On January 31, 1968, the combined forces of North Vietnam (DRV or Democratic Force of Vietnam) and the NLF (National Liberation Front) launched a spectacular series of attacks throughout the contested territory of all of South Vietnam. As many as 100 Vietnamese cities and towns were simultaneously attacked, 36 of 44 provincial capitals were captured, and the impregnable American Embassy complex in Saigon was penetrated. These attacks were all repelled in a few days, with the Vietnamese taking huge losses, 37,500 estimated deaths, which came on top of 90,000 lost soldiers in the preceding months. The American commander, General Westmoreland, had confidently predicted prior to the Tet Offensive that the NLF would never be able to replace such losses, and victory for the United States in the Vietnam War was near at hand.
During the Tet Offensive the American losses were announced as 2,500. This ratio of comparative deaths, and the fact that the DRV/NLF could not maintain their presence in any of the urban areas that they briefly controlled, led Westmoreland and counterinsurgency experts to claim a military victory for their side. Add to this the evidence that the purpose of these coordinated attacks on the points of governmental control in Vietnam was not to kill or even to seize control of the country but to inspire popular uprisings, and these never materialized. This was acknowledged by the DRV commander General Tran Do, who affirmed that the purpose of the Tet Offensive was to stimulate a spontaneous uprising among the Vietnamese population against the American military occupation of the country. This perception of defeat by both sides seemed authoritative, and yet, and this is the point, irrelevant. In General Do’s words at the time: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us.”
But far more consequential than the American casualties that was certainly upsetting to backers of the war in Washington was the traumatic impact of the Tet Offensive on American public opinion and related Congressional support for continuing the Vietnam War. This impact was also foreign to the military imagination of the Vietnamese at the time. As General Do put it, “As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.” Exposed by the Tet Offensive was what was called at the time ‘the credibility gap,’ the space between the optimistic assessments by the White House that the war was being won, and the realities of the conflict. The Tet Offensive was understood at the time throughout the United States as a massive refutation of the claim that the Vietnamese adversary was knocking at the door of defeat, on the verge of surrender or collapse. As a result of the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson decided to withdraw from the presidential race for his reelection in 1968, declared a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam to give diplomacy a chance, and rejected a request from Saigon for additional American troops.
It is true the war dragged on for several more years with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Tet Offensive changed the American goal from ‘victory’ to ‘peace with honor,’ that is, ‘defeat in disguise.’ The subsequent Christmas bombing of the North and the disastrous invasion of Cambodia in 1970 were part of the bloody effort during the Nixon/Kissinger period of American leadership to produce ‘honor.’ Actually, when the war finally came to an abrupt end in 1975, the dominant image at the time being that of Vietnamese collaborators with the American intervention desperately seeking to escape from Vietnam by clamoring aboard a helicopter taking off from the roof of the embassy. Not honor, but humiliation, chaos, and defeat became the end game for the United States in Vietnam; or put differently, the price paid with lives and devastation to achieve what was called ‘a decent interval’ between the American departure and the collapse of the client regime in Saigon.
To this day, counterinsurgency insiders contend that the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and this conviction has partly explained why American policymakers have failed (or refused) to learn the defining lesson of Vietnam: the virtual impossibility in the early 21st century of turning military superiority on the battlefield enjoyed by the intervening side into a favorable political outcome against an adversary that occupies the commanding heights of national self-determination. This learning disability has led directly to subsequent failed efforts, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Military superiority succumbs over time to the strong historical tides of the last seven decades favoring the logic of self-determination. Among other explanations for this conclusion that cuts against the grain of political realism if this: the intervening side gets tired of an unresolved struggle if it last more than a few years. As the Afghan saying goes: “You’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time.” Nationalist endurance is far stronger than is geopolitical endurance, and this acts as an equalizer with respect to the asymmetries of military capabilities.
But my reason for recalling the Tet Offensive is less about this primary feature of conflict in our time, especially in the setting of what Mary Kaldor has usefully called ‘new wars,’ than it is to comment upon contradictory perceptions of victory. These conflicts tend to be resolved on political battlefield far from the sites of military struggle, although each in its own way. What seems to count most in the end is a decisive shift in political perceptions on the home front of the intervening side. Neither the successful response to the attacks in terms of casualties or restored control of the cities in South Vietnam, nor the failure of the attacks to be followed by popular uprisings mattered in the end so far as the historical significance of the Tet Offensive is concerned. It hardly mattered that the military appraisal made by both sides was wrong, although the Vietnamese side was less wrong as the spike in American casualties added considerable weight to the political reassessments of the conflict by the White House and aroused much anger among the American people.
