Tet Again

July 15, 2003

Trevor Matich


Saying:  Those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it.

Better Saying:  Those who don't know history are more easily misled by dishonest politicians.

Corollary to Better Saying:  Politicians ignoring history can get American troops killed.

Upon us are interesting times.  Americans are dying in Iraq, war looms in Korea, and the destructive potential of terrorism has reached unthinkable levels.

It is noteworthy, then, that some national politicians are behaving in ways that play directly into the strategy of our enemies.  It may be that they are ignorant of the effects of their actions; I hope so, because the alternative is that they understand the strategy of our enemies and are proactively encouraging it for partisan political purposes.  Either way, the effect is the same.

Victory in war is based on destroying what Clausewitz described as the enemy's "center of gravity."  Sometimes it would be based on geography -- capture the enemy's castle or capital and you win the war.  Sometimes it has been the enemy military force itself -- defeat the enemy's army, and he will be unable to continue the fight.

Today's American military is virtually undefeatable in the field.  Therefore, to our enemies, our strategic center of gravity  is neither our geography nor our fighting forces; it is the will of our political leadership to continue to fight in the face of popular discontent.  

Throughout history, lower-tier forces have achieved strategic victory over more powerful adversaries with tactics that target political will.  Victory can thereby be accomplished without decisively defeating the more powerful enemy forces in the field.  

We ignore this lesson at our peril.

One example is the American Revolution.  George Washington knew that he could not consistently defeat the British in major, set-piece battles.  Washington tried to do just that in the Battle of Long Island, with disastrous results.  From then on, his strategy was to attack the will of the British political leadership -- the enemy's center of gravity -- by prolonging the war.  

In contrast, the American center of gravity was Washington's army itself.  As long as the Continentals were in the field, the war would continue to bleed the British people of their treasure and their sons.  

This is why Valley Forge was as decisive as any battle;  by keeping the tiny core of his army together through that terrible winter, Washington kept the American center of gravity intact.  

Five years after the Battle of Long Island, Washington captured Cornwallis' relatively small command at Yorktown.  Although losing those 7,500 men was a setback, the British Army was still the most powerful force in the Americas.  And yet, this victory was the tipping point of the entire war, and led to the independence of the Colonies.  

The key to the American victory was not that they had defeated overall British military capability;  they hadn't.  The key was that they had defeated the will of the British people to continue the conflict.  Englishmen were sick and tired of this draining war;  the setback at Yorktown was the last straw that caused them to accept peace on the Americans' terms.  

It is interesting that almost two centuries later the Vietnamese Communists studied and applied the lessons of George Washington's victory over the militarily superior British to defeat the militarily superior USA.

The American center of gravity in Vietnam was the will of its leaders to accept the political consequences of the never-ending flow of casualties.

For example, the overall Communist strategy of the Tet Offensive of 1968 was not to achieve final victory over the American and South Vietnamese forces; it was to create the impression among the American people that the war couldn't be won, and that it would be pointless to continue.

Tactically, the Tet Offensive was a disastrous defeat for the Communists.  The Viet Cong was so decimated that it had to receive a massive infusion of North Vietnamese Army troops to continue as a credible military force; some units became as much as 70% NVA.  

Yet on a strategic level, Tet was a smashing success for the Communists.  American television screens showed images of the horrors of war -- an ugly picture regardless of who is winning.  

In spite of the facts on the ground, the predominant analysis of American commentators and politicians was that Tet was a huge American setback.  This had the exact effect that the Communists wanted -- they had their eyes on our media and our politicians at all times.  In an historic speech following Tet, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection, and that his priority would be to ease America out of the war.

In his excellent book After Tet, historian Ronald H. Spector says:  "Some active opponents of the war experienced jubilation...Now the war would end...Of one thing everyone was sure, a great turning point had been reached.  A British journalist visiting the United States a few months after LBJ's speech was struck by the way in which...

'the rancorous, near hysterical atmosphere of the Tet Offensive has been entirely transformed since the President's speech....People outside politics are not arguing much about the war at present....Most of them appear to believe that whoever captures the presidency...will be obliged to end the conflict within a matter of months.  How this is to be done or what concessions are to be made is very much a matter of detail.'

It was this matter of detail which was to prolong the war for the next four and a half years..."

