View Full Version : Just Don’t Call It Another ‘Tet Offensive’

04-24-04, 06:55 AM

Just Don’t Call It Another ‘Tet Offensive’

By Raymond Perry

Critics of the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq have attempted to equate the latest surge of violence there with the massive Tet Offensive in Vietnam that shocked the American people, led many to oppose the war, and ruined President Lyndon Johnson’s plan to run for a second term.

Those critics are wrong.

The Tet Offensive began in January 1968, and was designed to fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Republic of South Vietnam. It did that to be sure, but not as intended by its architects.

The Tet Offensive was designed by North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap to move the battle away from a rural focus. The Viet Cong guerillas in the South were slowly losing the rural-based war fought much the way they fought the French over a decade earlier. The tactics used so effectively then were simply not working against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.

Giap’s plan was to draw his adversaries’ forces away from the urban areas by various ruses, then execute the attack throughout the country at a traditional time of cease-fire, the Lunar New Year. He anticipated a popular uprising of the South Vietnamese people in support of the attacks that would lead to a de facto communist government.

It did not work. The Viet Cong ruses did begin to draw forces toward the border areas, but reasonably good intelligence work combined with extraordinary insight by U.S. Army Gen. Fred Weyand brought many of these forces back to urban areas in the weeks just before the offensive. Finally, as frequently happens in war, the offensive went off track when some regions of the Viet Cong attacked a day early because of a misinterpretation of the beginning of the Lunar New Year by some forces.

Thus, the Tet Offensive went off half-cocked and was stamped out in all but three areas within a few days.

The attack on the American Embassy in Saigon drew heavy media attention because of its symbolic value but was really a sideshow. The Viet Cong sappers were unable to effectively continue their assault after two U.S. Army Military Police gate guards killed the two leaders in the initial assault. The rest of the group could not think on their feet without them.

In the end, it was clearly a tactical and battlefield victory for Allied Forces. The Viet Cong never fought as a separate organization after that, and North Vietnamese Army units bore the brunt of fighting from then on.

Giap himself in the immediate aftermath concluded that his offensive had been a failure.

As journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave – who covered the offensive in Saigon in 1968 – recently recalled:

“Giap had thrown some 70,000 troops into a strategic gamble that was also designed to overwhelm 13 of the 16 provincial capitals and trigger a popular uprising. But Tet was an unmitigated military disaster for Hanoi and its Vietcong troops in South Vietnam.”

But while suffering a major battlefield defeat, Giap would harvest a strategic victory. Several months prior to Tet, polls showed that the American people were beginning to be weary of the war. The psychological shock of the offensive turned American public opinion and media coverage against the war. A pivotal moment, de Borchgrave recently wrote, came when famed TV newsman Walter Cronkite flew to Saigon for a live report on the offensive:

“America’s most trusted newsman, CBS’ Walter Cronkite, appeared for a standup piece with distant fires as a backdrop. Donning helmet, Cronkite declared the war lost. It was this now famous television news piece that persuaded President Johnson six weeks later, on March 31, not to run. His ratings had plummeted from 80 percent when he assumed the presidency upon Kennedy’s death to 30 percent after Tet. His handling of the war dropped to 20 percent, his credibility shot to pieces.”

It was this “perception management” that would ultimately hand victory to North Vietnam.

Some blame must go to the U.S. military staffs in Saigon and at the Pentagon for spinning unrealistically positive briefings on the war’s progress prior to Tet. This increased the shock and surprise when battles erupted all over South Vietnam.

When the military staffs presented a request for more troops to conclusively decide the war, which it clearly could have, no one would trust them.

Gen Giap had won after all.

So what are the parallels today in Iraq? Few at all.

North Vietnam and the Viet Cong had never attacked the United States, so the public perceived it as a brushfire war on the edges of the ongoing U.S.-Soviet superpower standoff – a sideshow. In stark contrast, after 9/11 showed us that forces of international terrorism were prepared to strike the American homeland, President Bush imposed a new doctrine of pre-emptive action, which we used to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime.

The recent Shiite and Sunni insurgencies, for all their surface similarity to the Tet Offensive, are not a coordinated countrywide effort. The recent fighting in Fallujah, for example, has been contained by several battalions of Marines, a tiny fraction of the U.S. military force that was on hand in Vietnam in 1968. And while the insurgents during the initial stages took lives, our troops in Iraq have been pounding them into ineffectiveness day by day.

Strategically, there is no superpower looking over the shoulder of the insurgents, resupplying them and offering them shelter. To be sure, Iran and Syria are likely sponsors of this violence. We surely do not desire to engage them in war, but in the end they are just not the equivalent of the sponsors that North Vietnam enjoyed.

The outbreak of this insurgency, so critical if unintended at nearly the same time of year as the Tet Offensive, is clearly aimed at derailing the transition to a sovereign government in Iraq, enlarging the casualty lists of our forces, and causing apologists here at home to further question the validity of the war.

But the parallels of significance between Vietnam and Iraq are not on the physical battlefield.

It is clear that the terrorist networks of the world seek to influence events not just by their violence, but by how that violence weakens public morale here and in other countries. The recent terror attacks just before the Spanish elections are of note, as is al Qaeda’s recent announcement that it would offer a “truce” for any European country that pulls its soldiers out of Iraq.

In their efforts to put spin on the facts, the military staffs sometimes seem eerily similar to those of the Tet Offensive era, but the ultimate outcome there will be demonstrable.

Our forces are going the extra mile to prevent damage to mosques and other civilian sites, even those from which attacks have come. The widespread pictures of desolation from the Tet era will not be repeated.

Even the issue of additional troops for Iraq, which seems to echo the post-Tet demand by our generals in 1968, ultimately fails to serve as a parallel. While Gen. John Abizaid has requested additional forces, his request is on a scale much smaller than that of Gen. William Westmoreland’s a generation ago.

The real issue has not been defined yet: It is whether or not the American people will continue to believe Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, JCS Chairman Gen. Richard Myers and our field commanders in Iraq. That issue will turn on the ability of our political leaders to convince the American people that they are not spinning things and that this one is worth the price in American casualties.

As I noted in an earlier article (“Hard Work Will Forestall A Morass in Iraq,” DefenseWatch, Oct. 17, 2003), such a victory will take time. To do that, our leaders must show determination, not spin. In trying to win before the next election, our leaders may cause the ultimate loss. They must take the case to the people, straight and to the point.

Lt. Raymond Perry USN (Ret.) is a DefenseWatch Contributing Editor. He can be reached at cos1stlt@yahoo.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.