Hue 1968 was a surprisingly great read. Besides the interesting history and the riveting storytelling, I found some great lessons for leaders. Many of them deal with thinking and even strategy. It’s for these reasons that I’ve incorporated this book into the kevinblack.co Resources section.
Here are some take-aways:
1. Strategy is often influenced by mindsets.
Any developing leader needs to understand strategy. Think about it: you are charged with executing it, in word and in spirit. The strategic thinking process, or the means of how strategy is created or developed, is just as important as the product. Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden provides some great insights into its effects and consequences.
The American strategy in Vietnam was based on our history. The US preferred conventional warfare, which is Western warfare. We excelled in it. Therefore, we sought out Western ways of fighting. Just think of giant, mechanized forces rolling across big, open plains and rolling German hills during WW2. Vietnam was no Western Europe.
To bring a war to a close, the Communists developed a Tet Offensive. It was shaped on the Soviet version of communism, which has Western intellectual roots. A major goal for any Western army was to always seek a quick, decisive victory. Interestingly, Ho Chi Minh was against such a decisive strike. He preferred a slower victory by attrition. This preference of action aligns with Mao’s version of communism.
2. Rationalization in decision-making is more prominent that you might expect.
Rationalization is forming conclusions based on deeply held premises or preconceived notions. Often they are not consistent with reality. Both the Americans and Communists suffered from this act of mental “cherry picking.”
The Americans, under the command of General Westmoreland, believed, and planned for, an all-out, Communist attack on Khe Sahn. The expectation was that the Communist forces would attempt another Din Bin Phu: the encirclement and ultimate defeat of French forces that led to a decisive communist victory in 1954. Khe Sahn happened to fit this mental mold. Add the fact that the critical outpost had become surrounded during the overall Tet Offensive, it logically became the center of attention for the American and South Vietnamese forces. It naturally follows, then, that any other attack would obviously be nothing more than a distraction. This is how Westmoreland and his command treated the Battle of Hue, which would be the greatest battle of all the Vietnam war.
The communist did want a decisive victory, and Hue would be the heart of it.
3. Identify your premises or preconceived notions.
The Communist planners and strategists held the central premise that the South Vietnamese population will rise-up during the general attack and support the communist government. They bet big time on it, investing major resources for the battle at Hue. The uprising never happened. It wasn’t even even close.
American and South Vietnamese did not realized the extent of the big battle at Hue, and resources and reinforcements were not provided in a timely manner. They were still waiting for an upcoming, decisive battle at Khe Sahn.
4. Don’t fight the evidence; go where it takes you.
The US Marine general just south of Hue downplayed reports from the ground at Hue. He discounted the accounts as exaggerations. The result was the unnecessary loss of marines in combat.
Westmoreland deliberately downplayed the operational picture. His estimations were at sometimes 20 times off the actual number of enemy there!
5. Flexibility and Adaptation.
One Marine Colonel, a ex-Steelers NFL player, had neither experience nor training for urban combat. That didn’t stop him from adapting. He read Marine Corps training manuals that were published during the Korean War on how to fight in urban terrain. This was a enormous success.
Below is an interview with the author, Mark Bowden. To be frank, the interview is not very good on account on the interviewer, Bob Woodward. If you can stomach Mr. Woodward’s constant and annoying interjections, then you’ll find some good content that author provides.