Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Tet Offensive and Iraq

I’ve never been to Iraq, but I did serve in Vietnam. Specifically, I was there during the Tet Offensive of January 1968. So I’ve been intrigued by some recent comparisons that have been made with Iraq. President George W Bush, who usually denies any such comparisons like the plague, recently told an interviewer that the violence in Iraq was similar to Tet.

I’m usually more receptive to Vietnam War analogies than others, but exactly how the fighting in Iraq today compares with the Tet Offensive seems kind of stretched to me. Indeed, the differences seem more instructive. Let’s summarize some of them:

The cities were safe

By and large Vietnam’s major cities were fairly safe during the Vietnam War, both before the Tet Offensive and after. The fighting overwhelmingly took place in the countryside – the “boonies” – to use the expression at the time.

I often walked or drove around such cities as Nha Trang or Saigon, often unarmed, without feeling a sense of danger. I remember riding through Saigon to visit a former classmate’s villa (all off-base accommodations were “villas” no matter how humble) only weeks after Tet.

What gave Tet its impact was the fact that the enemy launched its attack against these supposedly safe enclaves, including the mountain resort of Dalat, which, to my knowledge had ever even heard the sound of enemy gunfire.

If the insurgents in Iraq were to launch a coordinated attack on Iraq’s cities – assuming that have the command cohesion to pull it off – would anybody even notice?

The generals were not afraid to ask for troops

Gen William Westmoreland, who oversaw the big buildup, never hesitated to ask for more troops. And, up to Tet, he got them. In that respect Tet was the high-water mark of the American war effort. At that time about 500,000 troops, three times as many as in Iraq, were fighting in Vietnam.

In the immediate wake of Tet, Westmoreland asked for an additional 206,000. Presumably he felt that the enemy was on the ropes and that the time and a few more divisions would administer the final blow. Maybe he was right.

But in any case, President Lyndon Johnson’s new Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, calculated that the North Vietnamese Army would infiltrate enough troops into the south to match any American buildup, and the request was turned down.

This, more than anything that Walter Cronkite may have said on television, was the real turning point in the war. From then on we began an agonizingly slow drawdown of troops.

The South Vietnamese held

Tet has often been described as a military victory, but to the extent it was a victory it was a victory for the South Vietnamese army. It was they who, by and large, beat off the attackers.

The main exception was in the northern city of Hue, where a large contingent of North Vietnamese regulars captured the city and had to be rooted out by US Marines in the heaviest urban fighting until – well, until today.

The southern army was routinely disparaged both by US troops in Vietnam and by outsiders, but it seems to be they were a veritable wehrmacht compared with the Iraqi National Army.

I trusted my Vietnamese counterpart completely. (And as he was one of the first to flee the country after the Northern troops captured Saigon and didn’t emerge as a closet colonel in the North Vietnamese Army, my trust was well placed.) I wonder how many American soldiers really trust their Iraqi counterparts.

Tet was not aimed at America

I think that Americans have an exaggerated opinion of our adversaries’ ability or interest in manipulating American public opinion. Today we hear from some that the heavy fighting in Baghdad is aimed at influencing the mid-term elections.

The fact that the Tet Offensive was timed to begin in January 1968, an election year in the US, was a coincidence. The timing of the attack – the Lunar New Year in Vietnam - was picked because the enemy figured that the Southern army would have dropped their guard because of the holiday.

Among the many places the enemy attacked in Saigon was the American Embassy compound. Not surprisingly the US press corps fixed on this action. Gen. Westmoreland even inspected the scene.

This morning I watched on Fox News an episode of “War Stories,” narrated by Oliver North, on the Tet Offensive. A quarter of the program was devoted to the embassy attack, so traumatic was this squad-sized action, even today.

Believe me, if the enemy had known what impact this action would have on American public opinion, they would have sent a battalion against it, not 19 men.


Blogger Jonathan Dresner said...

Nicely done.

October 29, 2006 at 11:55 PM  

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

April 5, 2015 at 2:03 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home