- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003

The downing of a Chinook helicopter and the rash of suicide bombings in Iraq at the start of Ramadan raises the specter of Vietnam, and especially the Tet offensive. President Bush’s critics argue these acts demonstrate the need for profound change in U. S. policy and stewardship of the war effort.

The events recall the shattering impact of the Tet offensive on public confidence in the conduct of the Vietnam War and the subsequent resignations of President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Far from justifying a precipitous change in policy, however, the real lesson of Tet teaches the need for steadfast leadership to finish the victory in Iraq. Failure cannot be an option lest we ensure that the Americans who have lost their lives died in vain.

The parallels between Tet and Iraq are actually remote. In Iraq (and Afghanistan), the U.S. decisively won the tactical war and the odds of a major offensive in the style and scope of Tet, by the terrorists and the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime, are small. To characterize the loss of the Chinook and the Ramadan bombings, or the recent skirmishes in Afghanistan, as having a military significance other than terrorism is irresponsible. But implicit in the references to Tet by the war’s critics, lies the hope American domestic support will evaporate with another round of deaths. This is a dangerous hope.

The panic and loss of support for the Vietnam War swept away the broken pieces of the Johnson-McNamara strategy and left nothing in their place but five years of agonizing withdrawal and the sense 58,202 Americans died in vain.

The Tet offensive is vivid in American memory. On Jan. 30, 1968, nearly 70,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars began a surprise offensive against South Vietnam at the outset of the Tet lunar holiday. They hit 13 of the 16 provincial capitals in the Mekong Delta and captured scores of district administrative towns, as well as more than a hundred other cities and towns across South Vietnam. In the northern part of South Vietnam, two divisions of North Vietnamese regulars assaulted the U.S. Marine firebase at Khe San and aided in the capture of Hue, which, like all the other towns captured, they could not hold.

Americans watched their television screens with horror and disbelief as U.S. troops fought pitched battles across Vietnam and within the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon. Walter Cronkite, the nation’s foremost television newscaster, spoke for many when he demanded: “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war.”

On March 31, after two months of indecision and while the battle for Khe Sanh was still raging, a somber Lyndon Johnson appeared on a national telecast announcing he would not seek re-election. Robert McNamara resigned soon after. Tet was a spectacular battlefield defeat of the communists, but a public-relations triumph. American strategy shifted dramatically toward finding an exit strategy. The war dragged on for another five years before it ended with the Paris peace accords and 58,202 American deaths.

The facts of the Tet offensive are not always clearly understood. American and South Vietnamese casualties in the Tet offensive numbered 4,300 killed, 16,000 wounded and 1,000 missing. According to estimates by North Vietnam, as reported by Agence France Presse, communist forces suffered 45,000 killed and 7,000 captured — a ratio of about 10 to 1. Tet’s impact on the North Vietnamese ability to conduct subsequent operations was severe. The communists could not hold any territory taken during Tet.

In Iraq, the war has been decisively won, but terrorism prevents peace. The Bush critics must by wary of getting what they wish for, unless they have a coherent strategy for winning the peace. They talk longingly of multilateral efforts, ignoring the history of failed U.N. nation-building in Somalia, Serbia and elsewhere. Wesley Clark wants to turn over Iraqi civilian administration to the United Nations. Unfortunately for him, the U.N. is packing its bags. Much to the fury of his critics, President Bush, unlike his predecessor in Vietnam, has demonstrated his ability to stay the course.

Alexander Frank is a senior at Washington International School. This essay is based on his senior research project, a requirement for his high-school diploma.

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