good military intelligence on that, but it was denied, ignored. >> on the first day, january 31st, there was a cia report that went to the president, i found it in lyndon johnson's papers at his library in austin, and so, it certainly would have been seen by general westmoreland, which said it was actually very accurate. it said that the city has been taken by the north vietnamese and the viet cong. there's a small group of americans who are trapped in the southern part of the city and there's a small group of south vietnamese soldiers trapped in the northern part of the city, but other than that, you know, this city has been taken. and that very day, general westmoreland is cabling to washington that there are no more than like 500 enemy soldiers in the city of hue, which was off by a factor of 20. and i might add, that this was not just a-- it was not a failure that was just sort after public relations problem or a communications problem.
these young men, like andy, and marines were being sent and ordered to attack entrenched far superior forces. so a force of 300 marines, a company of marines was corded to attack the citadel, which is the big fortress, is the northern half of hue, that had thousands of north vietnamese and viet cong forces on the tops of the walls, at the ramparts and so, chuck meadows, captain chuck meadows led these men across the bridge, lost half of his company, in making this attack before he realized and radioed back, we're overwhelmed, we're outgunned, there's no way that we can proceed and was accused in turning back of timidity and cowardess i a -- along with some of his commanders. and there are instances and instances of this. the denial taking place at the higher level had very severe consequences for the young men
who were actually fighting. >> thank you very much. >> host: next. >> about seven or eight years ago, i had a course, a college course on the history of the united states and vietnam. some of the things i learned, number one, that nixon, who said he had a plan to end the war, which is why he got my vote, never had a plan at all. and the other thing i learned was that you mentioned, i think, in your book, that general westmoreland's strategy of attrition wasn't working. and we would kill 60,000 or 70,000 or 80,000 or 90,000 vietnamese a year and they'd all be replaced, sometimes replaced more than we killed. so, do you have any idea why that information wasn't getting back to the white house or to leaders in the senate? >> sure, i mean, i think that happens often that those in
power, is that they shun opposing points of view. they develop their own theory of the way things are supposed to be working, and they impose that theory-- they try to impose that theory on the world. >> host: but that doesn't happen anymore. [laughter] >> this is all in the deep past. and not only do you disregard, you know, those reports from people on the ground, in the case of hue, you've got these young company commanders who are in the middle of the fight, radioing back saying, look, this is what we're up against and being disbelieved because it didn't fit the theory general westmoreland had. in his idea, this was not possible. there was no way that there could be 10,000 enemy soldiers in the city. so, i think, you know, if you read david halbertsam's book, going back to the truman
administration, southeast asia experts, who lived in that part of the world, spoke the language, understood the history were systematically shunned and kicked out of the corridors of power. people who were given were those robert mcnamara who a plan to win in vietnam. and general westmoreland how he would dazzle you with four phases and we're moving from phase three to phase four and sounded logical and made perfect sense until you collide with reality. for me one of the lessons of the story, reality has more and full of surprises and if anyone thinks they have a theory, you should run away as fast as you can. >> host: thank you. next? >> in your visit to vietnam did you interview ex-south
vietnamese military and if so, were they fearful in telling their story? >> yes and yes. i think the one area of the research in the book that i'm most disappointed about is that i didn't find more. and that's the reason for that, these are people who lost the war after the hanoi occupied the whole country of people who fought for the saigon regime, who fought in the south vietnamese army were sent to prison, in many cases never came back. there were purges, there were-- people were persecuted. in fact, we have many vietnamese living in america who fled during those years to escape that kind of punishment. one of the south vietnamese commanders i interviewed lives in arlington, virginia, goes by harry now, was in prison for eight years before his friends in the american forces, people he worked with during the war managed to get him released and
brought to the united states. and you know, he could only point to a three or four people who served with him, who would be willing to talk to me because they fear still retribution by the hanoi regi regime. >> host: how about one more for now and take more later. >> sure. this is more of a process question and so, if you want to address it now or laterment i'm just curious that when you write this book with so much research required and travel and whatever, how do you finance this kind of thing as you're doing it? so-- >> three words, black hawk down. [applause]. >> had it not been for that book though, you build a budget? how do you-- >> sure. >> i know i've been working as a reporter for a long time, i remember telling my publisher talking to me about this project very early on and i told him, this is going to be a very expensive project. if i'm going to do this, you're
going to have to give me a lot of money and the publisher would not have given me a lot of money were it know the for black hawk down. and the advice for writers when they reach a certain point in their career, i dismissed my agent, who was routinely taking 15% of any of my contracts. and i told her, jenny, i love you, but i don't need you anymore. i need the money more than i need you. so i actually took the 15% of the contract that would have gone to jenny and used it to finance my travel and hiring people and everything else. that's a good question and you know, back years ago when i was a newspaper reporter and living off of my salary at philadelphia inquirer. if i want today take time off to write a book, i had to get a contract big enough to cover the salary, i had five kids and a mortgage, i couldn't afford to lock myself in a garrett and write a book. i needed that and medical berths year after year and ends
up adding up to a big chunk of money. in the beginning it was a struggle. and since black hawk down, god bless jerry bruckheimer, it's easier for me. >> i'd like to ask you about the adaptations while we're on the subject. when you sat down with michael ma mann. was there something you were waiting for him to say that made you feel relieved that it got to the right person? >> michael say very early draft copy of the book, was so excited about it right from the beginning. and the things he liked about it were the things that i loved about the story. and that is, as you were describing, in his remarks, the fact that it built by person by person by person.