This recollection is not meant to be an exercise in historical memory or even in the differences between how the military thinks and how the political process in a liberal democracy works. It is more an expression of frustration about the unwillingness of the Obama presidency to acknowledge the failure of the mission to achieve its goals in Afghanistan. As with Vietnam, the public is continually told by the military commanders about how well things are going, and even when unexpected setbacks take place, these are discounted as ‘one-off’ incidents that should not be allowed to become occasions for reappraisal. There was recent disappointment in some circles within the United States that were skeptical about continuing the intervention in Afghanistan when the execution of Osama Bin Laden was not followed by a credible and liberating claim from Washington of ‘mission accomplished,’ an ironic recourse to the Bush miscalculation in the early months of the Iraq War. Such a claim would have played well throughout the American heartland, and probably given Obama a clear path to reelection in 2012. Public opinion according to recent polls reinforces such an interpretation: 59% of Americans would like to see all American troops taken out of Afghanistan immediately or within a year, while only 22% believe that the United States has sufficiently defined goals to make the war worthy of American military engagement.
This same skepticism among Americans about foreign military intervention now applies more generally, although it could shift quickly if a foreign source of terrorism was able to inflict major damage on perceived American interests. According to Newsmax (August 11, 2011), only 24% of Americans support the U.S. military role in Libya, and 75% believe that the United States should not engage in overseas military action “unless the cause is vital to our national security.” It is obvious that the Libya does not qualify as ‘vital,’ and the justification relied upon did not even pretend that ‘security’ was the rationale for military intervention, but invoked ‘humanitarism.’ Of course, leaders will always argue that an intervention undertaken is vital, and could hardly do less, considering that lives of citizens are put at risk. But what these poll results show is the relative wisdom of the unacknowledged force of public opinion: rejection of humanitarianism as an adequate basis for war-making and disbelief in the post-facto security arguments put forth by elected leaders; healthy doubts about the self-serving claims of the military to be on the verge of victory. But such wars go on, however dysfunctional, the bodies pile up, and the political opposition is disregarded, and this despite the American empire teetering on the edge of financial disaster.
Several observations follow. During the Vietnam Era, public opinion counted for more when the government was making its political calculations about continuing an unpopular war. Unquestionably, there has been a decline in democratic accountability in the United States with respect to war/peace issues. In part, this reflected the presence of a robust peace movement during the Vietnam War, which in turn arose as a response to the military draft that touched the lives of middle class America. Now there is no draft, the war is fought with drones and private contracting firms. Furthermore, the weaponry and tactics are designed to minimize American casualties relative to the destruction inflicted. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from a decade of warfare in Vietnam were not about whether to intervene in new wars but how. It may be that in place of international law and political prudence, both of which should rationally discourage intervention contra the political weight of self-determination, the new source of restraint will derive from fiscal pressures to reduce defense spending. So far the militarist consensus in Washington has largely exempted the bloated U.S. defense budget from the knives of the cost cutters, who while besides being social reactionaries are military hawks. Even the more socially sensitive Obama democrats have largely continued to acquiesce in this willingness to treat defense spending as non-discretionary, as well as sustaining Israeli militarism with enhanced annual subsidies.
I had hoped that the helicopter incident on August 6th, the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, in which 30 persons died, including members of the Navy Seals Elite Unit, would provide the excuse the Obama administration should have been waiting for to say finally that it was time to bring American troops home and end involvement in the struggle over the future of Afghanistan. It is common knowledge by now that the Afghanistan War is being fought against the nationalist Taliban and on behalf of a corrupted and incompetent Kabul regime for the political control of the country. This is a clear instance of a new war that will not be decided once and for all on the battlefield by soldiers and weapons or through the anachronistic agency of foreign intervention. The strategic justifications for the war in relation to a future sanctuary for a reconstituted Al Qaeda or in relation to the destabilization of Pakistan are extremely speculative, and seem more intelligently addressed by withdrawal from a military engagement that fans the flames of anti-Americanism, gives extremism a good name, and manifests the impotence of American imposed military solutions.
It adds up to a single moral, legal, and prudential imperative: when in doubt, stop the killing and the dying!