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An Old, Old Story: Misreading Tet, Again

I n the continuing debates over the Vietnam War, many still view the Tet Offensive as a symbolic attack—an effort by the enemy to “send a message,” to gain advantage in negotiations, or “to get the Americans to the bargaining table.” That perspective diminishes the magnitude of the Communist defeat. Tet was a last-ditch assault by a desperate enemy to achieve a victory they saw slowly but surely slipping away. The North Vietnamese sought to foment a general uprising of the South Vietnamese people, overthrow the Saigon government, and force a Communist triumph. But despite the attacks by Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars, the hoped-for popular uprising never materialized, and after a few days’ fighting the majority of the Communist forces were driven off or destroyed. It was a historic, catastrophic failure.

Decades after the disastrous offensive, Tet continues to shape perceptions of American conflicts. More than a battle, it has become a legacy, a legend, a continually replicating story line. It has become a powerful metaphor divorced from its calamitous reality.

Tet is kept alive by the pervasive use of analogy in public discourse—not as an analytical framework to better understand or contextualize events but as a form of shorthand used to brand those events for media consumption. Such analogies are exercises in perception management, whether or not they have anything to do with the course and conduct of the insurgency or terrorist threat in question. The Tet story line is always lurking when U.S. forces are engaged against weak, unconventional enemies who lash out under limited and exceptional circumstances and briefly capture the attention of the media. Tet is then re-fought, providing a handy framework for revisiting familiar themes—intelligence failures, war crimes, terrorism, troop surges, leadership breakdowns, and media bias, among others.

Tet allows any collection of terrorists, insurgents, guerrillas, or other thugs who momentarily shock public perception through sudden, unanticipated acts of violence to achieve a succès d’éstime , even if they attain no significant objectives. It has become the standard an enemy has to meet in order to achieve victory, not actually prevailing on the battlefield, but seeming to, or in some cases simply trying to. In its function as a metaphor, Tet is a standing invitation to our enemies to seek low-cost, dramatic, and violent means of achieving high-impact strategic victories.

 

A merica’s humiliation in Vietnam has inspired contemporary terrorists and insurgents of many stripes, and the current crop well understands the Tet dynamic. Osama bin Laden and other terrorists have routinely mentioned Vietnam as a model for the type of victory they are seeking, a debilitating blow to the American will that results in demoralization at home and withdrawal of troops abroad.

In a February 2003 message bin Laden stated,

We can conclude that America is a superpower, with enormous military strength and vast economic power, but that all this is built on foundations of straw. So it is possible to target those foundations and focus on their weakest points which, even if you strike only one-tenth of them, then the whole edifice will totter and sway, and relinquish its unjust leadership of the world.

His assessment of where the “weakest points” lay had already been revealed in a November 2001 message, as al-Qaeda and the Taliban were under siege in Afghanistan: “The American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. They must do the same today.”

In his March 20, 1997, interview with Peter Arnett, whose 1968 reporting from Saigon and elsewhere played a critical role in shaping public perceptions of Tet, bin Laden discussed his view of the American lack of resolve in the face of armed resistance. Al-Qaeda fighters, he said,

participated with their brothers in Somalia against the American occupation troops [in 1993] and killed large numbers of them. . . . After a little resistance, the American troops left after achieving nothing. They left after claiming that they were the largest power on earth. They left after some resistance from powerless, poor, unarmed people whose only weapon is the belief in Allah the Almighty. . . . If the U.S. still thinks and brags that it still has this kind of power even after all these successive defeats in Vietnam, Beirut, Aden, and Somalia, then let them go back to those who are awaiting its return.

