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Tet II: An American Recessional?
by Christopher J. Barr
23 October 2003

The left spun the Viet Cong defeat in Tet as a Viet Cong victory -- and lost us a war on the periphery. It may be happening again in Iraq. 


Twenty-eight years ago Saigon fell to the Communists. Although American troops had withdrawn years before, this is credited as the first real American defeat. It traumatized the nation for generations.

South Vietnam actually had managed to hold on by itself for quite a while after being abandoned -- relying on the U.S. primarily for fuel and ammunition. So American Leftists in Congress, exploiting administration weakness after Watergate, set up the coup de grace. They cut off even that limited aid. No more fuel; no more bullets. The North Vietnamese Army launched a general offensive. There was no doubt about the eventual outcome.

As the end neared, I holed up in my apartment, staring at the television screen in horror. Weeping. Raging. Swearing vengeance. Calling the South Vietnamese Consulate to volunteer. And listening to Elgar’s First Symphony -- over and over until the record would no longer play. The great prologue in the first movement became, in my mind, an American Recessional. It was years before I could hear the piece again.

South Vietnamese tanks soon ran out of fuel and stopped. Soldiers dug in and fought where they stood. Then ammunition ran short. They retreated. Then, without hope, broke and ran. It became a rout as desperate soldiers, no longer able to fight, ran home to save their families.

And in America, land of the free and home of the brave, the journalists and politicians who had done this to our former comrades-in-arms -- who had first abandoned them and then effectively disarmed them -- scoffed. Pointed at the horrible spectacle and chortled. “Look at those worthless people run away! They can’t even defend themselves! They deserve to lose! They were never worthy of our help!”

I was ashamed.

I recalled something I had seen six years earlier while fighting in that war. My ship was stationed off North Vietnam. We did shore bombardment and dueled with enemy shore batteries. One night we saw tracers quite close to the coastline -- evidence of a pitched battle there. We went in to suppress the enemy fire. In the morning a boat approached us. Our Captain ordered all hands below decks and all portholes closed. This was top secret.

I peeked. The occupants of the boat were South Vietnamese commandos. They had tried to land up North, but were spotted and taken under fire by the shore batteries. The boat was now sinking. The rising water was pink with the blood of the dead and wounded. We offered to take them all aboard. No, they answered. Could we just lend them a pump and some medical supplies? The last I saw them they were heading back in. I never learned what happened to them.

Now, as I watched all unravel, it no longer mattered. I hated with a savage, abiding fury the cackling fools and Leftist quislings who had deprived me of the America I loved. The love was tarnished now; she had been unfaithful. And they had made her so.

I spent over a year after the fall of Saigon resettling Vietnamese refugees. I resettled soldiers who fled to save their families, having no bullets left to shoot. Some had found their families. Some came out alone. We spent hours, days calling refugee camps and other resettlement agencies trying to locate the missing. The bad news trickled in over the grapevine. A daughter left behind, here. A wife and children, there. A State Department bus had never arrived to collect somebody’s brother.

I met huge, extended families of fishermen and farmers at the bus station in Jersey City, New Jersey. They came directly from the nearest refugee camp, still dressed as when they fled their villages in South Vietnam. These were the men, women and children who abandoned their livelihoods and risked their lives in small boats to escape the Communists -- only to be labeled “the wrong Vietnamese” by that great American patriot, Senator Edward Kennedy.

I met a Vietnamese merchant sea captain who -- trapped by the advancing NVA in Danang with his family (except for a daughter accidentally left behind) -- boarded another captain’s old freighter with hundreds of other sudden refugees and made a break for the sea. NVA artillery fired on them from both sides of the river. Many were killed; blood flowed in the gunwales. The ship -- riddled below the water line -- began to sink. The freighter captain wanted to abandon ship, but the passengers insisted they proceed. My new friend took command and after three precarious weeks -- the ship’s deck flush with the South China Sea, survivors bailing desperately night and day -- they made the Philippines.

They eventually came to America, these “wrong Vietnamese.” Senator Kennedy told us that they had just panicked. They would all, he assured us, soon go home. Few did, even after that cold welcome. Instead, hundreds of thousands more joined them in risking thirst, hunger, pirates and drowning on the South China Sea.

The South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington closed forever shortly after the fall of Saigon.  I was the only American there that final night. The staff (including General Thieu’s influential nephew) sat around the conference room talking quietly and, occasionally, crying. In deference to me they spoke English. But, overcome by emotion, they occasionally slipped into Vietnamese; my Vietnamese colleague in the resettlement effort translated for me.

