An Old, Old Story: Misreading Tet, Again

By Robbins, James S. | World Affairs, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

An Old, Old Story: Misreading Tet, Again


Robbins, James S., World Affairs


In 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 succes d'estime, 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.

America'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. … 

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