Press homepage|Review|Books|Newport Papers|Reader services

Smith, George W. The Siege at Hue. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1999. 195pp. $49.95

George W. Smith has provided an excellent historical summary of the battle of Hue, based on his personal experience as an information officer assigned to the 1st Division of the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam (ARVN), and on
after-action reports, articles, and interviews. The book highlights the complexities and dynamics of conducting military operations in urban terrain, particularly in a combat environment.

Hue had been the imperial capital of Vietnam, and it was the country’s cultural and intellectual center. It was South Vietnam’s third-largest city, strategically located in the country’s narrowest part, near the coast. One of the few cities where until 1968 there had been no U.S. combat presence, it was virtually undefended and consequently a lucrative target for the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong.

The battle of Hue was the largest single engagement of the Vietnam War. It lasted from 31 January to 25 February 1968 and (not counting civilian deaths) claimed 5,713 casualties on both sides. Smith describes the battle as a classic joint and combined operation. The city was divided into two areas of responsibility, with the South Vietnamese army assigned the mission of retaking the northern portion and the U.S. Marines that of regaining control south of the Perfume River.

The urban conditions in Hue were comparable to those of Dodge City in the American “Old West.” Some buildings had wooden fronts, porches, and sidewalks; the streets were narrow, and buildings were densely concentrated. In the middle of Hue, however, was a virtually impregnable fortress known as the Citadel, with towers, ramparts, moats, concrete walls, and bunkers. The walls were twenty-six feet high and in some sections forty feet thick. The moat was ninety feet wide at many points and up to twelve feet deep. The Imperial Palace, another enclave within Hue, was surrounded by a twenty-foot wall.

Smith identifies three costly errors made by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong on the first day of their attack. First, they failed to overrun the 1st ARVN Division headquarters. Second, they failed to assault the U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound. They had sufficient forces to accomplish both missions. Third, they failed to destroy the An Cuu Bridge, south of the city, leaving open a route by which the Marines could reinforce and resupply the MACV compound. The bridge was destroyed five days later by enemy sappers, but too late. These errors most likely prevented the enemy from holding Hue for longer than they did.

The value of this book lies in the lessons learned by the forces fighting in Hue. The first lesson was the value of accurate intelligence. At the operational level, the allies falsely believed that the massive buildup of enemy troops around Khe Sanh near the Demilitarized Zone meant that the enemy did not have enough manpower for a countrywide offensive. At the tactical level, commanders routinely made decisions in the absence of any specific intelligence about enemy strength or dispositions in Hue. The importance of intelligence is best illustrated by the events on the night of 16 February. The enemy suffered a tremendous setback when, on the basis of an intercepted radio message, allied artillery destroyed a battalion-sized force trying to infiltrate through a gate on the southwestern wall.

The second lesson involved the use of air and artillery fire support. These supporting arms greatly facilitate fire and maneuver in any environment, especially in cities; however, authorization for their use in cities is normally restricted by rules of engagement in order to limit collateral damage, and Hue was no exception. Unfortunately, the buildings were fortresses, with interlocking lines of fire from roofs, attics, and windows. The South Vietnamese government eventually lifted all restrictions on the use of heavy weapons south of the Perfume River. However, another limitation on heavy firepower is weather. Naval gunfire, eight-inch howitzer fire, and tactical aircraft support were frequently not readily available because of poor conditions.

The third lesson is the complexity of house-to-house fighting. Heavy weapons, such as tanks, 106 mm recoilless rifles, mortars, and 3.5-inch bazookas, were used in Hue for street fighting. Objectives could be reached only by going through buildings. The Marines dug holes in walls through which they rushed, clearing the rooms on the other side and establishing sniper positions in preparation to take the next buildings. Streets could be crossed only under a barrage of covering fire. Mortars provided local indirect fire support that could be used in lieu of larger weapons that were either unauthorized or unavailable. Mortars helped reduce the personnel-for-building casualty ratio. The enemy forces in Hue were well dug in, well supplied, and prepared in some cases to fight to the finish. None of the Marines had had any training in street fighting prior to Hue.

Today’s efforts by the Joint Staff to develop urban-combat doctrine and by the Marine Corps and Army to produce tactics, techniques, and procedures are meant to ensure that the United States does not face the same dilemma in the future. Seventy-five percent of the world’s population now resides in cities. This will equate to eight to ten billion people by the year 2025. The U.S. military used to fight for cities; now it is required to fight in them—cities similar to Hue. George W. Smith offers a very good perspective on what such street fighting is all about.

Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army
Naval War College