Reporting the Tet Offensive as a Combatant

River of Perfumes: A Novel of Marine Combat Correspondents in Hue City During Vietnam’s Tet Offensive, by Michael Stokey, (Warriors Publishing Group, Open Road Integrated Media), 306 pages

Warriors Publishing Group believes that “War stories need to be published, distributed and consumed if we are to understand the mentality and motivation of military people. And we must do that to appreciate their service and sacrifice on behalf of this nation and its people.” River of Perfumes serves that purpose well. First published in 2011 and released in a digital edition in 2013, it’s not new, but it is one of those books that’s worth reading regardless of the date on the copyright page.

As the title makes clear, this is a novel about marine combat correspondents (CCs) in Hue during the Tet Offensive. The CCs are a mixed breed: weapon-carrying marines who engage in combat, but whose primary responsibility is to produce stories for the Marine Corps’ internal newspaper. Though assigned to specific companies, their press passes give them an autonomy unlike that of ordinary soldiers.

In this novel, the CCs, like the soldiers they fight alongside, are contemptuous of civilian reporters, who are generally shielded from the worst of the combat. One story told in this novel—I’ve no idea whether it’s based on fact—is of a Walter Cronkite report filmed in Hue outside of the combat area with the sounds of gunfire dubbed in prior to its broadcast in the U.S. The novel’s combatants also resent what they see as an anti-war bias among these correspondents: they’re looking for stories of atrocities by U.S. soldiers and hound those fighting for explanations of why they’re there, what the purpose of the war is. While these fall well within the scope of a reporter’s duties, those in combat can’t be sanguine about them. They may have questions about why they’re fighting, but their primary focus is surviving—and while trying to survive they can’t afford to question themselves.

The author of this novel was himself a marine in Hue during the Tet Offensive, and River of Perfumes reflects this fact. The novel is consistently precise about the course of the battle, the companies involved, the kind of action required of soldiers in the field. It’s this precision that makes River of Perfumes most valuable, placing readers in the action without over-writing it, giving them a full picture, but at the same time avoiding manipulation.

River of Perfumes is set during the war in Vietnam, but it’s valuable reading at any time our nation is considering, or is at, war. Those out of combat can’t ever really know the combat experience, but River of Perfumes gives us a glimpse of what war is like for combatants. We can all benefit from examining these experiences.