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Forty Years of the Tet Offensive

By David Warren

Breaking the negotiated annual truce, for surprise, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars launched the Tet Offensive, in the night of 30/31 January 1968, named for the Vietnamese lunar new year. This campaign continued in various forms through September of that year, ending in total military defeat, for the aggressors. And a brilliant propaganda victory, for the same.

Thinking back on the Vietnam War this last week. And while I was doing so, a young leftist friend wrote to me, on an entirely unrelated topic, taunting with a remark about 2008 being, "The last year of the American Empire" -- as if it started and ended with George W. Bush. He does not seem interested in the question: By whose Empire will that vacuum be filled?

My friend does not even think of himself as a leftist, only as a person with an "open mind." We agree on that, but define "open" differently, for to my mind, a skull without a brain inside is completely open. The more brain, or more precisely, the more brain used, the more resistance it can offer to the importation of nonsense.

Forty years have now gone by, which one might figuratively characterize as the forty years of the Tet Offensive, against Western Civ. The West has done fairly well in the field: we have still not lost a purely military encounter with any of the enemies of the West. Going back farther, the French didn't even lose their battles in Algeria. Rather, Charles de Gaulle decided they were not worth fighting.

The Tet Offensive was a desperate ploy by the Communist enemy in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of his troops were flung simultaneously at more than 100 South Vietnamese towns, and into the heart of Saigon. The Communists announced a general uprising, but that did not occur. The tide was actually turned within a few days by the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies. As they re-took town after town, they discovered massacres the Communists had committed while in possession. The enemy's real object had been to decapitate a whole society.

My friend, Uwe Siemon-Netto, a German Lutheran pastor and also life-long journalist, was there as a reporter. Entering Hué as the smoke was clearing: "I made my way to university apartments to obtain news about friends of mine, German professors at the medical school. I learned that their names had been on lists containing some 1,800 Hué residents singled out for liquidation.

"Six weeks later the bodies of doctors Alois Altekoester, Raimund Discher, Horst-Guenther Krainick, and Krainick's wife, Elisabeth, were found in shallow graves they had been made to dig for themselves.

"Then, enormous mass graves of women and children were found. Most had been clubbed to death, some buried alive; you could tell from the beautifully manicured hands of women who had tried to claw out of their burial place.

"As we stood at one such site, Washington Post correspondent Peter Braestrup asked an American TV cameraman, 'Why don't you film this?' He answered, 'I am not here to spread anti-communist propaganda'."

The Tet Offensive ended not only in a huge allied victory in the field -- some 45,000 of the Communist soldiers had been killed, and their infrastructure destroyed. It was victory after an event that showed sceptical South Vietnamese, and should have shown the world, the nature of the enemy our allies were fighting.

Walter Cronkite, the famous news anchor of CBS, led the American media reaction. After a very brief visit to Saigon, in which he got himself filmed wearing flak jackets, he returned to the United States, declaring before his huge prime time audience:

"It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honourable people who have lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

The media turned a tremendous victory into a tremendous defeat. Yet seven more years would pass until an America, which had by then abandoned Vietnam, and a Congress, which had cut off military supplies to the South Vietnamese, watched the helicopters removing America's last faithful servants from a roof in Saigon's old embassy compound. The South Vietnamese Army had surrendered, to another Tet Offensive, as it ran out of ammunition.

We have seen this "Vietnam syndrome" writ large, through the intervening years. We see it today in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Romans, too, had a facility for winning ground battles.

© Ottawa Citizen

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