Sometimes these stranded diplomats managed a laugh. “Use our phone,” they said. “Call anywhere in the world. After tomorrow our enemy will be paying the bill.”

Whenever the conversation veered towards their betrayal by America, they would stop guiltily and apologize to me. America, they acknowledged, had suffered greatly in their defense. More than they had any right to expect. It was just too bad….  More tears.

Seventeen years later, when American troops liberated Kuwait City, I wept at the waving flags and cheering crowds. This was the victory my generation and I had been deprived of. But the depression, the anger, the hatred had not been about my deprivation. The betrayal of my country’s honor by the Left -- that was the unhealing wound.

The seeds of our defeat in Vietnam had been sown seven years earlier in the 1968 Tet Offensive. This is remembered today as an American defeat. It was not. It was -- or should have been -- a decisive military defeat for the Communists. American military power, however ineptly deployed, had forced them to move prematurely to “conventional tactics” -- which, as Mao taught, is how guerilla wars are lost.
 
The Communists expected the civilian population to rise up in support; it did not. In fact, horrified by Communist brutality, citizens of the South rallied to their government. The Communists hoped that the South Vietnamese Army would collapse; it did not. Taken by surprise, many ARVN units fought with great skill and bravery. And, post-Tet, South Vietnamese enlistments actually increased. The loss of tens of thousands of Viet Cong fighters in the cities broke the back of the indigenous guerilla movement. The North Vietnamese Army was forced into a conventional war America could have won -- if only she had still wanted to.

But Tet inflicted a fatal wound on American morale. The battle shifted from the streets of Saigon and Hue to the streets of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. The newsrooms of the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, NBC and ABC spun Tet as an American defeat -- as a sign of Viet Cong strength rather than Viet Cong desperation. It was no longer a war for the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese. Their minds were made up; they persevered. It was now a war for the heart and mind of Walter Cronkite. And there, an American defeat was forged out of an American victory.

Perception became reality. American forces withdrew. For years, despite deep incursions of NVA forces into her territory, South Vietnam held on. But enemy advances were made on our home front. And, seven years after Tet, the American Left hand-delivered Ho Chi Minh his victory on a silver platter.

***

The Left exists in a post-modern world reflecting their own desires -- a world that blooms, moment by moment, from a history of their own constructing. Cast free from constraining reality and from all consequences, they maneuver entirely from ideology and partisan self-interest.

The rest of us play in a real, often ornery, world of obstacles and sand traps -- and rules. We believe in objective reality -- and respect it. This is a great disadvantage. It puts us on the right side of History but, tactically, on the inconvenient side of postmodern political struggle to construct topical realities.  

The Left was on the wrong side of every question about the Cold War -- objectively, factually wrong. However, in control of public discourse, they often defined the reigning political reality and won the policy debate. They coddled Communists at home and abroad, resisted containment, instilled defeatism and undermined our defenses.

Despite this, the “Evil Empire” collapsed. When the real world finally put its foot down, the fall of “The Wall” and the publication of the Venona intercepts exposed every utterance of the left over six decades as a lie or an error. Hiss was a spy. The Rosenbergs were guilty. Star Wars did undermine the USSR. Europe’s invincible “Workers’ Paradises” toppled, hollowed-out Hells-on-Earth. Russians did want freedom. Eastern Europe did not want the Russians.

This should have been a crushing defeat for the Left, Their ersatz-reality, a tissue of lies spun in headlines, vanished overnight -- flushed away by the tides of history. But, in post-modern times, it matters not so much who makes history as who writes it. The history of yesterday is as up for grabs as today’s headlines.

Much as the French today celebrate the slapstick of the Bastille and the brutal horrors of their Revolution, the Left simply redefined the great ideological battle of the second half of the Twentieth Century and their role in it. They took credit for an outcome they had actively opposed. They declared as their victory the defeat -- long delayed by their obstruction -- of their own ideological kinfolk. 

History, in the hands of post-modern Leftists, is an Etch-a-Sketch. Inconvenient truth quickly fades. New, false constructs arise as “fact.” Relieved of all responsibility for past error, the left goes on to commit new errors unencumbered.
 
***

The Vietnam War lasted fifteen years; the Iraq War has now lasted seven months. In Vietnam we lost 50,000 men. In Iraq, under three hundred. Tet came only after a long, difficult, bungled fight that bloodied a generation of draftees. The Battle of Baghdad culminated a brief, relatively bloodless campaign of unmatched brilliance, fought by professionals.

