Thousands of American and South Vietnamese soldiers, along with many more Viet Cong, were killed or wounded at the Battle of Hue during the Vietnam War. But the ultimate cost of the battle would not be known until months and years afterward, when mass graves containing thousands of noncombatants were discovered in the vicinity of Hue—the victims having been shot, bludgeoned to death, or buried alive by the Communists.
Yet the Hue Massacre was completely overshadowed by the media attention devoted to My Lai, and has largely been forgotten in the decades since. In “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books), author James S. Robbins highlights the Hue Massacre, which he is careful to distinguish from My Lai. He explained the moral distinction during a recent interview with Failure.
The My Lai massacre was a great tragedy in which American troops killed innocent South Vietnamese civilians. It became part of the moral indictment against the Vietnam War [along with the Eddie Adams photo Saigon Execution]. But the important distinction between My Lai and similar events is that the men who perpetrated My Lai were not acting under orders; they were acting against U.S. policy. And the U.S. government considered it a crime and punished it.
The Hue Massacre, which took place during the Tet Offensive, was perpetrated by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong and was an act of policy. The Communists had lists of people when they went into the city. They knew who they were after, and the killing was relentless. Even when they were losing the battle and retreating from the city, they took people with them and killed them outside the city.
The anti-war crowd said that what happened at Hue was exaggerated—that the victims had been casualties of the fighting, or had been killed by U.S. bombs. But the fact is that they were ruthlessly and systematically slaughtered by the Communists. It was a conscious, deliberate, cold-blooded act of policy.