Waiting for Tet

3

The
similarities between Iraq and Vietnam are moving from disquieting to
disturbing to desperately dire. Then as now, a gullible and
gung-ho public was duped into a foreign war by a corrupt administration
with the complicity of a sensationalist press drunk on dreams of access
and war-reporting fame.

Then as now, the administration was heavily indebted
to, if not dominated by, industrial and economic powers. Then as now,
despite promises and expectations for a short, decisive battle, the war
ran on and on, with no accepted definition of victory or navigable route
to
achieving
it. Then as now, public support of the war, initially robust, was eroding
like a sand castle in a heavy surf, in waves of bad press, roadside bombs,
and American casualties.

Then as now, the administrations claimed progress, claimed
to be winning the hearts and minds of the locals, could point to numbers
and bodies and disrupted supply lines, and refused to question the viability
of the mission. There was always a positive spin on the Administration’s
news desk; the number of attacks was down, although the number of casualties
was up, or the number of enemy casualties was up, although the number
of attacks was, too.

It was, and is, Chinese water torture.  The death
from a thousand cuts. The horrible fascination with the war footage on
the evening news, the human interest stories of bereavement that are reaching
into community after community, like a silent cancer, the accumulating
stories of graft, cruelty, deadly mistakes. But still, despite the uproar
on campuses (then), and the blogosphere (now), the center held, and the
"silent majority" supported the boys on the ground, and by extension,
their mission.

And then there was Tet.  In January, 1968, the
administration was telling us that things were finally turning our way.  A
light was visible at the end of the tunnel.  Over the previous five
years, 22 tons of explosives were dropped for every square mile of territory,
which worked out to 300 lbs for every man, women and child in Vietnam,
2.6 million of whom were
killed.

At a tremendous human and material cost, during the
Tet holiday that January, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched
simultaneous attacks across the country, attacking cities, military installations,
infrastructure and even the US Embassy in the capital, Saigon.

The attack was a failure militarily, but in the war
of perception it was the turning point.  It showed the American people
that the war was not winnable, at least not without descending to a level
of savagery and vengeance which would shake the very foundations of who
we are and what we stand for as Americans. It was a price the American
public, at that point in history, was not ready to pay.

Today, poised between the dream and the nightmare, the
American public is in flux and in doubt. Doubts are growing with the death
toll, and more and more prominent Americans are joining the voices calling
for withdrawal.

As horrible as it sounds, we are waiting for another
Tet.  For
a turning point, a tipping point, a stopping point. For something so
horrible,
so
tragic, or so chilling that it will be obvious that we will never prevail
without razing the entire extent of the territory we pretend to control.

Has the American character changed so much since ’68
that people today will be willing to pay the price that was too high
then; their inheritance, ideals and principles, or will the Iraqui Tet
again be the turning point leading inevitably to an American withdrawal?

Answering that question will be the defining moral test
of this generation of Americans.

3 Comments

  1. James Robertson

    December 6, 2005 @ 10:04 pm

    1

    Except, the moral inheritance of the loss in Vietnam was the following:

    — the Cambodian Holocaust
    — The Vietnamese exodus (boat people)
    — the consensus view of our oppononents that we would run when the going got tough

    That last point gave the Soviets the idea to invade Afghanistan in 1978, figuring we would do nothing. Yes, the echoes from that are still being felt.

    The Iranians in 1978 felt they could grab Embassy personal with impunity

    Those thoughts were amplified when Reagan cut and run from Lebanon in 1983, and again when Bush sr. fought half a war in 1991, and Clinton bailed on Somalia. It was again reinforced by the unanswered terror attacks all through the 90’s, leading to 9/11, which we finally answered.

    Yeah, there’s an inheritance from abandoning Vietnam and Southeast Asia. It’s an ugly one that no one should be proud of.

    Pitchers throw high hard ones after homeruns for the same reason.

  2. Chad

    December 6, 2005 @ 11:24 pm

    2

    One difference – Iraq is hugely strategic in the near-term world economy. The US planners really are going to be a lot more reluctant to give this one up than Vietnam, which didn’t have any kind of resources worth controlling comparable to Iraq. So – buckle up for a long hard slog!

  3. Ruby Sinreich

    December 8, 2005 @ 10:11 pm

    3

    Thank you for writing about this. Iraq has looked like Vietnam to me ever since 2002. But since I didn’t have to live through that conflict in the 60’s your insights are helpful.

    It’s shocking that the Boomers who were there appear to have conveniently erased Vietnam from their memories. How else could we be right here right now?