The left spun the Viet Cong defeat in Tet as a Viet Cong victory -- and lost us a war on the periphery. Now it is all happening again -- Tet II. They portray our emerging victory in Iraq as a defeat -- and risk the West’s very survival in the war on Islamic terror.

The Afghanistan and Iraq Campaigns were magnificent military triumphs. But our “Baghdad Bobs,” with only the most tenuous connection to reality, keened of stalemate and disaster even as Kabul fell, even as U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad. “A badly botched plan!” “Not have enough boots on the ground!” “Fighting on the cheap!” “Stalemate!” “Quagmire!”

Despite them, both battles were over in weeks. Being a Leftist, however, means you never have to explain your mistakes; you just erase the memory and start again. Saddam’s forces melted away overnight -- and the Left quickly turned the page on the post-modern Etch-a-Sketch. “Where is Saddam?” “Where is Osama?” “Where are the cheering crowds?” Saddam’s statue fell. “What is that American flag doing there? How awful!”

It was a proof-of-concept victory and the most astonishing example of mobile warfare since Patton in Europe. “Why did we fail to protect the Museum?” Evidence of Saddam’s brutality exceeded all expectation. “Where are those WMD?” “The President lied to us about WMD!” “The President lied to us about African uranium!” “Where is the electricity? The President lied that Iraqis would be better off!” Diehard remnants engage in an armed propaganda war. “Why are soldiers still dying? We are losing the peace in Iraq!” “Vietnam!” “Quagmire!” “Bring the troops home!”

During the Cold War the Left gave aid and comfort to the Communist enemy -- ranging from outright espionage to deferential respect -- because an American victory would have severed their philosophical roots and deposed the patron of their ideological comrades in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. But the war on terror is a war between Radical Islam and Western Liberalism. The Left has no dog in that fight.

When ideologies die, their movements often stumble on from bureaucratic inertia, like zombies. They rehearse old, outdated programming and dedicate themselves to the quest for power. Marxism-Leninism died decades ago in the Soviet Union; the system ground on until 1991. Similarly, the dead husk of the American Left struggles on -- animated by habit spasms and lusting for power.

Twenty-five years ago my wife bought one of the earliest Atari™ television game sets. I was surprised that so simple a device could simulate strategic thinking so well. The basketball program, especially, was skilled at interactive play. Eventually, I realized that it really had only four or five rigid, invariable routines. Together they were enough to create a shallow illusion of intelligence.

The American Left has two algorithms: class war and anti-Americanism. These explain their entire behavior set. Any natural or manmade disaster, for example, triggers the former. “Cancel the tax cut for the wealthiest Americans.” Any international crisis triggers the latter. “American arrogance. American imperialism.” The enemy of their country is their friend, however repugnant the enemy.

Their only conscious goal now is to regain political power. To do this they must deprive candidate Bush of his victories -- in Afghanistan, in Iraq and against terror. This means robbing America of its victories in those struggles. It could, perhaps, mean the death of Western culture. It is a price they will gladly pay.

Every measure is either too much, in case it works, or too little, in case it does not. Every hiccup presages quagmire. Every errant bomb is a war crime. Every foreign target is the wrong target. Today’s talking point: “Saudi Arabia would have been a better candidate for attack.” (Can you imagine these people calmly accepting a sudden, unilateral invasion of Saudi Arabia by American troops?) It is like that bad joke about the mother’s disappointment when her son wears the other of the two neckties she gave him. “What’s the matter? Didn’t you like the blue one?”  

Now, with a low level terror campaign in Iraq, they have their best opportunity -- a new Tet moment.

***

In defeat, an enemy usually makes one last, desperate lunge. The Nazis launched the Ardennes Offensive (the Battle of the Bulge). The Japanese activated Sho Go. The Viet Cong, Tet. Now, Baathists (and their Islamist allies-of-convenience) conduct hit-and-run assassinations and suicide bombings.

The Nazis and the Japanese had military objectives. The Germans raced towards Antwerp to cut our lines and take the seaport. The Japanese threw their entire surface fleet against MacArthur’s Leyte beachhead to cause an American Dunkirk in the Pacific. At Bastogne, a surrounded American force responded to a demand to surrender with a four-letter word -- and held. At Leyte -- when the vast Japanese fleet of battleships, cruisers and destroyers suddenly appeared on the northern horizon -- a tiny American escort force (three destroyers and four destroyer escorts) made suicidal, daylight torpedo attacks. The Japanese withdrew.

