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News The backstory of how Mark Bowden wrote 'Hue 1968'

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Mark Bowden and Hue book cover

​Author Mark Bowden and his latest book, "Hue 1968, A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam." Photo/John Olson

'The path differs for every story, and must be invented each time out.'

By Mark Bowden
Author, "Hue, 1968, A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam"

Years ago, an editor interviewing me for a reporting job asked, "What's your biggest weakness?"

If you ever hear this question in a job interview, do not attempt an honest answer. Under the circumstances, it's unfair to ask.

But being young and eager and stupid, I tried. I said, "I think I'm a better writer than a reporter." I explained that while I always enjoyed writing, and felt confident, I was never as sure of my reporting. I always felt like I didn't know enough, that there was someone I needed to talk to who I had not. Often I wasn't sure where to start. What was the best avenue to research the backstory?

I no longer doubt myself as a reporter, but those questions still arise every time. Reporting is driven by confusion and uncertainty. The right way to begin is to acknowledge how little you know. The path differs for every story, and must be invented each time out. I've learned to enjoy the challenge. I begin nearly every story feeling, How in the world am I going to do this?

'Where should I begin? Who should I talk to'
Troops at Dong Ba Tower

​Marines assault the Dong Ba Tower on Feb. 15, 1968. Photo/John Olson

In the case of "Hue 1968," my most recent book, the path took six years. The book tells the story of a monthlong battle at roughly the midpoint of the Vietnam War. The idea of documenting an event in a country I had never visited with many thousands of participants, combatants and civilians, was overwhelming. Where should I begin? Who should I talk to? What was the best avenue for research?

I am fortunate to have a strong relationship with my publisher, Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic. He published "Black Hawk Down" and all of my books since, and he is the one who had urged me to write about Hue. So I held him up for a contract big enough to finance the various expensive things I knew the book's research would require.

I began by checking out what had already been written. There were three books about the battle itself, and two others by soldiers who had fought in it.  There were scores of other books more broadly about the Vietnam War that touched on the Battle of Hue in one way or another. I found that the ones about the battle were aimed primarily at military audiences, and were solely concerned with glorifying the American fighting man, which was not at all the kind of book I intended to write.

My own approach would be to write a book for any reader, to arrive at my own understanding of what happened, and to tell that story, the good and bad, from as many perspectives as possible. The earlier accounts gave me a decent introduction. I took lots of notes about military units, names, and, where the authors provided it, sources.

Then I started my own reporting. The first interview I did was with Gene Roberts, the New York Times reporter who covered the battle, and as it happened, purely by accident, I knew Gene. He had hired me many years ago when he was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. I ran into him at a social event, and he asked me what I was working on. When I told him, he said, "I was there!" So I flew down to Bath, North Carolina, where he lives, and spent two days interviewing him.

From there I began contacting American veterans of the battle. Once I knew which military units were involved, I found their websites and began compiling lists of names. Those who lived close enough to me I went to interview in person - always the best way. Those who lived farther away I phoned. The interviews lasted anywhere from an hour to five or six hours. I tried to maintain a pace of about three or four a week. I recorded them, and had them transcribed - one of the benefits of my success as an author is that I can now afford such services. (When I wrote "Black Hawk Down," I transcribed every one of the scores of interviews by hand.) At the end of every session, I asked, "Who else should I talk to?" So my list of interviewees grew and grew.

To that list I added journalists, like Gene, who had been there, and American civilians like Jim Bullington, who had been a foreign service officer there, and some of the young Americans who had served for the International Volunteer Service, a precursor to the Peace Corps that had sent young men and women to teach and work in Hue during the war. I had come across some of these names in my reading, and, again, always finished my interviews by asking, "Who else should I talk to?"

Interview by interview, my picture of the battle widened and deepened. One way to tell a sweeping story is to choose several representative characters and build the narrative around them. John Hersey wrote his classic "Hiroshima" in this way, telling the story of the first nuclear bombing through the eyes of six distinct survivors.

I could not do this with "Hue 1968." Whereas the atom bomb that exploded over Hiroshima struck every resident of the city almost simultaneously, so that everyone's story began at the same moment, nearly all of those I interviewed about Hue experienced only a small part of the battle, and at different times and places. Most of the soldiers fought until they were wounded and evacuated, so it was hard to find those whose experience ran all the way through.

