By Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., USAF
As those of a certain age recall, Tet involved scores of near-simultaneous surprise attacks across South Vietnam by thousands of Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese troops. As was played out on television screens across America, some of the fighters even penetrated to the U.S. Embassy grounds for a few hours leading to desperate fighting by American troops.
Even more vicious and extended was the fighting that occurred at Hue, the majestic Vietnamese city that suffered enormous damage before the insurgents finally were expelled. Of particular note are the thousands of South Vietnamese officials and anti Communists who were massacred by the Viet Cong during the weeks it took to bring the city back under control.
Ironically, Tet today is understood a victory for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Not only did the mass uprising North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap hoped to catalyze never occur, but the losses among the attackers were enormous - as many as 45,000 killed as opposed to the 4,300 casualties the U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries suffered. Never again would the Viet Cong field forces of similar strength. When South Vietnam finally collapsed in 1975, it was under the weight of North Vietnamese armored divisions, not the black pajama-clad South Vietnamese Viet Cong.
Yet to the entire world, and especially to the U.S. public, Tet was a symbol of American failure. The very idea that so many strikes could be launched was perceived as the equivalent of actual military success. Never mind that in the end counterinsurgency forces virtually annihilated the attackers.
Tet became a turning point in the war. Perceptions about it negated all the positive reports of progress in South Vietnam, and set the course for the U.S.'s withdrawal and the establishment of the Communist regime that still clings to power. Tet may have been a technical military defeat for the Communists, but psychologically it was their most important triumph of the war.
What does all this mean for Iraq? Iraqi insurgents do not have the capability or support to launch attacks of the same intensity or scope of those of Tet. However, they do have a cadre of suicide bombers, advanced IED technology, and plenty of mortars and missiles to create a series of very deadly incidents. What is more is that they have a sophisticated public relations operation that can hype an event of any dimension into something of vast strategic import.
In other words, we must be prepared for the enemy to make a maximum effort to conduct a series of savage attacks and to cause as many casualties as they can during General Petraeus' testimony. We should expect that U.S. troops, in particular, will be the target. Obviously, U.S. losses have the greatest potential to overshadow whatever Petraeus may have to say.
In short, it is virtually certain that the enemy will attempt to manipulate America public opinion at this crucial juncture. This is not a particularly new phenomenon, but the timing has never been more critical.
Regardless of what one may think the right answer for Iraq may be, it is vitally important that such decisions be made in an objective manner. They should be the product of a rational analysis of the merits of the military situation, as well as long-term American interests. What they should not be based upon is overheated perceptions orchestrated by enemy brutality.
Charles Dunlap is an active duty Air Force Major General. These are his personal views.