Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tet Offensive and counterinsurgency wars

Richard Falk writes at Al Jazeera English on The Tet Offensive's parallels to Afghanistan 08/23/2011.

One of the fundamental myths of our current military interventionism is that the military actually won the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive of 1968 represented yet another glorious victory for our invincible generals. And the only reason that North Vietnam eventually won the war was that the gutless politicians and dirty hippies cut off funds to our brave allies and let the Commies win. There are more sophisticated versions. But they come to the same thing.

We can at least hope that time will eventually wear away even the most deeply-rooted historical analogies. But "time" needs all the help it can get in this case. As Falk points out, the tale is superficially true. In military terms, both the North Vietnamese and the Americans saw it rightly as a victory for the US-South Vietnam side. The purpose of the Tet Offensive was to promote a popular uprising in the South which did not occur.

But it wrecked the political support for the war in the United States, something neither the US nor the North Vietnamese had intended or anticipated. Why? Because our magnificent generals and the Johnson Administration had been telling the American public over and over and over that everything was going wonderfully in the war. Falk:

But what made these US casualties so important was not the loss of life. What made these death so deeply disturbing was their unsettling impact on both backers and opponents of the war in Washington, the backers because their belief that victory was at hand was shattered and the critics because the lies emanating from Washington had been finally exposed.

If General Westmoreland was not deceived or lying, the American casualties sustained during the Tet Offensive could not have happened given the supposed decimation of the Vietnamese enemy. If these expectations of an imminent victory had not been discredited by the Tet Offensive, the dramatic event would have been coolly diagnosed as a desperate lost gamble by the Vietnamese, and rather than turning attention to an exit strategy would have led to an intensified effort to achieve total victory on behalf of the Vietnamese regime in Saigon that had welcomed the American intervention. [my emphasis]
There are two levels of important narrative here. One is the narrative of the loss of political support for the Vietnam War and the reasons for it. Falk's description in that regard is sound. Obviously, it's an analysis and judgment on a set of facts.

The triumphalist narrative agrees on the basic series of events: technical military victory for the US side in the Tet Offensive, a decisive drop in political support for the war in US public opinion. But the triumphalist version blames it on the cowardice of the public and the Congress, who weren't worthy of the victorious generals. In this narrative, the fact that the generals destroyed their own credibility by lying to civilian officials and the public, and that the Johnson Administration wrecked its credibility in turn in the same way, is either conveniently ignored or somehow justified.

Falk's narrative just makes more historical sense. And he makes a plausible counterfactual speculation in saying that without the lies, for the general public "the dramatic event would have been coolly diagnosed as a desperate lost gamble by the Vietnamese and rather than turning attention to an exit strategy would have led to an intensified effort to achieve total victory on behalf of the Vietnamese regime in Saigon that had welcomed the American intervention."

The second level of narrative would assume this counterfactual and ask whether further support for the war would have been a good idea. And here the counterfactual starts to break down. Because the over-estimation of American power in that situation and the corresponding under-estimation of the nationalist potential of the Vietnamese Communists had always been part of the justification for escalation. President Kennedy had lost faith in those optimistic estimates in the months before he was killed. But Johnson was willing to accept them to the point of military and political catastrophe. If military and civilian officials had been telling the public the truth all along, public support for the war would almost surely have been far lower than it was at the beginning of 1968.

As a question of managing public opinion in the more technical sense, there was a better lesson to learn than the predominant one that the Pentagon took from that experience: that they had to be more effective in deceiving the public and managing the press.

And the current US counterinsurgency faith is based on the deeply flawed triumphalist narrative. As Falk explains:

To this day, counterinsurgency professionals in Washington think tanks and the Pentagon contend that the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This distorted reading of history partly explains why US policymakers have failed (and refused) to learn the defining lesson of the Vietnam War: the virtual impossibility in the early 21st century of turning military superiority on the battlefield enjoyed by an intervening party into a favourable political outcome against an adversary that effectively occupies the commanding heights of national self-determination. That is, in this century, the symbols of legitimacy count in the end for more than drone technology and the weaponry of destruction.

This US and NATO learning disability has led directly to subsequent failed interventions, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Military superiority succumbs over time to the strong historical tides of the past seven decades favouring the forces aligned with the politics of self-determination. Among other explanations for this conclusion that cuts against the grain of political realism is this: the intervening side gets tired of an unresolved struggle long before fatigue sets in for the side defending national territory. An Afghan aphorism expresses this insight: "You've got the watches, we've got the time." Since 1945, nationalist endurance consistently outlasts and outwits geopolitical endurance, and by so doing eventually offsets the asymmetries of military capabilities. [my emphasis in bold]
Realistically, it's probably too early to declare the Libya intervention failed. But from all appearances, it's a long way from over.

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