The Viet Cong also failed to achieve its goal during Tet 1968. But the North found another, softer target. A target incapable of such tenacity and heroism. They found the American opinion elite. In hitting that they scored an unexpected and unearned victory.

Radical Islamists and Baathists learned from Tet. They do not even try to defeat us on the ground where we are strong. They aim directly at the soft underbelly of western culture: at a new generation of Cronkites, at the mental and moral weakness of the Western cultural elite. Shooting or blowing up a soldier a day at random, out of 150,000 deployed, advances absolutely no military purpose. A UN Headquarters in Baghdad and a Shiite Mosque in Najaf are not military targets. Neither, of course, were the Twin Towers.

Random assassination and terrorist bombing are easy to commit and virtually impossible to prevent. It is the randomness and seeming senselessness of them that inspires terror. The attacks themselves prove little. At about the same time that the UN was being bombed in Baghdad, domestic terrorists burned down an SUV dealership in San Diego. Last year, the Beltway snipers terrorized our capital city and its environs. What did those prove?  

In the Graham Green-Carol Reed film, Our Man in Havana, Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs) holds that there are two classes of people: those who are torturable and those who are not. “One never tortures except by mutual agreement,” he explains. Similarly, there are those who are terrorizable and those who are not. The Left is only too happy to oblige -- to be terrorized in the right cause.
 
We have had great success in diverting the really destructive attacks away from our own hardened assets. Three of the last five targets of truck bombs in Iraq were against facilities that were not American and which, in at least two cases, had rejected American offers of security assistance. The other two were, more-or-less, failures. Random shootings are more difficult to deter, but are militarily even more meaningless.

However, the Left reacts with exquisite sensitivity to every attack. “Our soldiers are being hurt! Bring them home!” By reacting, the Left turns these ineffectual spasms of terror into propaganda victories. If terror does not change behavior or demoralize, it fails. If it fails, it eventually stops. (Unless, of course, the terrorists are Palestinian.) By co-opting the escalating violence for their own political purposes, Leftists buy into the terror campaign itself -- become willing parties to it.  

***

9-11 did not change the world; it merely woke us up to the changes. The world had become too small, WMD too mobile and powerful and terrorism too costly for old-fashioned notions of sovereignty and deterrence to work after the bipolar stalemate ended. That conflict had imposed an often nasty and dangerous order on international affairs. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought chaos. Islamic radicalism emerged as a threat to our Western values. And rogue states and pockets of anarchy emerged as potential launch pads or as armories for WMD or terror attacks. Classical foreign policy modalities -- balance of power, national sovereignty and mutual deterrence -- give way to those of preemptive defense.

Crack houses and vacant lots used as drug marts threaten the peace, safety and quality-of-life of an entire neighborhood. The answer is not a policeman on every stoop, an escort for every schoolchild or the arrest of those actually caught committing violent crime. The solution is to tear down the crack house and chase away the pushers before they commit violence.

The world is now a small neighborhood. (And a closed system.) Someone has to take responsibility for keeping order -- for snuffing out potential troublemakers and building viable states in empty pockets of chaos.

America has, reluctantly, inherited that role. Almost seventy years earlier, she had delayed her entrance into World War II and allowed the wholesale liquidation of Western Imperial order by German and Japanese fascism. Communism exploited the vacuum that followed victory, and America was drawn into the breach to contain it. When Communism, in its turn, fell, America became the sole defender of western civilization. It is a role too important to give a veto over to the French and Germans.

All Leftists (and some Rightist troglodytes) call this “imperialism.” They are right. It is a new, non-colonial imperialism. Almost twenty years ago, at a RAND seminar on terrorism, I advocated this new imperialism as the diametrical opposite of terrorism. Terrorism is, in essence, the injection of raw, anarchic violence -- of the sort inherent in international affairs -- into the life of a civil society to disrupt it. The new imperialism is the establishment of something like civil order over the normally anarchic, violent international arena.  Civil order derives either from shared values or force -- usually, at least implicitly, from both.

The former is still lacking among nations and between peoples. So the global order must come from an exercise of benign, preemptive force -- backed, perhaps, by a missionary appeal for Western values and democracy. 9-11 awoke us to the dangers and to our inescapable role. We call it the “war on terrorism” but it is much more. It is the preservation of world order.

The war on terror is not over; it may not be over for generations. But we are clearly winning. We have not been attacked at home for two years. All attacks have been on soft targets -- often in Islamic countries where they erode state sponsorship for the terrorists. Even Saudi Arabia hints of reform.

