For the past eighteen months every time a group of pissed-off Iraqis gets together and decides to blow themselves up some Americans every talking head around the world will say the same word at once: Tet. This is Tet, that is Tet, here comes the Tet again, over and over again, culminating in the greatest Tet revival of them all, the Fallujah offensive in April. At that point, you couldn't swing a baseball bat without cracking open the skull of some commentator saying "Tet".
All it really showed was how poorly understood Tet is among journalistic circles. This is not surprising, since the Tet offensive is probably the most poorly understood event in a very poorly understood war. Worse still, by calling the game too soon the media are now incapable of admitting that the recent country-wide bombings and insurgencies in Iraq are at least as "Tet-like" as anything they reported in Fallujah. The media are therefore ignoring valuable parallels and insights between Tet and current events, ones that could provide perspective, and help avoid repeating profoundly damaging mistakes.
It is, of course, useful to understand what, exactly, happened at Tet before moving forward. After some fifteen years of more or less continuous conflict and three years of direct American involvement, the North Vietnamese leadership decided only a bold move could quickly end the civil war in Vietnam. To that end, a surprise offensive was planned for the 1968 Tet holiday (January 31st), Vietnam's New Year celebration and up to that time traditionally a period of truce.
The plan was for the North Vietnamese army to stage a diversionary attack on a remote US base in Khe Sahn near the North-South border. While US forces were thus distracted, southern guerrilla Viet Cong (VC) cadres along with smuggled-in North Vietnamese regular army soldiers would attack most major cities in the South simultaneously. The people of the South, it was assumed, would see how the corrupt Southern regime was incapable of defending them, rise up, and join the insurrection, quickly ending the entire conflict with a single stroke.
At first the plan worked brilliantly. US leadership, which had always been looking for the "one big fight" required to smash the North, went after the bait of Khe Sahn like a starving marlin. The VC uprisings caught all remaining US and Southern forces completely by surprise, allowing the VC to rapidly gain control of several cities, even allowing them to blow a hole in the wall of the US embassy in Saigon during a direct assault.
Unfortunately the offensive began to unravel nearly as quickly as it had started. The key failure was the South's inability to see "the light of truth and liberation" their Northern brethren offered and their consequent refusal to join in the revolt. Through a bit of luck and a bit of skill, a lower-ranking US Army general had held back a few battalions of US forces for protection in Saigon, and these, combined with the Southern Vietnamese army (ARVN), were then able to annihilate the VC forces after a few weeks of admittedly bitter fighting. The Viet Cong would never again be a real factor in the Vietnamese conflict.
Someone completely unfamiliar with the story of Vietnam might be surprised to find out that not only was Tet a disaster for the Viet Cong, it was also a disaster for the United States military. Tet marked the point where public opinion started its decisive swing from supporting an eventual victory to wishing simply to get out. The US's military presence ceased growing and started shrinking almost overnight. Protests of the war would grow larger and increasingly violent. It is no exaggeration to say the chain of events that directly led to the fall of Saigon had its first link forged at Tet.
Conventional wisdom among many military history buffs is this is the direct result of the negative media portrayals both during and after the event. Certainly at the time the events of Tet were portrayed in a negative light and the general perception for perhaps the next fifteen years would be that Tet was a resounding defeat for Southern and US forces.
However, while this is now demonstrably untrue, to lay the blame for the loss of Vietnam on the media's portrayal of a single event is to completely ignore the greater context of the war itself. Vietnam was a debacle from end to end not because of the top brass's inability to control a hostile media, but because of its complete and utter incompetence in the handling of the conflict itself.
Equipped and trained to fight a gigantic force-on-force conventional war with the Soviet Union, like a toddler with a hammer the upper echelons of military leadership kept trying to bang the square peg of Vietnam into the round hole of mechanized warfare. Lower echelon officers who could see what was wrong and attempted to make a difference were prevented from and sometimes even punished for developing new tactics and strategies to fight and win. The dissonance between an army that knew how to win (or at least how not to lose) and a leadership that refused to let them slowly began to tear the military apart from within.
Uncomfortable media reports, worrisome losses, and incessant protests could be dismissed as long as our leaders assured America they were winning. As hard as it is to imagine now, the government's say-so was all that most of the "greatest generation" ever needed to feel confident. But Tet ripped away the curtain of deception the military and political leadership had drawn over the truth. Contrary to what they had been told by their leaders, at times almost daily, the enemy was not growing weaker, was not demoralized or bankrupt, and was not going anywhere any time soon. That Tet itself ultimately ended in victory was of little import. The evidence of their strength, their resolve, and their skill was as bright and clear as the TV screens that transmitted it. It was a fundamental breach of trust between the American people and its political and military leadership that ultimately doomed the effort in Vietnam. The ultimate significance of Tet is that it was here the breach first fissured open.
The parallels between Tet and the three guerrilla insurrections in Iraq (Ba'athist, al-Sadrist, and the current Zarqawist) are many, but they are subtle and too often incorrectly drawn by the media. Then, as now, Guerrilla forces are fighting a US-run occupation to discredit and destroy a US-backed regime. Then, as now, the battle is timed to maximize its effect on an upcoming presidential election. Then, as now, victory will be measured more by a swing in opinion polls than any loss of blood, land, or treasure.
The differences between Tet and the various insurrections are at least as important, and almost never discussed in the media. Iraq is not split in two, with large numbers of its citizens fighting each other. There is no huge regular army standing behind the guerrillas, waiting to pounce. There are no superpowers writing blank checks to the opposition. The government of Iraq is not a military junta of Christian outsiders, emplaced by a violent coup and empowered by US force. Most importantly, America today blindly trusts no one with the lives of its children. We are quite ready, perhaps at times too ready, to believe reports that our political and military leaders are dropping the ball, and are quick to call them on it.
While the political lessons of Tet, that no one with a huge amount of power should ever be trusted blindly, and (much later) that journalists can be trusted to report what they see, but not what they think it means, can be said to have been well and truly learned by modern America. However, the military lesson of Tet seems to have been learned by hardly anyone at all.
When reduced to a narrow military lesson, Tet teaches us that it is profoundly dangerous for an irregular guerrilla force, no matter how well organized or equipped, to take on a more powerful conventional military force in any sort of sustained offensive. Such offensives frequently start out with the advantage of surprise and spectacular success, but with time, especially without the support of the people, merely serve to expend carefully hoarded materiel and expose carefully trained cadre and commanders to the overwhelming firepower of a superior force.
In 1968, with a force trained in the wrong tactics using the wrong gear supported by locals who clearly wished to be somewhere else, the US military utterly destroyed a guerrilla force that had defeated a previous Western foe (the French) fifteen years earlier and seemed undefeatable just weeks before. Thirty-five years of technology, training, strategy, and tactics have made our military orders of magnitude more effective at fighting insurgents dumb enough to try and take them on.
Tet should not teach us an organized uprising is a sign of immenent defeat, but instead is an opportunity. Like a column of enemy tanks moving without air cover, we should see these guerrillas for what they really are.