by William Rivers Pitt / Truthout –
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— W.B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’
History loves to repeat itself.
On January 31, 1968, soldiers from North Vietnam launched what has become known as the Tet Offensive. The attacks were breathtaking in scope: North Vietnamese soldiers stormed the highland towns of Banmethout, Kontum and Pleiku, invaded 13 of the 16 provincial capitols in the Mekong Delta, attacked the headquarters of both America’s and South Vietnam’s armies, stormed the US embassy compound in Saigon, and took the city of Hue.
The attacks came as a complete shock to American forces. A 1968 CIA report concluded, “The intensity, coordination and timing of the attacks were not fully anticipated.” The report went on to state that, “another major unexpected point” was the ability of the North Vietnamese to strike so many targets at the same time.
In the technical jargon of war, the attacks were a failure, as the North Vietnamese soldiers were eventually beaten back. General Giap, commander of Vietnamese forces, had a different perspective. “For us, you know, there is no such thing as a single strategy,” said Giap after the war.
“Ours is always a synthesis, simultaneously military, political and diplomatic — which is why quite clearly, the Tet offensive had multiple objectives.”
Tet Failed Militarily but Succeeded Politically
The political aspect of the offensive worked. By March of 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating had fallen to 30%, and approval for his handling of the war had fallen to 26%. Walter Cronkite, the most trusted voice in American television journalism, stated publicly that the war was unwinnable. An explosion of dissent rocked the American homeland, culminating in Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, and in the police riot at the doorstep of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The two lessons from Tet:
• 1) Underestimating a guerilla enemy that is fighting on its own ground is deadly policy;
• 2) The American people will not long stand for a bloodbath in a faraway land that has no clear objective, spends the lives of American soldiers to no good end, and costs billions and billions of dollars better spent elsewhere.
The Tet Offensive in January 1968 began a long, slow slide into ignominy and defeat for the United States that, to this day, still echoes long and loud along the hallways of power and the streets of everyday America.
Tet in Baghdad?
It is happening again. In the last 72 hours in Iraq, a dizzying series of attacks have rocked Baghdad. It began with the downing of a Blackhawk helicopter. It did not end there.
Several missiles were fired at the Baghdad Hotel where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying during his tour of the war. Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects of the conflict, escaped unharmed but was visibly shaken after the attacks. An American officer was killed in that attack.
In separate attacks, three American soldiers were killed and four wounded. Two of the deaths came when a patrol from the 1st Armored Division was struck by a roadside bomb. The third death came in Abu Ghraib, on the western edge of Baghdad, when a Military Police unit was attacked.
There have been 349 American soldiers killed in Iraq during this conflict, and thousands more wounded. Since George W. Bush strutted across an aircraft carrier in the garb of a combat pilot in May, after he said, “Bring ’em on” in June, there have been 211 American soldiers killed.
Put another way, we have lost more troops in the nine months of this war than we had lost in Vietnam by 1964. History tells us quite clearly that our Vietnam casualty rate skyrocketed in the years to come.
Four different Iraqi police stations were bombed in Baghdad on Monday, and a massive explosion tore into the offices of the International Red Cross. 34 people were killed, and 224 were wounded.
The attacks took place in rapidfire succession between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. local time, strongly suggesting a high degree of coordination.
Chilling Similarities to Tet Offensive
The similarities to Tet are chilling. In 1968, the attacks came at the onset of the Vietnamese New Year, a holiday that American command believed would herald a temporary quieting of the violence. In Iraq, these attacks come at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The American command in Baghdad believed the holiday would bring a slacking of the attacks that have been plaguing American forces. This assumption ran so strong that the Baghdad curfew was partially lifted by American forces just before the brunt of the attacks hit.
One difference between Tet and Baghdad is that we knew, in Vietnam, who was attacking us. We have no idea who has been behind these attacks in Iraq. The inability to even identify the attackers beyond the catch-all “Evildoers who hate freedom” means we have little hope of thwarting future attacks.
The most pointed similarity is clear: These attacks are meant to cause a political reaction. The United States military, on the whole, will not be undermined by these attacks or by the loss of four more soldiers. The political ramifications, however, are a different story, and in the long run the political reaction will directly affect the military.
The Bush administration has been trying to sell a rosy perspective of this war to the American people, a perspective that was eviscerated by these attacks. Worse, the attacks will have a further chilling effect upon the administration’s attempts to bring the international community into this fight, something even the most hard-core go-it-aloners in Washington have come to see as absolutely necessary.
With every explosion at a non-American outpost, with every targeting of the United Nations and the Red Cross in Iraq, this war becomes more and more the sole property of the United States and the Bush administration. Each time this happens, it becomes less likely that an international coalition will be formed to bail America out in Iraq. The old sign above the cash register at your corner store says it all: “You break it, you buy it.”
Bush Says Attacks Are Good News
George W. Bush responded to these most recent attacks by saying the intricately coordinated and highly effective attacks were a sign that the unidentified insurgents were becoming “desperate.” He described the attackers as people who “hate freedom” and “love terror.”
This is the reaction of a man residing comfortably in Bizarro World, a land where up is down, black is white, and reality has no place at the table. Basically, Bush is trying to tell us that these attacks are good news, that these “desperate” moves are a sign of looming American victory.
Ask the thousands of dead Iraqis if this is good news. Ask the Red Cross, which is strongly considering pulling out of Iraq, if this is good news. Ask the international community, which is being pressured into leaping aboard this sinking ship, if this is good news. Ask the families of the dead and wounded American soldiers if this is good news.
Ask al Qaeda, and they will tell you this is nothing but good news. This war on Iraq, built on a foundation of misinformation and lies, has led to the greatest recruiting drive in that group’s bloody history. The opportunity to kill more Americans is good news for them. The ability to rock the American government is good news for them.
Osama bin Laden smiles today, and it was George W. Bush who put the grin on his face.
William Rivers Pitt is the Managing Editor of truthout.org. He is a New York Times and international best-selling author of three books – “War On Iraq,” available from Context Books, “The Greatest Sedition is Silence,” available from Pluto Press, and “Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism,” available in August from Context Books.
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