Terrorists and insurgents view America’s national will as an Achilles’ heel, and they seek to replicate the conditions that have allowed small, weak forces to defeat the most powerful nation in human history. Vietnam in particular has inspired a generation of terrorists. In a July 9, 2005, letter to Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri prompted Zarqawi to note well “the aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam—and how they ran and left their agents.” In an Al Jazeera interview in 2006, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, noted the inspirational and instructive quality of the American defeat in Vietnam, both to insurgent groups and to U.S. allies:

I cannot forget the sight of the American forces leaving Vietnam in helicopters, which carried their officers and soldiers. . . . This is the sight I anticipate in our region. . . . The Americans will gather their belongings and leave this region. . . . They will leave the Middle East, and the Arab and Islamic worlds, like they left Vietnam. I advise all those who place their trust in the Americans to learn the lesson of Vietnam . . . and to know that when the Americans lose this war—and lose it they will, Allah willing—they will abandon them to their fate, just like they did to all those who placed their trust in them throughout history.

 

T o exploit this critical American vulnerability, terrorists and other enemies must replicate certain conditions to produce Tet-like narratives in the information domain. This will help turn small events into climactic ones in the same way that media coverage transformed Tet from a North Vietnamese rout to a Communist victory. Winning this way involves engaging the media and U.S. domestic political opposition. Terrorists study the U.S. media and how it operates, as well as its importance to the type of war they seek to fight. Bin Laden wrote to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its share may reach ninety percent of the total preparation for battles.”

Reporters and opinion journalists, who seek to package stories using preexisting themes in order to give immediate (and potentially erroneous) context to events, are particularly susceptible to terrorist exploitation. In August 2006, Najd al-Rawi of the Global Islamic Media Front published an essay called “The Global Media: A Work Paper for Invading the U.S. Media.” Among the potential targets for terrorist information operations, he lists “American forums . . . chat rooms, well-known American newspapers and magazines, American TV stations which have Web sites and electronic e-mail addresses, and well-known American writers such as [Thomas] Friedman and [Francis] Fukuyama.”

The terrorists understand how writers, editors, and producers generate story lines, and they seek to provide useful hooks and compelling visuals. One such attempt sought to engage the analogy of the assault on the U.S. embassy during Tet. In March 2006, Iraq’s internal security forces broke up a plot to employ 421 al-Qaeda fighters as guards controlling access to Baghdad’s International Zone (IZ), also known as the Green Zone. In a scenario reminiscent of the fall of Troy, the terrorists planned to storm the U.S. and British embassies, take hostages, and generally wreak havoc. They were “one bureaucrat’s signature away” from implementing the plan when it was uncovered.

A surprise attack by four hundred fanatics inside the IZ, augmented by insurgents smuggled into the zone just prior to the assault, would have generated mayhem. The hostages could potentially have been leading government or military figures. Videos and photographs of the attack would have proliferated quickly via the Internet and the traditional mass media. The coalition counterattack would have been immediate and overwhelming, and few of the enemy would have survived. Nevertheless, by the time the last of the insurgents were hunted down, the attack would have achieved its objective—not to defeat coalition forces, but to seize and hold the only ground the insurgents could hope to command, the attention of the global mass media.

The story line would have been irresistible—Tet Offensive, Part II. A surprise urban guerrilla assault on a key symbol of American power would immediately be cast as a replay of the January 31, 1968, Viet Cong attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon when nineteen VC sappers penetrated the compound but failed to occupy the embassy proper. In the event, the effort was poorly planned, ineffectively executed, and quickly dispatched; however, early erroneous reports (first relayed by then Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, among others), credited the VC with taking the first floor of the building. The story then grew in the telling as the press quickly credited the enemy with having achieved a “psychological victory,” even though the Communists had failed to come close to meeting their military objectives.

Even a minor direct assault on the Baghdad embassy would have been sufficient to engage the Tet analogy, particularly if the terrorists had coupled it with a media campaign that explicitly made the comparison. In 2006, given the ambivalence of the public toward the war, an upcoming midterm election, and a wounded White House, the political impact would have been far out of proportion to the military significance of the attack. Fortunately the Iraqis were able to break up this plot before it was executed, but it nevertheless demonstrated that the terrorists have correctly diagnosed how to make their attacks strategically significant.

