BY: RACHEL HOPMAYER
According to Mark Bowden, the biggest lesson to be learned from Vietnam is in humility.
“I think it is important for leaders to have a measure of humility, to recognize that they don’t know everything,” Bowden said. “I think it was a mistake for Johnson in Vietnam and for our current president to believe he knows everything about everything over all of his generals.”
Mark Bowden is the author of Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw and most recently Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. The Washington Post investigative journalist and Vietnam War veteran Bob Woodward, who served in the Navy off the South China Sea during the Vietnam War, interviewed Bowden at Politics and Prose Tuesday evening.
Although Bowden has made his career writing on the history of conflicts, he remains staunchly anti-war.
“I think that any sensible person is passionately anti-war,” Bowden said. “I think that some of the most sensible anti-war people I’ve ever met are in the military. They understand battle, horrors of combat, and they know that it ought to be an absolute last resort for a country.”
What really attached Bowden to writing Hue 1968 was his first trip to Vietnam. He met Che Thi Mung, one of his interview subjects who joined the Viet Cong and fought in combat settings.
“I knew I could write a story of this battle through the eyes of American soldiers, but what I really wanted was to be able to tell the story from both sides,” Bowden said.
The most difficult part about working in Vietnam and any foreign country was the language barrier. Bowden had concerns about getting individuals to open up about their experiences.
“I find when you work in other countries, they’re not like Americans — they’re reticent to talk about themselves and their emotions,” Bowden remarked. “They think more about their community or village or unit they belong to.”
Additionally, Bowden illustrated the authoritarian impact of Vietnamese government to the audience through anecdotes from his interviewing and research process.
“The people I interviewed, some of them were afraid to talk about what happened 50 years ago because they could run afoul with the information industry,” Bowden said.
Audience members, largely veterans of the Vietnam War and their widows, nervously laughed as they drew comparisons between President Trump and Johnson as Commander in Chief, but Bowden finds that comparison unfair even without supporting President Trump.
Bowden reminded those who were alive during the Vietnam War that “the straight story was being told by the journalists that were there,” and by those at home like CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite is known for famously declaring the Vietnam War a stalemate, against the information coming from the United States government that told a story of American victory without much evidence.
Cronkite’s information came from reporters and sources on the front lines of battles, embedded with units and able to see beyond government wires relayed stateside.
President Trump has previously questioned the patriotism of American journalists that scrutinize his administration and broadcast fake news.
Bowden has known President Trump since before he assumed the role of Commander in Chief.
“I spent a long weekend with him at Mar-a-Lago a long time ago. He is one of the most loathsome people I ever met,” Bowden remarked. “I am utterly shocked speechless that this man has been elected President of the United States.”
They have not spoken since Trump was elected to the presidency, but Bowden has a message of criticism for him.
“The first thing I would say to Trump is to staff the State Department. I think it is a disgrace that our State Department is underfunded and understaffed,” Bowden said. “I would solemnly ask him to leave and go back to running his real estate business.”
Bowden is hopeful that Trump will not become another Johnson in wartime pursuits while in office.
“I would ask him to listen to people who have been there, who understand what they’re talking about and make a genuine effort to learn from them before making decisions,” Bowden said. “He’s got some good people around him.”
Bowden said he is not surprised that President Trump’s administration and foreign policy directives have sparked outrage within our country. He largely believes that the uprisings and riots around the Vietnam War era came from the college students of 1967-68 and their concerns about being drafted.
Bowden’s latest book was born out of the same rebellion and time period. As a high school student during the Tet Offensive, the Vietnam War was the first major argument Bowden had with his father.
“My dad would always say to me, ‘How do you know that?’ or ‘Where did you read that?’ Those were good questions,” Bowden said. “So as a high schooler, I started reading the newspaper, subscribing to TIME magazine on my own, going to the library with my mom because I wanted to win these arguments with my dad.”
“Writing this book was an opportunity for me to dig deeply into a subject that I’ve been long interested in,” Bowden concluded. “Any of us old enough to live through Vietnam years were touched by it one way or the other.”