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Fire in the Streets

Fire in the Streets

Author
Eric Hammel
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Recently, over a decent Single Malt, I pondered the uncomfortable fact that my children were born further away from the Vietnam War than I was from World War Two. Happily they're still slightly closer to the Falklands War since the Single Malt has not yet been distilled that would enable me to cope were it otherwise. The reason I digress, if one can digress at the start of something, is that it comes as a bit of a shock that one of the formative episodes of one's youth is now firmly in the clutches of history and those who took part are pushing seventy or beyond.

The trigger for such pondering was 'Fire in the Streets', Eric Hammel's account of the battle for Hue, part of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Tet has become synonymous with how to win a battle but lose a war, though the specific details of it, including the Battle of Hue, are increasingly the preserve of those who read history or watch endless repeats of Full Metal Jacket on Movies for Men.

By way of context for those who weren't there man, Tet was a concerted attempt by North Vietnam to demonstrate that the US and their South Vietnamese allies were not in control. It was also launched in the belief that a show of strength would stimulate a popular rising against the South Vietnamese Government. In the event, North Vietnamese forces and their Viet Cong allies suffered a series of crushing battlefield defeats but won hands down on the global political front. The Tet Offensive was fought out in a thousand places but the stand-out locations are generally the US Embassy in Saigon, Khe San and Hue. And it's Hue that is the interest here.

At the beginning of 1968, Hue was largely untouched by the war and its inhabitants were preparing for the Tet holiday in full expectation that the holiday truce would be respected as it had been in previous years. Days later, the North Vietnamese were firmly established in the city and the US Marines were busy blasting them out yard by yard and street by street in a manner that would be repeated years later by a new generation in places like Fallujah. This fighting took place against a backdrop of mass killings by communist murder squads targeting anyone sympathetic to the Saigon regime.

The first thing to be said about this book is that it is exhaustive in its detail, at least as far as the US Marine Corps is concerned, and here is both its strength and weakness. With over forty books and seventy articles, and with the USMC as his main interest, it is safe to say that Hammel is a man who knows his subject and a man who does detail. The first quality is a real strength for the book since he knows the story he's trying to tell and he tells it accurately and with immense authority, the second is a more equivocal attribute.

Urban warfare is nothing if not confusing and Hammel does an excellent job of guiding us through the complex events of Hue. He's aided in this by a very clear set of maps which are right at the front for ease of reference and which are intelligently laid out in increasing order of detail. Where his touch is less sure, however, is in the judgement as to just how much detail is required. The narrative occasionally gets bogged down in the number of non-lethal hits every vehicle in a specific action sustained and the desire to capture all the detail all the time results in a very choppy read at certain points, particularly towards the end.

Overall, it's a very technical read and the human aspect struggles to breakthrough. This is not a work on the Vietnam experience that walks in the footsteps of Al Santoli or Michael Herr. Even as a one-sided view of the battle, and the Vietnamese of both sides are very much bit players, the North Vietnamese especially, it lacks the balance between the technical and the human achieved in Bowden's 'Blackhawk Down'. The massacres by North Vietnamese forces are mentioned in passing and there is no real attempt at the end of the book to place Hue and its aftermath in a wider context.

This is a very detailed and competent work as far as it goes, but it lacks the essential human insights of an Alistair Horne or Cornelius Ryan and fails to convey any real sense of what it was like to participate in the battle or what was really going on on the other side of the hill. It's hard to believe that Hue is going to command sufficient attention from historians in the years to exceed the expertise of Eric Hammel therefore it is likely that this will be a key reference text if not the reference. If so, it makes its shortcomings that much more regrettable though what Hammel has achieved is of considerable merit and still well worthy of recognition.

If you have an interest in the Vietnam War or simply general military history, this book is well worth reading. If the above seems overly critical, it's because the work as a whole is best classed as a flawed masterpiece. In fairness, it kept me engaged from Port of Spain to the Azores and served as an informative and intellectually robust reminder of a pivotal event which helped to shape the second half half of the twentieth century and seriously upset Country Joe McDonald...

All together now - And it's one, two, three... actually, four Mushroom Heads.

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FORMER_FYRDMAN
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