The insurgents’ information war in Iraq was aided by the propensity of domestic critics of U.S. military efforts to invoke the Vietnam War whenever possible. It is an iron rule of politics that every conflict must be compared to Vietnam sooner or later, and anything that can prompt the analogy triggers a flashback to the 1960s. The various factors that define a conflict—size, global context, weapons, doctrine, force structure, domestic politics, terrain, motivation, and most other relevant points of comparison—always differ; yet when it comes to the Tet comparisons, the key variable remains the same: reporters, activists, and politicians looking for a story line, a hook, something to say when they have run out of substantive critiques. A “Vietnam” story is a form of analytical autopilot, a narrative that writes itself. Opponents of the Iraq War and its conduct were just waiting for something to dub “Tet” in order to harness the familiar sense of stalemate and hopelessness. The opposition press sought the “Walter Cronkite Moment,” the public epiphany by a respected opinion leader that would brand the effort as doomed to failure. These framing concepts and others shape public understanding of current events that have little to do with the Tet Offensive, but the paradigm is unavoidable, the analogy irresistible.

The Vietnamization of the Iraq War debate was immediate. Comparisons to Vietnam were not intended to lend clarity through examination of the two conflicts as case studies in counterinsurgency, but rather to couch the discussion in terms of inevitable defeat. Policymakers and the fighting forces in Iraq were especially aware of the Tet analogy and the extra burdens it imposed on them. In June 2004, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that the Iraqi insurgents have “read about Tet and the fact that if they make a big enough splash—even though they get a lot of people killed and we pound them—they end up winning psychologically.” Over time, any dramatic acts of bloodshed in Iraq, any increase in casualties or other such events, would spur talk of Vietnam in general and Tet in particular. Yet for all the Tet talk, there has not been anything remotely like it.

 

A series of bombings during Ramadan in October 2003 quickly engaged the media’s Tet-response mechanism. (It’s tempting to point out that Tet, too, occurred during a holiday, however in this case there was no ceasefire to exploit, so that argument falls down.) Statements released by al-Qaeda and bin Laden invoked Vietnam, fueling the Tet comparisons. And the Vietnamization of the story line kicked into high gear when President Bush stated that the rash of attacks was a sign of desperation, which struck some as a kind of Johnson-era doublespeak.

The spring 2004 attacks in Fallujah also generated a great deal of Tet and Vietnam speculation. On March 31, Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy conducting food deliveries for a local contractor. They dragged four armed American civilians from their vehicles, killed them, and burned their corpses. Their charred bodies were later hung on a bridge over the Euphrates. Coverage of the event shocked and angered Americans. In its scope, scale, and number of casualties (or by any other metric), the attack bore no relation to Tet, but the propensity to make the comparison proved irresistible. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., historian and former special assistant to President Kennedy, noted that “Fallujah has been compared to the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive in 1968, which set in motion a process that drove President Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House”—the gratuitous reference to LBJ’s decision to relinquish the presidency no doubt a well-considered comment in an election year.

Operation Phantom Fury, the assault that reestablished control over Fallujah in November 2004, was likewise compared to Tet. “The belligerent trumpetings of the U.S. Marines bode ill for Al-Fallujah,” journalist Patrick Cockburn reported in the Independent . “Sgt. Major Carlton W. Kent, the senior enlisted Marine in Iraq, told troops that the battle would be no different from Iwo Jima. In an analogy the Pentagon may not relish, he recalled the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968 and added: ‘This is another Hue city.’” Kent was invoking Hue, like Iwo Jima, as a significant achievement and celebrated touchstone in Marine Corps history. But Cockburn was working from a different set of premises in which any allusion to Tet was pregnant with foreboding.

On June 24, 2004, al-Qaeda detonated bombs in six Iraqi cities, killing more than one hundred people. The operation quickly drew the Tet tag as well. Commentator Morton Kondracke stated that “America’s enemies are launching what they hope will be the Iraqi equivalent of the 1968 Tet offensive, hoping to undermine the June 30 handover of power to Iraqis.” An editorial in the French newspaper Libération noted that while it might not have the same scope as Tet, “like this famous precedent, it has goals that are more political than military. These simultaneous and coordinated attacks are aimed not so much at ‘preventing the transfer of sovereignty’ as showing, to the Iraqis above all, that what happens on 30 June will be devoid of meaning.” Yet the attacks did not delay the transfer of sovereignty, which took place two days ahead of schedule.

