Small Wars Journal

Prepare for "Tet"

Mon, 09/10/2007 - 4:14pm
By Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., USAF

What are the insurgents thinking as General David H. Petraeus prepares to testify about the state of the war in Iraq? If they are historically-minded, they are thinking about the 1968 Tet Offensive.

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.


Charlie Dunlap (not verified)

Wed, 09/12/2007 - 10:18pm

To all commentators: you guys are obviously right, and I was wrong. But I'm glad I turned out to be wrong on this. Thanks, CJD

Patrick (not verified)

Wed, 09/12/2007 - 4:18pm

I think MG Dunlap is reaching for a bridge too far. He might better have used the infamous "Blackhawk Down" fire fight as a fitting analogy with the exception that the current administration has not (and at this point does not need to )bought off on the "body bags = political defeat" notion that so crippled the Clinton administration.

This also is the problem with referring to the internecine warfare of Iraq as a Big "C" civil war. There are numerous sides, not two or even three. It leads to lazy analogies because having a single enemy is far easier to grasp than having a few hundred that, while not clearly against you, certainly hate you.

There is no enemy in Iraq that has the organizational or logistical skill to pull off even a mini-Tet. AQI may want to beat the drum harder, cause more US deaths, but I highly doubt they will be able to shift the current debate over Iraq anywhere other than where it already is.

Steve Blair

Wed, 09/12/2007 - 3:52pm

It is possible (though not probable) that the Iraqi insurgent groups could recreate some of the unrest in the US that resulted from Tet, but they lack the central command and planning apparatus that made Tet possible. They also lack the motivation (desire to achieve victory before many old guard revolutionaries in Hanoi died) that spurred Tet.

As sheepdog mentioned, there's also not the same level of outside support that made Tet possible. Weapons may be coming in from Iran and Syria, but it's not the same level as the flow down the Trail and coming in from Cambodia.

Finally, we have far fewer troops on the ground than we did in Vietnam. The potential for high casualties among US forces is much lower due to a lower concentration of troops to begin with. There is also not the "light at the end of the tunnel" message coming from Iraq. The media has been guarded and then skeptical for some time, not riding the bubble of administration spin and good feelings that they bought into before Tet.

I understand that the analogy is attractive, but the differences far outweigh the similarities (as is almost always the case when Vietnam and Iraq are compared...the only real similarities lie in certain institutional responses to the conflicts).

Bill Keller (not verified)

Mon, 09/10/2007 - 11:18pm

I am more concerned that we will not have created a national defense and internal security force within Iraq to sustain it during the decline of US forces deployed there. ARVN and the hollow army it became is more of a concern that a Tet potential within Iraqi society.

sheepdog (not verified)

Mon, 09/10/2007 - 7:46pm

there is little parallel with Tet except desire. The North Vietnamese wth their Chinese and Russian allies had plenty of capability to start, but not finish an offensive. If it were not for the nightly news, the New York Times and the Washington Post multiplier on the domestic political front, the whole thing would have been perceived as the military (but not press fueled political) disaster that it was.

The insurgents have a willing ally in Iran and, to a lesser extent the Arab states, but not the logistics support that the NVA and VC had in 1968. No trucks, no artillery, no outside troops.
Our ability to find large forces on the move is much more now than it was then.

I was there for Tet 1968. I was also there in 1971-72. The insurgency in the South was dead in the water by the end of 1971.
If not for massive Russian resupply (encouraged by the press and Kissinger State Dept) for the final armored attack phase in 1972-75 and our cowardly cutoff of supplies and money for the South, the country would have been at peace from late 1971 on.

The parllel in political and military capability does not exist. No Tet will happen.

Merv Benson

Mon, 09/10/2007 - 6:18pm

I think they may have shot their wad on the Yazidi massacre which did distort the August death toll. The current offensive in the Diyala valley area appears to have kept al Qaeda off balance. The enemy appears to have a shrinking capacity for mass murder of non combatants.

I also suspect that the Denmark and German plots were timed to coincide with events this week. Al Qaeda was able to execute a failed assassination attempt in Algeria which had high collateral damage, but all in all they appear to be on a real losing streak in kinetic operations.