Note that the end of American involvement was the Communists' strategic goal; the Communists' tactical defeat during Tet was a strategic victory.  They set their tactical plans with an eye to American media coverage, which in turn influenced American politicians, which in turn influenced America's military in a way that the Communist military forces couldn't.

Regardless of whether you think the Vietnam war was a wasteful, dark chapter in American history (which I do), the lesson is that a lower-tier military can achieve strategic victory over a superior military not by defeating the superior force in the field, but by defeating the will of the people and the politicians who control that force.  

George Washington did it to King George; Ho Chi Minh did it to Lyndon Johnson.

And in Somalia, Mohammed Adid did it to Bill Clinton.  In Mogadishu in 1993, 19 American servicemen were killed in a botched snatch-and-grab of Somali warlords loyal to Adid.  Upon seeing television images of dead American soldiers, the President and Congress immediately pulled our troops out.

According to Brian Steed in his book Armed Conflict:  The Lessons of Modern  Warfare:  "...the understanding of the Somali warlords was to inflict harm on U.S. and U.N. forces and create a political pain level sufficient to force a withdrawal."

At the same time that America's military has become virtually invincible, our politicians have become extremely averse to casualties.  The lesson for our enemies:  Bloody the Americans a little bit and they will run away;  politicians haven't the stomach for a fight if it will cost a few votes.  Osama bin Laden took notice.  He specifically noted our retreat from Somalia as evidence that we were a paper tiger.

We see the same strategy playing out in Iraq.  Saddam's military had no chance to defeat our forces in the field.  So now elements loyal to his regime target American troops for murder, one a day, trickling on, a never-ending news story.  

This is militarily insignificant.  But it cuts to the bone of the true American center of gravity.

Terrorist leaders stay with a course of action when they see it working.  In the recent past, generating a steady stream of casualties has proven the best way to get the Americans to go home.  It has worked nearly every time it's been tried, which encourages the terrorists to continue.  

This is why President Bush, when asked how he felt about the continued attacks by Saddam loyalists in Iraq, said "Bring 'em on!"  It wasn't the meaningless utterance of a clueless cowboy, as his political opponents would have us believe.  It was a calculated message to those who have directly targeted his will to continue.  It made it starkly clear that the tide has turned, and that we will no longer shrink from a fight when we get hit.

This is a critical turning point in American political leadership.  Although every American battle death is a tragedy, we encourage future attacks when we retreat in the face of militarily insignificant casualties.  By standing like a stone wall (nod to General Jackson intended), President Bush has drawn a line in cement, serving notice to our enemies that our center of gravity is no longer the formerly weak resolve of politicians. 

After the 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, Congress insisted that we pull our forces out.  The message to the terrorists was that if they hit us in the nose, we would cry and run home.  President Reagan warned that that would only cost more lives in the future, as terrorists would continue with what to them was a successful tactic.  President Reagan was right.

Thank goodness President Bush took heed of that lesson.  It is costing lives now.  But the message to terrorists is that if they hit us, they will be crushed.  That will save lives in the future.

So when you hear the John Kerrys and Howard Deans of the country scream bloody murder and demand that President Bush be replaced or impeached seemingly every time a terrorist attacks an American soldier, look at it from our enemies' point of view:  That is exactly the response they hope for.  Like Ho Chi Minh and Mohammed Adid, today's enemies are hoping to "create a political pain level sufficient to force a withdrawal."

Every time they kill a soldier, terrorists turn on CNN to see if that murder becomes a rallying point for the enemies of the terrorists' enemy, George W. Bush.

Note an example of how it should be done:  Almost everyone agrees that President Jimmy Carter's handling of the 444-day Iran hostage crisis was less than stellar.  Even so, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan refused to undermine Carter's authority in the heat of the standoff by publicly criticizing him in order to gain advantage in the 1980 election campaign.  

It is legitimate to question our government's policies, even in wartime.  The policies of a sitting president are fair game for challenge in an election cycle, even in wartime.  But lives are on the line; it must be done in such a way as to show a united national will to finish the job, with only the means open for debate.  What we are hearing from some of President Bush's domestic political enemies is something altogether different.

When you hear the hew and cry of those people, ask yourself if their tone and content edify our commitment to a successful long-term result in Iraq, or if their tone and content make our mortal enemies smile with delight that their attack on our center of gravity is having the desired effect.

You don't tug on Superman's cape.  At least, not anymore you don't.




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