Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Tet Revisited

Arthur Herman, writing at Journal Online, offers vivid reminder of an earlier era’s false picture of defeat, which he asserts “gave antiwar activism an unwarranted credibility that persists today in Congress.”

None of what Herman reports is new. Talk at any length with actual Vietnam Veterans, or with experts conversant with the history of US Military involvement in Vietnam, and you would have to conclude much of what many people think they know about the war is based on lies and distortions.

Much of Herman’s narrative corresponds to a slow process of historical “correction” now taking place, where the effluences of Vietnam myth, spewed from Leftist imaginings, are quietly being cleaned out of institutional crevices. (Except for those encrusted at most Liberal Arts college campuses, of course.)

Here’s the briefest of summaries of the real story, courtesy of Herman:

The Tet offensive came at the end of a long string of communist setbacks. By 1967 their insurgent army in the South, the Viet Cong, had proved increasingly ineffective, both as a military and political force. Once American combat troops began arriving in the summer of 1965, the communists were mauled in one battle after another, despite massive Hanoi support for the southern insurgency with soldiers and arms. By 1967 the VC had lost control over areas like the Mekong Delta -- ironically, the very place where reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan had first diagnosed a Vietnam "quagmire" that never existed.

The Tet offensive was Hanoi's desperate throw of the dice to seize South Vietnam's northern provinces using conventional armies, while simultaneously triggering a popular uprising in support of the Viet Cong. Both failed. Americans and South Vietnamese soon put down the attacks, which began under cover of a cease-fire to celebrate the Tet lunar new year. By March 2, when U.S. Marines crushed the last North Vietnamese pockets of resistance in the northern city of Hue, the VC had lost 80,000-100,000 killed or wounded without capturing a single province.

Tet was a particularly crushing defeat for the VC. It had not only failed to trigger any uprising but also cost them "our best people," as former Viet Cong doctor Duong Quyunh Hoa later admitted to reporter Stanley Karnow. Yet the very fact of the U.S. military victory -- "The North Vietnamese," noted National Security official William Bundy at the time, "fought to the last Viet Cong" -- was spun otherwise by most of the U.S. press.

That Tet was “spun” by the US press is no exaggeration. However much “Tet as US Defeat” is viewed as common knowledge, certainly by many who opposed the war back in the day, a more detached assessment of actual facts reveals Tet as an unmitigated disaster for the North Vietnamese, their communist sponsors and sympathizers. One can always speculate on why US media and Leftist agitators so stridently insisted on a view contrary to facts, but lots of anecdotal evidence suggests at least one rather banal reason for their personal misperception. As Herman describes:

As the Washington Post's Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup documented in his 1977 book, "The Big Story," the desperate fury of the communist attacks including on Saigon, where most reporters lived and worked, caught the press by surprise. (Not the military: It had been expecting an attack and had been on full alert since Jan. 24.) It also put many reporters in physical danger for the first time. Braestrup, a former Marine, calculated that only 40 of 354 print and TV journalists covering the war at the time had seen any real fighting. Their own panic deeply colored their reportage, suggesting that the communist assault had flung Vietnam into chaos.

Their editors at home, like CBS's Walter Cronkite, seized on the distorted reporting to discredit the military's version of events. The Viet Cong insurgency was in its death throes, just as U.S. military officials assured the American people at the time. Yet the press version painted a different picture.

To quote Braestrup, "the media tended to leave the shock and confusion of early February, as then perceived, fixed as the final impression of Tet" and of Vietnam generally. "Drama was perpetuated at the expense of information," and "the negative trend" of media reporting "added to the distortion of the real situation on the ground in Vietnam."

The North Vietnamese were delighted. On the heels of their devastating defeat, Hanoi increasingly shifted its propaganda efforts toward the media and the antiwar movement. Causing American (not South Vietnamese) casualties, even at heavy cost, became a battlefield objective in order to reinforce the American media's narrative of a failing policy in Vietnam.

Yet thanks to the success of Tet, the numbers of Americans dying in Vietnam steadily declined -- from almost 15,000 in 1968 to 9,414 in 1969 and 4,221 in 1970 -- by which time the Viet Cong had ceased to exist as a viable fighting force. One Vietnamese province after another witnessed new peace and stability. By the end of 1969 over 70% of South Vietnam's population was under government control, compared to 42% at the beginning of 1968. In 1970 and 1971, American ambassador Ellsworth Bunker estimated that 90% of Vietnamese lived in zones under government control.

Flash forward 30 some years, and we have a pretty accurate assessment of how it is that the US Military has achieved success in Iraq, despite incessant media defeatism masquerading as objective reporting.

Fortunately, some features of the media landscape today are quite different from the 1970’s. Bloggers, especially MILBLOGS, with allies in other alternative and vibrant conservative media, make it impossible for media distortions to go unchallenged.

The sad part is, I don’t really think most reporters and journalists today are intentionally distorting war reporting, any more than they did then. People’s experiences prejudice their perceptions, and their prejudices influence every aspect of how they describe what they think they perceive, and what they think they understand about what they think they experience. (As an aside, trial lawyers can expound at length about the sworn but false testimony of eye witnesses, who remain adamant about the “facts” of what they’ve witnessed that are, nevertheless, quite untrue.)

And precisely what’s sad about that, is what would be apparent to aging activists, were they to stop and consider a more truthful picture of: 1) what caused our involvement in Vietnam, 2) the true and brutal nature of our enemies, and their intentions towards the people they sought to “liberate,” 3) the conduct of the vast majority of our military; and 4) the true results of US renunciation of our security (and moral) commitment to the South Vietnamese, both for them, and for others in the region.

If those who think they know what Vietnam was all about, what a “disaster it was,” how wrong we were to be fighting there, and how rightfully we retreated, really assessed Vietnam objectively, they would have to confront some very unpleasant truths indeed.

First, most everything they thought they knew about Vietnam was wrong. But more than that, they would have to acknowledge their considerable moral responsibility, for millions of lives, and years and years of misery.

I don’t expect such introspection from many, just as I won’t sit as mute witness to continued media malpractice in misreporting about Iraq. Jews utter the promise, “Never Again!” when speaking of the holocaust, and that slow evolution from wrong to evil to extermination.

In a similar way, those of us who see the valid, media parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, will remain determined to set the record straight, in whatever form, vehicle, or method opportunity and circumstance permit.

(Via Instapundit)

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