All in on Tet

A very pro American Australian friend showed me a copy of the book Why Do People Hate America by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies. Leafing through it I came across a reference to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as “right wing” . Actually I’m pretty sure it was “far right wing”. To make matters even more humorous my friend had gotten hold of the book at her local church. The parish was touting a special collection of books for free loan including the above gem to promote understanding. I include this little anecdote for my American readers who may not understand the degree to which anti Americanism is simply an automatic response in some of the mildest of folks out here beyond the borders of the US in what I like to think of as ‘Outer California.’

But back to that right wing commentator, Thomas Friedman. Unfortunately anything he says is behind the Times Select firewall so we have to depend on hearsay to find out what he is saying. However, unless he has entirely changed his politics since the advent of Times Select he is still a middle of the road American Liberal. Certainly to the Left of Joe Lieberman on the war – perhaps about where Hillary is, the last time we heard him in public. Anyhow rumor has it that he wrote a column in which he compared the current situation in Iraq to the Tet offensive in the Vietnam war. We are pretty sure of this because George Stephanopoulos asked President Bush about it and George responded that “He could be right.” clearly referring to Friedman. That’s good enough for me – if both of George S and George W say he said it, then he said it.

I find that humorous too because of what I wrote here last March about the press and the Tet meme.

…the point I want to make in this post is that these reporters are not interested in the actual military events in Iraq and any progress or lack of it. They are looking for events that fit a predetermined plot or story line. So this story does not follow the actual ongoing military story in Iraq but instead follows the Vietnam story line. As someone who lived through the Vietnam war and followed it quite closely through the media, I remember clearly that 1968 Tet offensive was a turning point. As military historians are quick to point out it was not a defeat for the US. The US defenses held and the Viet Cong – the South Vietnamese guerilla army – exhausted themselves. But thats not the way it played in the media and I don’t entirely blame the media even in retrospect.

Up to Tet, the US military and the Government in general had painted a picture such that there should have been no Tet offensive possible. When it came, it seemed to give the lie to everything the government and military had been saying. I can remember my own disappointment that the Viet Cong were capable of such an offensive and my anger at what we had been told. After Tet, skepticism and cynicism prevailed. Everything the government and the military said was regarded as false and in denial of the reality on the ground. They no longer got the benefit of the doubt; they got doubt and disbelief. The 5 PM military briefing became the Five O’clock Follies among a press corps that felt driven to cynicism. The problem today is that the military and the government are still being seen through the lens of that cynicism even though they have changed the way they deal with the press. For anyone interested there is plenty of information about the actual military strategy behind the ongoing series of counter insurgency operations in Iraq and how they are faring – and there is plenty of real news good and bad.

Tigerhawk has an excellent post ‘deconstructing’ the Stephanopoulos incident’ in far more detail than I want to go into here. Here is the key point:

Tet, however, was not a military disaster for the United States. Quite to the contrary, history has revealed that the Tet offensive was in fact a crushing defeat for the Viet Cong, and effectively required that the Communists conquer the South by invasion from the North, rather than by civil insurgency. The Viet Cong were only able to turn a military disaster into strategic victory by persuading the American media that the United States was mired in stalemate. With the domestic political support for the war fading fast, the United States decided to withdraw from Indochina, even though it would take Nixon and Kissinger another four years to accomplish it.

So what we have here is the Tet meme supersized for the mid term elections. Even columnists like Friedman who usually are too sophisticated to talk in pure meme (the source of the unsophisticated left’s perception of Friedman as far right wing I suspect) are piling on. What I see going on here is a Tet type incident for the anti war western media, not the US government and military. By constantly painting Iraq as a quagmire and declaring that any increase in enemy activity is a Tet like tipping point they are destroying their credibility – just like the US government and military did in Vietnam. They keep having to up the ante making more and more outlandish claims. Just for perspective here are the causality figures from the real Tet offensive from Wikipedia:

In total, the United States estimated that 45,000 Viet Cong and PAVN soldiers were killed, though this figure may be significantly lower due to the nature of overclaims. About 6,000 were captured, with the number of wounded being unclear. The USA, ARVN, and allied Australian and South Korean forces suffered 4,324 killed, 16,063 wounded, and 598 missing.

The last time I saw a figure for October a couple of days ago, the coalition killed in action was under 100, but a heavier than usual month so far. In other words, business as usual in Iraq and an order of magnitude or two below the Tet figures. The recent Lancet study on Iraqi deaths since the beginning of the war in 2003 figures uses the same tactic of upping the exaggeration to try to make the meme come true. Before the 2004 election they released a study that claimed about 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq. Closer inspection revealed the mathematical level of confidence for the study meant that the actual figure could vary from below 10,000 to nearly 200,000 – so that the middle figure of about 100,000 could be released. This election they have come up with a figure of over 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq due to the war. Iraq Body Count is a single purpose site devoted to, well, counting bodies in Iraq and forthrightly anti war. It believes that slightly under 50,000 Iraqis have been killed in the war – an order of magnitude less that the Lancet study. They deconstruct the Lancet study here.

What is going on here is bluffing – just like in Texas Hold’em. When you have a weak hand you don’t just raise your opponent – you go all in. That is what the media and their anti war allies like the Lancet are doing. Here is the last chance to defeat Bush and the US and they are throwing everything they have at it.

Just for balance I want to reiterate that I think the worst problem in Iraq right now is that a good chunk of the enemies of democracy in Iraq are part of the democratically elected government. That problem includes both Shiite and Sunni elements. This problem is the result of having truly democratic elections and trying to subsume everyone into the political process – even though they are dedicated to a totalitarian solution. That is a horrendous problem indeed and the outcome far from clear. It bears absolutely no resemblance to Vietnam or Tet.

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