Forty years ago this week, the American public realized that the United States was not going to win the Vietnam war. Lulled by assurances that “progress” was being made in the fight against the insurgents, Americans had patiently borne five years of growing military casualties in Vietnam, but the Tet offensive shattered their illusions. Could the same thing happen this year in Iraq?
Paradoxically, the Tet offensive was a military disaster for the Viet Cong, the locally based Communist rebels who had borne the brunt of the fighting in South Vietnam until then. They threw 45,000 of their most experienced soldiers into simultaneous attacks in more than a hundred cities and towns on 31 January, 1968, believing that they could trigger a nationwide popular uprising against the Americans and their local collaborators.
Intense fighting raged all through February of 1968. In the first hours of the offensive, a Viet Cong suicide squad fought its way into the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon. South Vietnam’s third-biggest city, Hue, fell to the insurgents on the first day, and US forces did not reconquer it for more than three weeks. But in the end, the Viet Cong lost all the ground they had gained, and at least half of their best troops were killed.
There was no national uprising in South Vietnam; the Communists had overestimated their support in the cities. After Tet, the Viet Cong was so weakened that the North Vietnamese regular army had to take over more and more of the fighting, infiltrating its troops south down the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was a grave military defeat for the Vietnamese Communists — but it was a decisive political defeat for the United States.
1968, like 2008, was an election year in the U.S., and Tet made it plain to American voters that, while the Vietnamese insurgents might not be able to drive the Americans out, they could go on fighting them indefinitely. By the end of March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson had abandoned his re-election campaign and offered to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese. When Richard Nixon won the presidency that November, he did so on a promise to withdraw American troops from Vietnam (although it took him five years to keep it).
Many people in the West believed at the time that the wily Vietnamese Communists had foreseen all this, but they didn’t. General Tran Do, one of the planners of Tet, later said: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South ... As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention — but it turned out to be a fortunate result.”
The lesson of Tet, incorporated into the doctrine of every insurgent movement on the planet and taught in every military staff college, is that Western troops fighting in “Third World” countries can win every battle with their superior technology, but they are terribly vulnerable on the political front.
The insurgents don’t have to win. They only have to show that they can go on fighting indefinitely, because the Western country involved always has the option of cutting its losses and bringing its troops home. The insurgents are not really going to “follow us home” (as President Bush occasionally argues), so sooner or later the option to withdraw will be exercised.
Something like the Tet offensive, even if it fails militarily, can be a catalyst for that kind of shift in opinion on the occupying power’s home front. So who in Iraq might be tempted to try a “Tet” offensive in this U.S. election year?
Not the Sunni Arabs who did most of the fighting against the U.S. occupation in 2003-07, for they have now been drawn into anti-al-Qaeda, anti-Shia militias that are backed and paid for by the U.S. They may turn on their paymasters again eventually, but not yet.
Not the traditional Shia religious parties that now dominate the Iraqi government, either. They already have most of what they want, and they still need American protection from their many enemies. Certainly not the Kurds, the one pro-American group in Iraq. But how about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, the largest militia in the country?
Iraq, with all its ethnic and sectarian divisions, lends itself far more readily to imperial policies of “divide and rule” than the homogeneous Vietnamese did, but al-Sadr embodies the aspirations and resentments of the poorer Shias, who probably account for almost half of the entire population. They are not persuaded that the current government shares their agenda, and they could be mobilized for revolt.
Al-Sadr will go on being marginalized by the conservative Shia establishment unless he can position himself as the patriot who defied the Americans while everybody else was playing along with them. His Mahdi army has observed a self-imposed cease-fire since last August, but he could break it at any time.
If the Mahdi army launched an Iraqi version of the Tet offensive, it would be defeated as badly as the Viet Cong were, but everybody who knows that history understands that military defeat can lead to political victory. The temptation is there, but al-Sadr won’t do it now. August or September, however, could be another matter entirely.•