Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Tet Offensive Begins, 30 January 1968

Battle of the Week 2011-05

The weapons of the battlefield are not the only weapons of war. In some cases, they are not even the most effective. A spy's report, a builder's schematic, or an assassin's dagger have at times proven more decisive to a war than anything that happened between the armies in the field. In many ways, the information a commander has going into a fight is more important than the weapons he will use to kill the enemy.

But there is another weapon a savvy enemy can use, a weapon whose effect is often unrelated to anything that happens on the field of battle. This weapon is particularly effective against a society that values the free flow of information, a society whose Constitution enshrines such liberties as freedom of speech and of the press. The weapon, information contrary to official reports, is usually directed not at the military might of such a state--but at the people hungry for knowledge of what is happening to their loved ones serving in that military. The information must be fed to its targets gradually and with great subtlety, much like a slow-acting poison. It cannot blatantly contradict the official reports; it must erode them, gradually destroying the faith of the people in the words of their government. Make them believe the people they are supposed to trust are lying to them, and they will become much more ready to believe what they hear from your sources.

The information machine of North Vietnam used this strategy to masterful affect against the American war effort in Vietnam. To be sure, the American media seem to have assisted with some enthusiasm--this was the first war waged on television, after all, and no one really knew how to wage war, or report it, on television. Faced with a military unwelcoming to their requests for information, a Vietnamese population distrustful of foreigners, and stateside editors demanding material for the evening newsreels, reporters on the ground snatched up whatever bits of information they could get.

That meant they got a lot of information from Saigon and other major cities where fighting was rare and reporters were relatively safe--and the propaganda agents of North Vietnam were operating in force. Not that they had to work very hard; exposing the corruption of the South Vietnamese government, ensuring rumors of American abuses came back to reporters, inviting them along to see the struggles of the noble Viet Cong or the people they claimed to represent and protect, all set the conditions for a major public relations coup to come.

The coup came on the 30th of January 1968, when North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces attacked across the length and breadth of Vietnam, hitting 36 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals, and Saigon in violation of a cease-fire proclaimed in observance of Tet, the Vietnamese new year. The attacks were highly organized, highly coordinated, and highly synchronized, and made for the kind of news footage the reporters had been dreaming of. A small team of VC even made it inside the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, fighting with American Military Police for more than six hours before they were all killed or captured.

In a tactical and military sense, the Tet Offensive was a complete disaster for the NVA and VC. Not a single attack accomplished its tactical objective, and all were beaten back with heavy losses. But the offensive accomplished its broader objective; everywhere the VC attacked, the news cameras sucked up reel after reel of the action. And the word went back to the states: the enemy is much stronger than we have been led to believe. Yesterday he was on his last legs, and victory was coming soon, we were told. But today he has shown us otherwise.

The offensive marked a turning point in the war. For many Americans, it was the end of trust in our national authority. If they could lie to us about the strength of the enemy, or at best be so appallingly wrong, what else were they wrong about? Why should we believe what they told us any more? Why should we continue to support this war when the men fighting it clearly have such an incomplete picture of who and what they are fighting? Support for the war was at least relatively strong before Tet, with many Americans seeing it as their patriotic duty to support the military and the president and to oppose communism wherever it appeared. After Tet, the antiwar movement gained strength.

No free country can long prosecute a war its people oppose, and Vietnam proves the point. U.S. forces would continue to slog it out for another five years, but we could no longer win the war for anything like a cost the American people would accept. Before long, the number of troops committed to the war began to decrease, and our politicians began talking about Vietnamization and peace with honor. The war, at least for the United States, began to end with Tet.

And so began an era of national shame--shame at failing to defeat communism, shame at allowing ourselves to become divided in the face of an overseas war, shame at the way we had treated our brave service members. Shame, self-doubt, and anger characterized the 1970s, gradually fading as we regained our military power in the 1980s and our economic power in the 1990s and through the 2000s, but the echoes of them remain part of us. I like to think facing our own weaknesses and surviving the ordeal has made us stronger as a nation, just as it does for an individual. There are many who disagree with me. But that discussion is beyond the scope of this page.

It's almost time for the Superbowl. If you plan to watch the game--as I do--enjoy it. Good luck to your team (unless, of course, you are rooting for the Steelers)!

Get your nerd on!

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