The Battle of Khe Sanh and Its Retellings

What one Vietnam War battle, celebrated by the press and the military as a turning point towards an inevitable American victory, says about certainty and authoritativeness.

Department of the Navy
Editor’s Note: Editor’s Note: This is part of The Atlantic’s ongoing series looking back at 1968. All past articles and reader correspondence are collected here. New material will be added to that page through the end of 2018.
I had a brother at Khe Sanh
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
––Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA, 1984

The Battle of Khe Sanh began 50 years ago this week when roughly 20,000 North Vietnamese troops surrounded an isolated combat base held by roughly 5,500 Marines. The marines could not be reinforced or resupplied except by air, and the enemy had attacked during monsoon season, when the weather would limit flights. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, ordered them to fight to hold the base rather than evacuate.

The North Vietnamese hoped to repeat the sort of victory won years earlier at Dien Bien Phu, when similarly besieged French forces were overrun and slaughtered.

President Johnson  followed the 77-day ordeal with a scale model of the battlefield in the Oval Office. The public read about the besieged marines in newspapers as the fighting unfolded: the American servicemen bombarded by artillery and reliant on resupply from aircrafts that came under heavy fire on approach and departure.

The United States ultimately held the base at a cost of 274 Americans killed. 2,500 Americans were wounded. And thousands of Vietnamese fighters were killed.

Today, we know that the Americans ordered to risk their lives at Khe Sanh did so under a commander-in-chief who already believed that victory in Vietnam was unlikely. We know that the brave men who fought impressively to save the base would be ordered to abandon it utterly almost as soon as the enemy’s forces had withdrawn. And we know that the United States later withdrew from Vietnam in defeat, abandoned its allies, and watched the country fall to communism (then suffer the repression, want, and starvation so often caused by that economic system).

What followed Khe Sanh doesn’t diminish the courage or sacrifice displayed by U.S. forces there, but does remind us of our obligation as citizens to urge against dumb wars and to spare young Americans from being asked to die for a politician’s mistake.

With that in mind, one artifact of Khe Sanh that I gravitated towards while marking this anniversary was an official U.S. military account of the battle printed and declassified in 1969. At the time, the war raged under Richard Nixon, a corrupt commander-in-chief who sabotaged peace talks while running for president and spoke privately as if getting reelected was a major factor in prolonging the war. The report was authored by Captain Moyers S. Shore II, with a prologue by Commandant of the Marine Corps L.F. Chapman Jr. and a Foreword by Westmoreland.

Put another way, it was produced by men and institutions who wanted to keep prosecuting the war in Vietnam, and who hoped anti-war protesters would not prevail.

“As a history, this work is not intended to prove any point, but rather to record objectively the series of events which came to be called the Battle of Khe Sanh,” the report’s preface stated, suggesting the ethos of a straightforward accounting of facts.

But that same preface declared that the battle “not only denied the North Vietnamese Army a much needed victory but reaffirmed to the world the intention of the United States to hold the line in Southeast Asia,” adding, “in addition to having been a contest of men and machines, this was the test of a nation’s will.” Finally, it stated, the battle showed Hanoi “the futility of its war of aggression.”

In fact, America lacked the will to stay in Vietnam, though it did have the will to hold Khe Sanh. And Hanoi did not conclude from the battle that its warmaking was futile.

The body of the report makes a better attempt at straightforwardness, but is nevertheless interesting in the ways that it departs from that ethos and leads readers astray.

It is too much to expect the Department of Defense to describe war in the manner of Paul Fussell. But anyone who has delved into accounts of what it is like to be under artillery shelling, or spoken to veterans recalling the experience years later, can grasp the disservice done to returning vets by romanticized passages like this one:

"Attention to Colors."

The order having been given, Captain Wiliam H. Dabney, a product of the Virginia Military Institute, snapped to attention, faced the jerry-rigged flagpole, and saluted, as did every other man in Company I, 3d Batalion, 26th Marines. The ceremony might well have been at any one of a hundred military installations around the world except for a few glaring irregularities.

The parade ground was a battle-scarred hilltop to the west of Khe Sanh and the men in formation stood half-submerged in trenches or foxholes. Instead of crisply starched utilities, razor sharp creases, and gleaming brass, these Marines sported scraggly beards, ragged trousers, and rotted helmet liner straps. The only man in the company who could play a bugle, Second Lieutenant Owen S. Mathews, lifted the pock-marked instrument to his lips and spat out a choppy version of "To the Colors" while two enlisted men raced to the RC-292 radio antenna which served as the flag-pole and gingerly attached the Stars and Stripes. As the mast with its shredded banner came upright,the Marines could hear the ominous "thunk," "thunk," "thunk," to the southwest of their position which meant that North Vietnamese 120 mortar rounds had left their tubes. They also knew that in 21 seconds those "thunks" would be replaced by much louder, closer sounds, but no one budged until Old Glory waved high over the hill.