My account would be made up of many, many individual stories. The unifying thread had to be the battle itself. I had to know what happened on a large scale well enough to guide the reader through the battle chronologically, making sense of it step by step, moving as it moved, and plugging in the scores of individual stories where they belonged. The disadvantage was a book with so many characters that few readers would be able to keep track. The advantage was that the book would better capture the enormity of the battle, and the wide variety of ways that people experienced it.

Finding a 'fixer' and translator
Author with Ho Dang Hoa in Hue

​Author Bowden with fixer and translator Ho Dang Hoa on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Hue.

Getting the Vietnamese side of the story meant traveling there. When you work overseas, the smartest approach is to hire a "fixer," a person who lives there, who speaks English and is capable of doing rapid translation (a skill many bilingual people lack), and who ideally has experience working with journalists or scholars. How would I find someone like that in Vietnam?

I searched online for southeast Asian experts and found one at Dartmouth University, who told me he always worked in Vietnam with a fixer named Ho Dang Hoa. He gave me contact information, and I set up a Skype conversation with Hoa in 2014. He turned out to be perfect for my needs. A former Vietnamese military officer, he knew his way around the Hanoi government and military bureaucracy and could relate well to veterans.

And it turned out that he had been working for Ken Burns, the documentarian, on his "Vietnam War" project. I checked with Lynn Novick at Florentine Films, Burns' production company, and she sang Hoa's praises as a researcher, guide, and translator. So I hired him, and set him to work researching the archives in Hanoi for accounts of the fighting in Hue, and asked him to travel to that city (he lived in Hanoi) to find and conduct preliminary interviews with veterans and civilians who had survived the battle.

(The contact with Novick provided an unexpected benefit. Her project had collected a lot of video from the battle, only a few minutes of which they would use. She invited me to their studio in New York to watch all of it, which gave me striking views of the battle.)

I went to Vietnam for the first time in January of 2015. Hoa met me at the airport in Hanoi, and after doing some interviews there, we flew to Hue. He had arranged two weeks of interviews, two and sometimes three each day. When I came home from that trip I had nearly thirty. Because Hoa had only given me a brief, sketchy translation, enough to keep the interview going, I wasn't sure what I had in all those hours of conversation. Here at UD, I found a Vietnamese graduate student, Xuyen Dinh, who agreed to work with me, translating and transcribing all of that material. It took many months, but as I read each of these interviews, I began to assemble a deeper understanding of the Vietnamese side of the battle.

I made a second trip to Vietnam the following year. I had identified some of the people I had interviewed on the first trip as important characters for my book, so I went back to them a second time to ask for more details. I also had a long list of new interviewees.

During all these months of work, with the exception of the time spent in Vietnam, I was still talking regularly to American veterans. My son Dan happened to be home for some of those months. He has worked as a reporter, so I set him to work doing interviews for me, doubling my pace.

In between all of these things I had made several visits to the National Archives in Bethesda, Maryland, where I found loads of files documenting the various American military units involved in the battle, unclassified CIA material, and the source work for some of the other books on the subject. I spent a week at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library on the University of Texas campus in Austin, combing through the papers of William Westmoreland, of Johnson's National Security Council, and of Johnson's assistant Walt Rostow. Since my focus was narrow - I was primarily interested only in what happened during the months of January-February of 1968 - the amount of material I sifted was manageable.

Somewhere along the course of all this reporting I began to draw up outlines of the book and started writing. When I returned from my second trip to Vietnam in 2016 I shifted gears from reporting to writing. I took off teaching in the fall of that year to focus on it exclusively, and delivered the first draft of the book to Morgan in December, a month or two ahead of schedule. We edited and fact-checked the book in the first three months of 2017, and pulled together maps and photos. The book was published on June 6, 2017.

Looking back over all this now makes the whole process seem very logical, almost as if I knew exactly what I was doing from the start. It's an illusion. At every step along the way I wasn't sure what to do next. That's the great challenge (and fun!) of researching and writing a book like this, beating back uncertainty as you constantly move forward. Having written a dozen books now, you'd think I'd have the process down pat.

 You'd be wrong.

 

Wounded Marines on a converted tank.

​Wounded Marines on a converted tank used as a makeshift ambulance during the battle of Hue. The wounded soldier, Alvin Bert Grantham, had been shot through the chest. He survivied. Photo/John Olson

Story published on 3/7/2018 ; last modified on  
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Hue 1968 book jacket

Mark Bowden describes how he wrote the story of the Battle of Hue, which he calls "the single bloodiest battle of the war" and "a microcosm for the entire conflict."

3/7/2018
 
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The backstory of how Mark Bowden wrote 'Hue 1968'
 
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