When President Bush said that there might be some parallels between the Iraq and Vietnam wars, you would think he had declared unilateral surrender, judging from the press reaction. He mildly agreed with Thomas Friedman’s assertion that the recent uptick in violence in Iraq (during Ramadan, note) could be the “jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive,” and the frenzy began. It may have been a first for the President, but the Tet analogy is nothing new. Arthur Schlesinger touted Tet with reference to Fallujah in 2004. I first started debunking Tet comparisons back in 2003, during an earlier spate of Ramdan-related violence. For all the Tet talk, we have yet to see anything remotely like it.
It is not a very good analogy, even with the qualifier “jihadist equivalent,” which is not setting the bar very high. Take for example the respective levels of violence. There were 73 US dead in Iraq for the first three weeks of October, 2006. The average number killed during three weeks in 1968 in Vietnam was 957, over thirteen times higher. As well, a simple uptick in indiscriminate violence is hardly something on the level of Tet, which was a comprehensive, three-phased plan to foment mass uprisings in South Vietnam as prelude to a conventional invasion. The planning a preparation for the attack took at least nine months. It was executed nearly simultaneously in cities and hamlets across the country. And even though it was a failure, the insurgents in Iraq have shown none of the strategic or operational acumen of our enemies in the 1960s.
But they really do not need to since the North Vietnamese already did the work for them. The most important difference between Tet and any similar (or dissimilar) situation today is that the insurgents in Iraq know what the North Vietnamese did not know, at least at first — they do not have to actually win a battle to achieve a strategic victory.
The reaction to the president’s statement is a case in point. The insurgents do not have to conduct a series of coordinated major operations, they only need to create enough chaos to harness the power of analogy. They do not have to mount major attacks, but just seem to mount them. So long as there are journalists willing to make the comparison to other, more significant battles of the past, the insurgents achieve victory by association.
The terrorists have long studied how our media operates. Check out an August 2006 jihadist chat room post by Najd al-Rawi of the Global Islamic Media Front entitled “The Global Media: A Work Paper for Invading the US Media.” Ironically, among the people the insurgents seek to influence, al-Rawi lists “well-known American writers such as [Thomas] Friedman.” I am not saying Friedman is complicit in some kind of terror plot; I am saying the terrorists know how writers generate story lines, and they seek to provide the hooks.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t always work. Recently an insurgent group release a video of (they claimed) the bodies of American servicemen being dragged through the streets. Shades of Mogadishu 1994? It was clearly an attempt to evoke that event and the withdrawal that followed, but the manipulation was a little too obvious and it did not catch on. Another and more fitting attempt at engaging the media’s propensity for seeking Vietnam analogies was the planned attack last spring on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. (See my original piece on it here . ) Nothing would get the Tet comparison going better than an embassy attack, since during the actual Tet offensive the poorly planned, ineffectively executed and quickly dispatched strike on the Saigon embassy was immediately dubbed a “symbolic victory” for the enemy by the American media. A similar attack in Baghdad would also not have to achieve anything to enjoy the same decisive status.
Analogies are exercises in perception management, they have nothing to do with the actual course of the insurgency or the facts on the ground. The press is reacting so fervidly to the president’s statement because they have been pushing the Vietnam analogy all along, with its connotations of “quagmire” and defeat. To say that the president “admits” that there are parallels to Vietnam is hardly news. Both conflicts are revolutionary insurgencies, and most irregular or unconventional wars are similar at that level of generality. However, while one can draw parallels in some respects, in the most significant respect one cannot. There is no North Vietnam, no PAVN, and no chance of an escalation to conventional warfare under current conditions. The enemy force that came crashing through the gates of our Embassy in Saigon was not a guerilla army wearing black pajamas, but a conventional force riding Soviet tanks. The war in Iraq cannot be lost that way. But perhaps it can another way.
If you want a good Vietnam analogy, look to electoral politics. The 1974 midterm congressional elections demonstrated the power of the left wing of the Democratic party as antiwar congressional candidates swept into power. The Democrats, already in the majority, took 43 Republican seats, some of them in solid GOP districts. One of the last acts of the emboldened 93rd Congress was the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, which cut aid to South Vietnam and left the Paris peace agreement unenforceable. The House passed the bill after Senate action on December 11, 1974. Exactly one week later, North Vietnamese leaders convened in Hanoi to formulate their final attack plan. By the end of April, 1975, South Vietnam was in its death throes, and the last evacuees were being lifted off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon.
If the Democrats take one or both houses of Congress this election, putatively riding a wave of anti-war fervor, very little funding for the conflict in Iraq will survive. We may yet again see Americans being choppered to safety as another former ally is abandoned, to insurgents, to foreign intervention, or a combination of both. If you want analogies, look to ’74, not ’68. Tet was a victory, won by American arms. Six years later we lost the war by a stroke of the pen.
– James S. Robbins is author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point , and is currently writing a book on the Tet Offensive.