The Tet analogy took off in earnest late in the 2006 congressional campaign when President Bush seemed to give it credence. It all started when Thomas Friedman—unintentionally delivering just the type of reaction the Global Islamic Media Front had predicted—wrote in his October 18 New York Times column that a recent uptick in violence in Iraq during Ramadan could be the “jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive.” George Stephanopoulos then asked the president about the comment on ABC News’s This Week :

STEPHANOPOULOS: Tom Friedman wrote in the New York Times this morning that what we might be seeing now is the Iraqi equivalent of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. Tony Snow this morning said, “He may be right.” [Snow had actually said, “I think Friedman may be right, but we’ll have to see.”] Do you agree?

BUSH: He could be right. There’s certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we’re heading into an election.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But what’s your gut tell you?

BUSH: George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we’d leave. And the leaders of al-Qaeda have made that very clear. . . . They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people will grow sick and tired of the Iraqi effort and will cause government to withdraw.

Bush’s analysis simply noted what the Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda had been saying all along, that their primary means of achieving victory would be creating a perception of success, not actually winning. But the subsequent reaction from the press, the blogosphere, and the Democrats made it sound as though the president had declared unilateral surrender. Bush seemed to have affirmed the full validity of the Vietnam analogy, with its connotations of “quagmire” and defeat.


B y that time, however, drawing parallels to Vietnam was hardly newsworthy, and in some respects the comparisons were apt, given that most irregular or unconventional wars are to a degree similar. Nevertheless, while one can draw some parallels, in the most significant respects one cannot. There were no good Iraqi analogues to North Vietnam, China, or the Soviet Union, no thousands of uniformed enemy “regulars” with bases in country, and no chance of general escalation to large-scale, conventional—much less nuclear—warfare (the support given to the insurgency by Iran notwithstanding).

Furthermore, small fluctuations in indiscriminate violence such as Freidman noted are not the equivalent of Tet, which was a comprehensive plan to foment mass uprisings in South Vietnam leading to an overthrow of the government as prelude to a conventional takeover. The planning and preparation for the Tet attacks took at least nine months. The offensive was executed nearly simultaneously in cities and hamlets across the country. And anyone making the comparison should note the respective levels of violence: there were 106 U.S. dead in Iraq in October 2006, and despite Friedman’s fears of a meltdown, the level of violence declined in November, with 70 U.S. dead. The average number of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam per month in 1968 was 1,382, and in February 1968, during Tet, the total was 2,255, the second-highest monthly total of the war. (Ironically, the highest monthly total was in May 1968, during the so-called “Little Tet.”)

The insurgents in Iraq never demonstrated the operational acumen of our enemies in Vietnam. But today’s unconventional enemies do not need to mount comprehensive nationwide offensives to achieve strategic effects. The difference between Tet and any contemporary insurgent action is that today’s insurgents know what the North Vietnamese did not—they do not have to win battles to achieve strategic victories.

Bush’s October 2006 interview is a case in point. The insurgents did not have to conduct a series of coordinated major operations in order to reap substantial rewards in the media; they needed only to create enough chaos to harness the power of the Tet analogy and structure their violence in such a way that its magnitude would be amplified by others, which it was. As long as there are journalists, pundits, experts, and politicians willing to make the comparison to more significant battles of the past, the insurgents will always have the opportunity to achieve victory by association.

Tet remains a standing challenge to the conduct of war and is a continuing source of inspiration to our foes. They all want another Tet, but only we can give it to them. If we are not armed against the analogy, if we do not possess a clear understanding of the lessons learned from that experience, we will find ourselves reliving the Tet Offensive again and again.

James S. Robbins is a senior editorial writer for the Washington Times and author of the forthcoming book This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.

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