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A Conversation About Nothing - Gabe Armstrong

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The Tet Defensive- Matt Taibbi

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War Protesters aren’t Worried about Losing

By Matt Taibbi

IT WAS INEVITABLE. As soon as things started to go wrong in Iraq, you just knew the war party would start fighting Vietnam all over again. We are now involved in a time-travel war, a bloody Back to the Future sequel in which Michael J. Fox revisits the 1960s to rescue our country from the media-induced defeatism it experienced during and after the Vietnam War. In this movie, Robert McNamara is George McFly; he kisses the girl at the Tet Offensive and 30 years later gets his book deal.

Of course, this is impossible, because McNamara was on his way out the door—before Tet even took place—after expressing concerns about the prospects for victory in Vietnam. This and about a million other facts are being overlooked by a chorus of conservative commentators who claim that Tet was a victory for American forces, and that only negative media coverage of the 1968 offensive was what derailed our otherwise inevitable victory in Indochina.

This idea has been popping up on afternoon talk radio and on conservative websites for months, but has been gaining steam since the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke. Previously just idle bullshit, it became official Bullshit with a capital B this week when that wonderfully demented bitch Ann Coulter wrote a piece called "Tit for Tet."

"Abu Ghraib is the new Tet offensive," wrote Coulter. "By lying about the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War, the media managed to persuade Americans we were losing the war, which demoralized the nation and caused us to lose the war. And people say reporters are lazy."

Coulter went on:

"The immediate consequence of the media's lies was a 25 percent drop in support for the war. The long-term consequence for America was 12 years in the desert until Ronald Reagan came in and saved the country."

It would be easy to dismiss this as the insane crap that it is, were it not for the fact that Coulter's central point—that we actually won Tet and that a drop in support for the war after Tet was what caused our defeat there—is gaining traction in a variety of news outlets. You see it mentioned casually all over the place, stated as a matter of fact. In the Daily Telegraph, Michael Barone recently wrote: "Plus, as we know now, the media's analysis of Tet was wrong: Tet was a huge defeat for the Viet Cong and largely cleared South Vietnam, for a time, of Communist fighters."

Former congressman Bob Barr wrote similarly in the Washington Times: "By all objective criteria, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, from Jan. 31, 1968, to April 6, 1968, was a smashing loss for the North Vietnamese, and a major victory for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies… Yet, many historians and most observers at the time, identify the Tet Offensive as the beginning of the end for the U.S. effort in Vietnam... Why? What was it that turned what should have been a major victory into an embarrassing defeat? One word—perception."

UPI editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave went one step further, managing to turn the VC storming of the U.S. embassy in Saigon into a cheap parlor trick that might have been accomplished by a few hookers who knew a back way into the compound:

"Vietcong units not only did not reach a single one of their objectives—except when they arrived by taxi at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, blew their way through the wall into the compound and guns blazing made it into the lobby before they were wiped out by U.S. Marines."

Forget for a moment that Tet was a surprise to most Americans because for years the media had credulously reported the Johnson administration's idiotic claims that the Viet Cong were on their last legs. Forget for a moment that the reason we were fighting a war in Vietnam in the first place was because the press had bought the official version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which history has proven false. One can even forget that the entire justification for the war was propped up on a series of preposterous fallacies enthusiastically repeated by the media, among them the idea that South Vietnam under Diem and Thieu weren't brutal police states, and that the U.S.—which had urged the cancellation of elections in Vietnam in 1956 and had signed off on the assassination of the nominally democratically elected Diem in 1963—was interested in promoting democracy in Vietnam.

Forget all of that. The real reason that these new "let's not make the same mistake in Iraq that we made after Tet" arguments don't hold water is because they mischaracterize the feelings behind popular opposition to the Vietnam War. Writing with a straight face, here is how Barone put it:

"Americans will tolerate very high levels of military casualties if they believe that their leaders are on the road to victory. They tolerated them in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, and ceased to do so only when their leaders seemed no longer to be seeking to win."

Let's get something straight. The people who marched against the Vietnam War were not holding signs that said, "We Can't Win!" They called for withdrawal, both before and after Tet, because they came to believe that the war was wrong. They protested not because our saturation bombing of the North and our Phoenix assassination programs and our toxic defoliating campaigns in the South were ineffective. They protested because they were effective, because they killed so many people so efficiently. FDR's America did not give up after Market-Garden, and Johnson's America would never have considered giving up after Tet if Vietnam had been a moral war. We would have fought to the last man no matter what setbacks came our way. We would do so now in Iraq.

As for the high officials who gave up on Vietnam long before the public, they were not getting their information from the media. McNamara and George Ball and McGeorge Bundy all privately believed the war in Vietnam was either wrong or unwinnable or both before Walter Cronkite threw in the towel after Tet. Ball, who as undersecretary of state was presumably not cribbing from the New York Times, wrote to Johnson as early as 1965:

"The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong. No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong or even force them to the conference table on our terms, no matter how many hundred thousand white foreign (US) troops we deploy."

In the coming months, we are going to hear a lot of shrieks from various quarters that the media is once again causing America to lose its stomach for victory. It was a lie then and it's a lie now.


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