Why the Stakes Are So High

By William F. Sauerwein

Reacting to the upsurge in hostilities in Iraq, too many people have raised the specter of our experiences in Vietnam, particularly the 1968 Tet Offensive. Many observers seem in a state of panic, predicting our defeat just as in Vietnam.

Reacting to the events in Iraq, the Colorado Springs Gazette on Apr. 8 published an article headlined “Tet In Iraq?” that details another issue. The article noted that the Iraqi insurgency is “the desperate clawing of those who see their grip on power slipping away.”

To find the best perspective on the current situation, let’s look at the issue of the American response to setbacks in recent military history.

The popular impression of Tet in 1968 is that an enemy with a larger force and more resources than we expected was able to launch a countrywide assault on dozens of cities and towns. The truth was that Tet was a military disaster for the Viet Cong.

Raymond Perry detailed the Tet Offensive and its aftermath succinctly in his April 21, 2004 DefenseWatch article, “Just Don’t Call It Another ‘Tet Offensive.’ ” One additional point is that South Vietnam’s Armed Forces did not collapse. Instead, they counterattacked. In his book, Buddha’s Child, South Vietnam’s former vice president, Nguyen Cao Ky, recalls that South Vietnamese morale increased during Tet.

The nationwide Viet Cong offensive during Tet was not a “coup de grace” finishing off a defeated United States. Instead, it was a gamble by North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap to attempt a popular uprising against us – which failed miserably. James Olson and Randy Roberts state in their book, Where the Domino Fell, that by mid-1967 North Vietnam faced a crisis: American firepower had caused massive casualties within their forces, and even our restricted bombing was taking a toll on the North. South Vietnam’s government seemed stable, and fewer southerners were willingly joining the Viet Cong.

However, the political and psychological shock here at home from the Tet offensive – after years of “victory-is-just-around-the-corner rhetoric from U.S. officials – prompted President Johnson not to seek re-election, and led to a change in American policy favoring a negotiated peace settlement and U.S. withdrawal in 1973. We forced South Vietnam to accept our terms, leaving thousands of North Vietnamese troops in their country. Abandoned by its American ally, Saigon fell fell on April 30, 1975, an event that still casts a shadow over our foreign policy today.

We faced even worse situations during World War II, yet came through them victorious. The German Ardennes Offensive in 1944 completely surprised the Allies, and inflicted enormous casualties. During the American invasion of Okinawa, Japanese forces intensified their fight-to-the-death tactics, and introduced the Kamikaze. If the American people had faltered at these stages, the world would look very different today.

Facing hostile armies on his eastern and western borders in late summer 1944 – albeit on a much larger scale – Hitler too saw his future as dark.

Anglo-American armies were pushing across France and Soviet forces had reached Warsaw, Poland. Germany’s allies either fell, or defected, leaving the fighting on three fronts to German troops. The Allies controlled the air, and subjected the German homeland to continuous bombing.

However, Hitler saw a weakness in the “unholy alliance” between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. At different times he tried negotiating separate peace agreements, but to no avail. Charles MacDonald states in A Time for Trumpets that Hitler believed the Americans were weak, viewing them a “mongrel race.”

A quick victory could destroy the British armies, leaving them unable to replace their losses. Hitler believed the United States would not continue the fight alone because its real enemy was Japan. Following a separate peace, Hitler could turn his still powerful forces on the Soviet Union.

Believing the war was virtually over, the Allied command thought the Ardennes a “quiet sector.” Newly arrived divisions were tested there before sending them into “active sectors.” Veteran divisions were rested here, including those bloodied in the Hurtgen Forest campaign.

The German attack took the Allies completely by surprise, and the “bulge” that was created by the German advance split the Allied forces. Fortunately, the Germans lacked the men and materiel for accomplishing their mission of seizing Antwerp, Belgium. Had they done so, British forces would have been cut off from their lines of communication.

American forces received the brunt of the attack, and the surprised troops began retreating. Cut off, under constant attack and out of ammunition, two regiments of the newly-arrived 106th Infantry Division surrendered. Divisions were rushed to the front, many arriving ill equipped for winter combat.

Containing and reducing the “bulge” took almost six weeks of hard winter fighting. Of the 600,000 American troops involved in the battle, 81,000 became casualties, 19,000 of whom were killed. MacDonald credits the victory to the American soldier, who despite early setbacks stopped everything the Germans threw at him.

Media reports from the battlefront were heavily censored; initial reports were squelched as “sheer hysteria.” American newsmen were outraged and demanded more information from headquarters because the American people were entitled to know. Later Associated Press correspondent Wes Gallagher relented, stating that an “unholy mess” was “saved by the good sense of front line censors.”

The same occurred in the Pacific. Before Pearl Harbor, Japan believed that the Americans had no stomach for fighting. They believed that following Pearl Harbor and defeat in the Philippines we would negotiate a peace. If the Americans fought, the Japanese merely had to make the casualty rate unpalatable for the general public. With America out of the fight, Japan would sit back and defend its new “Co-East Asia Prosperity Sphere.”

The Americans responded with more tenacity than the Japanese expected, and the Pacific Theater fighting was brutal. Under Japan’s “revised” bushido code, surrender was a dishonor, and fighting to the death was preferred. This type of fighting intensified as American forces closed in on Japan in early 1945.

On Okinawa, Japan introduced the widespread use of Kamikaze aircraft and suicide-piloted rocket bombs. They prepared ground defenses on the reverse slope of hills for reducing the effectiveness of American supporting fires. Resistance now included Japanese civilians.

The American casualty rate on Okinawa was about 30 percent for a total casualty list of 68,000, including 16,000 killed. One of them was the U.S ground commander, Lt. Gen. Simon Buckner, Jr. Kamikaze attacks sank 34 American ships, damaged 368 and destroyed 763 aircraft. Resistance when invading the Japanese Home Islands was expected to worsen, causing heavier casualties.

But on both fronts, the United States and its allies held firm for unconditional victory against the enemy.

Fortunately, we can only speculate the ramifications of a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany or a militaristic Japan. On the other hand, suppose following Tet we had pursued the defeated enemy into their sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos. It is possible we could have saved South Vietnam, and avoided the “Vietnam Syndrome” altogether.

Today, we face a war to the death from Islamo-fascist terrorists and the regimes that support them. We could turn Iraq into an ally, and change the face of a troublesome region. Those opposing us today are desperate because they will lose everything in a democratic Iraq, maybe even their lives, depending on their crimes during the Saddam regime.

Those in the Sunni Triangle enjoyed their power under Saddam and many participated in atrocities. In Najaf, an outlaw Shi’a mullah, possibly influenced by Iran, seeks more influence. Both groups receive foreign support, because a democratic Iraq threatens neighboring regimes. Furthermore, Iraq, allied with the United States, no longer provides a safe haven for terrorists.

Our enemies, both those we currently fight, and those observing from the shadows, are waiting for our response to the ongoing insurgency. We must never forget we arrived at our present situation because of our timid responses to earlier terrorist attacks. Perceiving us as weak, al Qaeda terrorists launched the 9/11 attacks, and celebrated our tragedy. Repeating that tragedy is not an option: we must defeat them where we find them.

In terms of our security here at home, winning in Iraq should not be compared with the Tet offensive in 1968 – it is far more critical than that.

It is just as important as winning in the Ardennes and the Pacific islands during World War II, a milestone toward the defeat of a lethal enemy.

William F. Sauerwein is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at mono@gtec.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.