Bowden shared his experience researching and writing about the month-long battle that raged in the South Vietnamese city of Hu? with an audience that included Vietnam veterans whose own experiences echoed those in Bowden’s book.
It chronicles the experiences of many different people on both sides of the battle. When asked about his choice to include so many perspectives, Bowden said, “My goal isn’t to lecture, but to immerse the reader in the world and experience it. Their experiences are what make the narrative of the book.”
He wanted to focus not only on American soldiers, but also Vietnamese citizens and military, he said.
Rebecca Evans, a professor of politics and international relations, hosted a Q&A session with Bowden, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who now writes for The Atlantic. He discussed how, despite originally claiming to be “done with battle books,” a good friend helped convince him to work on the story of Hu?.
He recalled that he was a sophomore in high school when the Vietnam War began. Bowden, who is known for his intense and in-depth research, explained that he began his first serious research project into the war as a teenager to better argue with his father. Despite his connection with the war, he was still hesitant to pick up the project, but eventually set out on his five-year journey to see it through.
The discussion eventually turned to the disconnect between the public perception of what was happening in Hu? and the horrific reality. U.S. Army Commander William Westmoreland repeatedly led his men into battle with “a degree of arrogance,” Bowden said, which led to the deaths of many Americans.
Bowden stated that he doesn’t fault Westmoreland purely for being outmaneuvered, saying, “The enemy is smart, too. Any commander, including Westmoreland, is capable of being fooled.” However, Bowden added, “The information was there. They chose to disbelieve it. This is where the arrogance becomes criminal.”
Several of the veterans in attendance shared their own experiences in Vietnam and in Hu?, with one claiming that they were not allowed to fire on buildings, which led to an increase in American lives lost. In the end, Bowden added, 80 percent of the structures in Hu? had been destroyed.
Bowden also discussed his writing process, explaining that he started out by reading other books and then moved on to Internet forums. He noted that finding Americans to interview was the easy part, but it was much harder to do his reporting in Vietnam where he conducted nearly 40 interviews.
He said he would ask questions to his interview subjects, who would give 20-minute-long answers. Bowden’s translator would then give a short, two-minute summary in the moment. He didn’t know what exactly he was being told until he returned home and had them fully translated.
The evening concluded with a book signing in the Kaleidoscope Performing Arts Center. —By Mary Lobo ’15