When Lieutenant Matthews sharply cut of the last note of his piece, Company I disappeared; men dropped into trenches, dived headlong into foxholes, or scrambled into bunkers. The area which moments before had been bristling with humanity was suddenly a ghost town. Seconds later explosions walked across the hilltop spewing black smoke, dirt, and debris into the air. Rocks, splinters, and spent shell fragments rained on the flattened Marines but, as usual, no one was hurt. As quickly as the attack came, it was over. While the smoke lazily drifted away, a much smaller banner rose from the Marines’ positions. A pole adorned with a pair of red, silk panties––Maggie’s Drawers––was waved back and forth above one trench line to inform the enemy that he had missed again. A few men stood up and jeered or cursed at the distant gunners; others simply saluted with an appropriate obscene gesture. The daily flag-raising ceremony on Hill 881 South was over.

The episode was just one obscure incident which coupled with hundreds of others made up the battle for Khe Sanh.

Compare and contrast:

Little wonder too few Americans grasped the trauma of returning Vets when the Defense Department was at times portraying battles like Khe Sanh as hundreds of semi-jocular moments. Some survivors who served there are still haunted by the shelling.

The rest of the report includes much that is of value to historians trying to understand the battle, but also passages that frustrate in hindsight. Here is one of the latter:

The six men were dressed like Marines and, while no friendly patrols were reported in the area, he challenged the strangers in clear English to be sure. There was no reply. A second challenge was issued and, this time, the lieutenant saw one of the men make a motion as if going for a hand grenade. The Marines opened fire and quickly cut down five of the six intruders. One enemy soldier died with his finger inserted in the pin of a grenade. The awesome hitting power of the M-l6 rifle was quite evident since all five men were apparently dead by the time they hit the ground.

In fact, the glaring flaws of the M-16 rifle were scandalous, deadly to Americans, and already long since known to military brass in 1969. Still other passages proved prescient, as when the authors posited that the enemy gained through the Tet Offensive a tremendous psychological change in the mindset of the American public.

The final words in the report quote an editorial published in the Washington Star after the 77-day battle was over:

To be sure, Khe Sanh will be a subject of controversy for a long time, but this much about it is indisputable: It has won a large place in the history of the Vietnam war as an inspiring example of American and Allied valor. One day, in fact, the victory over the siege may be judged a decisive turning point that finally convinced he enemy he could not win.

Of course, the victory over the siege will never be so judged.

To highlight all the ways that editorialists and military officials of 1969 were wrong about Khe Sanh, or misleading in how they portrayed it, is not to denigrate them. Some believed every word they wrote; others misled with the best of intentions.

Yet returning to their flawed reports (and analogous historical artifacts) is useful in that it allows us to study the words of men who spoke and wrote with an air of authoritativeness––who struck many contemporaries as authoritative––yet were wrong in consequential ways. Poring over the flaws in their logic and the rhetorical techniques that led bygone observers astray helps remind us to probe the biases of those who mean to inform or persuade; to be on guard against romanticized accounts of war; to bear in mind that its fog can blind even those military officials best positioned to see what is before their eyes; and to otherwise be more clear-eyed.

Indeed, that project honors the men who fought there by making it less likely that others won’t be asked to do so needlessly. To give them the rest of their due 50 years later, I’ll end by quoting the Presidential citation that honored them as a collective:

For extraordinary heroism in action against North Vietnamese Army forces during the battle for Khe Sanh in the Republic of Vietnam from 20 January to 1 April 1968…

The 26th Marines was opposed by numerically superior forces--two North Vietnamese Army divisions, strongly reinforced with artillery, tank, anti-aircraft artillery and rocket units. The enemy, deployed to take advantage of short lines of communications, rugged mountainous terrain, jungle, and adverse weather conditions, was determined to destroy the Khe Sanh Combat Base in conjunction with large scale offensive operations in the two northern provinces of the Republic of Vietnam.

The 26th Marines, occupying a small but critical area, was daily subjected to hundreds of rounds of intensive artillery, mortar and rocket fire. In addition, fierce ground attacks were conducted by the enemy in an effort to penetrate the friendly positions. Despite overwhelming odds, the 26th Marines remained resolute and determined, maintaining the integrity of its positions and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. When monsoon weather greatly reduced air support and compounded the problems of aerial resupply, the men of the 26th Marines stood defiantly firm, sustained by their own professional esprit and high sense of duty. Through their indomitable will, staunch endurance, and resolute courage, the 26th Marines and supporting units held the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The actions of the 26th Marines contributed substantially to the failure of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army winter/spring offensive. The enemy forces were denied the military and psychological victory they so desperately sought.

By their gallant fighting spirit and their countless individual acts of heroism, the men of the 26th Marines (Reinforced) established a record of illustrious courage and determination in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

May all who died on both sides rest in peace.