it's not a traditional historical narrative where you have an omnicient historian telling you. it's moment by moment with people who were trapped in this fight and that's the thing that michael mann felt about the story. i've seen his movies and i think he's an amazing talent. he's made some great motion pictures and tv shows, and you know, and frankly, he's the kind of guy who can command the resources it takes to realistically portray something on this scale. i mean, i'm sure he'll want to go to vietnam to shoot. i'm sure this is going to be a series that will have many hundreds of actors in it. it's an enormous undertaking and in order it pull something like that off, it helps to be ridley scott or michael mann.
when someone like that has that kind of an interest in your story, this has a good chance of happening. >> it seems that every chronicler of a nonfiction account of a war like this believed that their story deserves eight to ten hours, versus a conventional two hour film, but this one actually does demand it, just the breadth of it. >> let me tell you a story. when we mapped black hawk down with jerry and ridley, we both took out a yellow legal pad and decided to make a list of the scenes in the book that absolutely had to be in the movie. and before long, the list was flowing onto the second page so we kind of pulled back and i remember jar he sayi-- jerry saying we have to make harder choices we can't do this. and i naively said, well, why don't we make a three-hour film, instead of a two-hour
film and they all kind of recoiled in horror. >> host: that's usually the point when the writer is shot. >> but jerry says to me, and this is interesting, i did not know this. he says, mark, you understand why movies are two hours long, right? and i said, no, i don't know why movies are two hours long. i thought maybe because you have to go to the bathroom? what's the answer. he says, well, look, we plan to spend more than $100 million to make this movie. if it's a two-hour movie the theater can show it four times a day, three hours, twice day. so we cut our profits in half out of the gate if we make a three-hour movie. we are not making a three-hour movie. [laughter] >> but it ended up being two and a half hours. >> two hours and 20 minutes and i know exactly as we went around to the premiers. they'd start the movie and going out to dinner and looking at our watches when we have to
get back to answer questions on stage. [laughter] >> i have to-- it's behind the scenes. >> host: i wish we had another hour, about three more minutes because you have a plane to catch, we should say, if you have to bolt quickly. i want to end with this. you said in 2009, nothing will ever replace language as the medium of thought. no nothing will replace the well originally reported story or the well-researched essay. that was in 2009. are you any less optimistic now? >> no, i just believe that's an irrevocable truth. i think as much as i love film. story telling on film is by necessity kind of impressionistic, it can be a wonderful work of art, but never approach the specificity, the nuance that language gives you in selling a story. you can go inside of someone's
head and describe what they're thinking, what their motivations are, things you can try to show in a film, i think, you can actually do with a great deal of power in language. so, i don't believe anything will ever replace the written word as the most effective and important vehicle for story telling and argument, and i'm confident that books will be as important to people 100 years from now as they are today. >> host: and maybe you all believe that, too. [applaus [applause] >> the book is "hue 1968", mark bowden is the author. thank you for your time today. [applaus [applause]. >> all right, thank you very much. we've got hue 1968 sold right outside the auditorium.
always wanted to be an editor in the literature field and eventually editing anthologies of literature for 30 years and doing some other kinds of work. and then this, so, it's a great ride. >> what are your duties going to entail as the new president? >> i think my main duty is to keep on keeping on. this is very fabulous and unusual publishing company and i wanted to continue to do that. my duties are to learn what i don't know and to support all of these brilliant people to do what they really do well. >> well, we were going to ask you about books coming up this november that are publishing. what are some that you want to talk about? >> this-- we've got plenty. i'm going to start with "the rise and fall of adam and eve",
who is an author i worked with for 20 years. steven has written cultural history of the myths of adam and eve, begins as an archtype and believed there was the first couple and they did wrong and then it's up to the renaissance, and the works of john milton in paradise lost and you know, adam and eve as inspiration for art. steven is the most entertaining entertainingly erudite person i know and reading this book with pleasure. we have a biography of