I gave up a long time ago any serious attempt to do historical research or any wish to be a serious professional historian. Nevertheless, by reasons of personal interests and education, I obviously keep being interested in history and historiography. One of the topics I was and still am interested in is the role of public history and the role of professional historians in influencing the public discourse about historical topics.
As far as my native country, Italy, is concerned, the situation is hardly exciting, with a huge divide between the production of professional, mostly academic, historians, and that of a broad group of writers, mostly journalists, aimed to a larger public. They both have a limit: the production of the professionals is basically aimed to other professionals, and with some notable exceptions, boring hard to appreciate for a broad public. On the other hand, the production of the second group is mostly garbage below the standards of what would be acceptable in scientific terms. As an example, I don’t remember an history book written by an Italian journalist which made a serious use of footnotes.
That’s why I found Huế 1968: A turning point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden an interesting work well above its content. At the same time, I believe it is a relevant case in point for some of the limitations that any attempts to produce an historical account aimed to a large public can face.
The book is an overall well-researched and compellingly written account of one of the most – according to the author, the most – important battle of the American intervention in the Vietnam war. The battle of Huế, fought between the 31st January and the 3rd March 1968, was one of the most defying episodes of the Tet offensive in 1968, and its outcome captures well the meaning of the offensive itself: a costly tactical victory for the American on South Vietnamese forces, a strategic victory for the Viet-Cong and North Vietnam.
Bowden makes use of official documents, contemporary reports and above all first-hand tales of veterans (from both sides) and reporters who were there. He highlights the faith (and consequent delusion) of the North Vietnamese at the eve of the offensive, the incapacity and inability of senior American commander to grasp the situation, their blunders, the cluelessness of most of the American soldiers, sent to fight a war in a country they knew little or nothing about, their betrayed trust in military and political leaders, the civilians caught in the middle of the storm.
The result is a book where the author tries and to a good extent manage (with some exceptions I will mention) to build a multi-faceted account from many points of view, with each moment of the battle viewed from the perspective of the many actors fighting the battle: the Viet Cong cadres, the civilians blocked in the city, the ARVN, the Marines and American Army soldiers.
While this is the major merit of the book, it is also one of its limits. As much as the author attempts to recreate the battle from the point of view of all the actors involved, American marines, soldiers and reporters end up to be the major actors of the narrative. The North Vietnamese appear strongly at the beginning of the book, tend to disappear in the middle of the battle and resurface towards the end, the civilians are present through the narrative but in a minor tone, the South Vietnamese soldiers, despite the fact that they are recognized by the author himself as a major actor during the battle, are relegated to a mere role of walk-ons.
There are some obvious reasons for this. The author is American, and clearly had easier access to American veterans and witnesses. He doesn’t speak Vietnamese, and as he himself recognizes, interviewing Vietnamese veterans in presence of an official interpreter introduce an obvious barrier. And as far as South Vietnamese veterans are concerned, they are understandably difficult to locate, and even more difficult to speak with (and I believe basically impossible for the many who remained in Vietnam). In fact, I am not aware (but I have never studied the topic systematically so there might well be some) of studies focusing on the war experience of South Vietnam veterans, who appeared to be mostly portrayed as incompetent fighters or corrupt agents of a corrupt government. While this happened to be often the case, there are several examples of the opposite case, the commander of Hue garrison, gen. Truong, being the most well-known case in point.
This being said, the book has another, more serious limit, which relates to the final chapter, dedicated to the story of one of the most famous photographs taken during the battle, representing a seriously wounded American Marine being carried out of the battle zone on a tank together with other wounded marines (the picture, byJohn Olson, is displayed below). Bowden reconstruct the story of the picture and of the Marine on it, which in his account survived the wounds and the war to have a successful life. It is a beautiful piece of writing, which allows the author to draw a parallel between the personal history of the Marine and that of the nation at large. It is however an account which, as detailed in a New York Times article published one year ago, is not properly sustained by the documentation, and results refutable in light of the evidence available, as the Marine identified by Bowden doesn’t appear to be the one in the picture, who died on the same day he was pictured.
While this doesn’t detract from the merits of the rest of the book, it seems an error that could be avoided with more through research, or at least amended. When presented with the evidence, Bowden stuck to his version – which in the meantime had gained further visibility from an exhibition at the Newseum in Washington. To retract is always a difficult exercise, and the stakes can be particularly high in terms of credibility, so the behaviour of the author, if not justifiable, is at least understandable (and he’s hardly alone in this).
Still, one is left with the impression that historical accuracy and rigour were sacrificed in name of writing an evocative and edifying story. For a professional historian this would be a cardinal sin, for a journalist attempting to create an historically accurate and reliable account for a wide public, it is if not such, at the very least a true shame.