That we are winning in Iraq is obvious. We occupy Iraq and, despite setbacks, rebuild it. Most Iraqis embrace the Americans. Democracy starts to bloom -- at least locally. Freedom of thought and expression burst out -- often chaotically, seldom violently. No civil war has broken out among Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. The store shelves are full again. Baghdad Museum’s treasures have been returned. Power is slowly being restored, despite sabotage.

In Najaf a Shiite mob caught up with two alleged perpetrators of the bombing that killed their holiest leader. (Caught them sending email in an Internet Café!) What did they do? Tear them limb from limb? No. They turned them over to the American-backed Iraqi police! Is this not proof that the “rule of law” is taking root?

There is nothing unusual about what is happening in Iraq. Order is always a problem when authoritarian regimes collapse. Tyranny bakes out the cement that binds a free society together, a sense of civic virtue, and replaces it with fear. A certain amount of disorder and crime is inevitable as one ratchets down the terror level. In Iraq they are not significantly worse than in Russia, for example, following the collapse of Communism. And even more-or-less civilized Canada suffered riots recently when the lights went out. 

Even the influx of foreign terrorists is, in an odd way, good news. They would not chose Iraq, where we dominate on the ground, if they had anything else going for them elsewhere. Patton saw the German offensive in the Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge) as a great opportunity. He wanted to let them advance farther -- the better to cut off and kill more of them. Today, a few hundred (perhaps even a few thousand) terrorists flock to Iraq to wage a losing Jihad against us. They can inflict random pain on us, but not much else. Two years ago they did much more with only fourteen men deployed here. Better to fight them on our terms in the Mid-East than on theirs in the Midwest.

***

The Left’s goal is to defeat Bush, at whatever cost, in 2004. This will mean the collapse of our war to clean out and police rogue nations and other places where terrorism hides and draws sustenance.

Since World War II there has been no instance of a successful Democrat foreign policy against significant adversity. (In the Second World War the Soviet Union was the enemy of our enemy, which undivided the Left’s loyalties. And our bungling of its concluding phases brought on the Cold War, which the Left almost lost for us.) The post-modern fog over the Clinton years has lifted just far enough for us to glimpse the truth: that his feckless conduct of foreign policy invited the 9-11 attack. Another Democrat president will once more bring the war home to our cities. A real war of collapsing buildings and mangled corpses. This time the refugees will be Americans.

The secret weapon of the Iraq War was the embedded reporter. The words and images from the front undercut Leftist propaganda as much as they did Bagdad Bob’s no more ridiculous pronouncements. But low level hit-and-run conflict empowers editors over reporters. Before our unseeing eyes, they spin an alternate reality. Tet II is well begun.  

Walter Cronkite recently wrote an odd little opinion piece. There seemed to be an underlying message: We in the media are leftists, but there is nothing personal in it. Can we not all agree to disagree and still get along?

This reminds me of the period as Saigon fell. Through the haze of fury I noticed that Cronkite and the other architects of our defeat were strangely subdued in their jollity. They seemed to fear a backlash -- I suppose from the likes of me. Even the refugee resettlement effort was designed to divide and isolate the victims so that no retributive political movement could grow up around them.

Today I feel the same impotent fury as then. I wonder if Cronkite and his kind feel the same concern. I know that even a momentary suspension of the rules of civilized society is bound to let loose evils not easily quelled -- however gratifying it might be to festoon the nation’s telephone poles with members of the opinion elite. As a conservative, I cannot act in defiance of that knowledge. But as I sit here watching in horror as another Tet daily unfolds, it is sure tempting.

Chris Barr is President of Financial Special Risk Limited, insurance consultants and intermediaries. He specializes in Kidnap/Extortion/Terrorism, White Collar and Computer Crime, Professional and Executive Liability and other specialty insurance coverages. From 1980 to 1984 he was a Vice President at AIG, where he founded and managed a global Kidnap, Extortion and Crime division. Before that he served in several underwriting and management positions at Chubb & Son. He served as a main battery fire controlman aboard the USS Boston (a heavy cruiser) from 1968 to 1970. Two Vietnam tours doing gun fire support off the DMZ and North Vietnam. He earned his BA in Political Science from Columbia University in 1975. His area of concentration was the intersection of military strategy and political policy. His refugee agency, Vietnamese Self-Help Foundation (in partnership with some active and retired Vietnamese diplomats and a refugee from Eastern Europe) rented a four story apartment building in Jersey City, NJ, as a halfway house for Vietnamese refugees.

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