Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Tets Out For The Lads

One of the classic topics that is almost guarenteed to get people butting heads is that of the Tet Offensive and in its small way the exchange seen here is quite representative.

In fact, there is much wrong with the common interpretation of the results of the Tet Offensive - namely that the operation was an American victory and that defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by aggressively anti-war liberal broadcast and print media.

In fact there's rather more to it than that and, while the conduct of sections of the various news media is open to question (I am far from entirely comfortable with Walter Cronkite's editorialising from that time), other factors are as or more important.

Crying Wolf

The key factor is erosion of trust - a long term process that took place at numerous levels:

First, it is important to note that, with notable exceptions such as John Pilger who has spent much of the past four decades nuzzling appreciatively at the Vietnamese regime's clammy, bepimpled buttocks like a pig in search of truffles, most representatives of the press came to Vietnam with open minds and a committment to the facts. Scepticism largely became ingrained official when briefings from MACV demonstrated an unreal, Walter Mitty quality, frequently containing demonstrable untruths and contrasting wildly not only with the evidence seen by journalists' own eyes but with briefings given to journalists by American military advisers stationed with South Vietnamese units and among the Vietnamese population and by members of the BRIAM (British Advisory Mission). By the time of Tet, trust had broken down, all reports from the top were being taken with a huge grain of salt and the entire apparatus for press briefings was seen - not without justification - as thoroughly tainted. To heap blame exclusively on the heads of the press assumes that the military high command and the US government had been acting in good faith during the preceding years - this was not, sadly, the case.

As important as any breakdown in trust between the public and the government or the press and the armed forces, Tet resulted in an enormous rift between the government and MACV. MACV's optimistic briefings had not merely been directed at the press, but at the government back in Washington as well. A debate can be had over whether this was the fault of MACV due to careerism and detatchment from reality or of the LBJ administration for creating an environment in which it was near impossible to speak truth unto power, but nevertheless this was the situation. Shortly prior to Tet, the US administration had received breezy assurances that the back of the opposition had been broken and that the existence of hostile forces in the South was minimal. Tet may or may not have broken the back of the VC, but the point is that according to MACV's briefings prior to the operation, the forces that took part in the Tet Offensive did not exist in the first place. This took already deteriorating civil-miltary relations to a new low as the credibility of the US command in the eyes of America's civilian leadership, already rickety, crumbled. Everything that the brass hats had been telling the frock coats appeared - on the face of it - to have been either a fabrication or a fantasy.

This, then was the state of affairs when the Army declared Tet a victory. The Army, which had given repeated assurances of success in the past, all of which had proven illusory and many of which had been accompanied by pleas for manpower escalation to finish the job, then proceeded to ask for a manpower escalation to finish the job - a manpower escalation that would have required an extensive further mobilisation to fulfill. Even in the best of scenarios, the situation in Vietnam increasingly represented a painful rupture between ends and means (a topic that deserves further discussion but which is beyond the scope of this present post). On top of this, the fact that the high command was perceived as continuing to sing from the same old discredited hymn book was catastrophic. We may argue that the US administration's incredulity in the face of this was misplaced, but it is nontheless understandable that they reacted badly. What we are essentially presented with is a case of the boy that cried wolf writ large. It is entirely understandable that soldiers who fought in Vietnam, by and large honourably and well for a decent cause, feel ill used and disillusioned at the way their exertions appear to have been rewarded, but those in search of an explanation need to look closer to home than simply the media, including to their superiors in uniform.

The point of this is not to make a value judgement regarding the conduct of the press in the wake of Tet. It is to highlight that a) the outcome of the Tet Offensive rested on numerous factors and that b) if the press (or elements of it) to all intents and purposes went rogue, the Johnson administration and the US Army itself fostered an environment that made this almost inevitable. The fact of the matter is that by the time of Tet, what goodwill and trust had existed had been frittered away many times over and this breakdown in trust manifested itself at almost every level (civil-military, press-army, junior officer-staff, civilian population-government etc etc), most of which had only a tangential connection with Walter Cronkite and his merry band at best. Failure in this case was most definitly not an orphan, no matter how much it may comfort some to pretend that it was.

2 Comments:

Blogger Roberto Iza Valdes said...

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9:13 PM  
Blogger Roberto Iza Valdes said...

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10:54 PM  

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