October 28, 2003

TET 2003: Belmont Club offers a fascinating side-by-side comparison of media coverage from now, and from 35 years ago. It’s pretty clear that the terrorists, at least, are operating from the Tet playbook.

UPDATE: Reader James Ingram emails:

Lets not get carried away with the Tet analogy. There are important differences:

1. The scale of battle is much smaller. Note the reference in the blog you cite to the engagement of 35 battalions. I think the total number engaged was much higher. We’re talking tens of thousands on NLF and NVA main force troops, not a handful of suicide bombers. Ambushes of this scale were almost daily occurrences in Viet Nam for five years.

2. The scope of the losses was also much different. There have been some 400 American combat deaths in more than six months of war; deaths are running a few a week (too many to be sure). During Tet and after, deaths ran to hundreds a week. In 1968, the year of Tet and the bloodiest year of the war, deaths averaged over 300 per week; during Tet and the counter-offensive that followed they were much higher. They had been averaging over 200 a week for over a year, and they would return to that level through 1969 and some of 1970.

3. The scope of civilian destruction is also much different. These bombers have blown up a few buildings. Tet leveled the city of Hue. The physical destruction of civilian infrastructure during Viet Nam was unimaginable today.

4. Perhaps most importantly, Tet followed a period in which the US government had confidently assured us the enemy was bled white, on its last legs, etc etc. The shock of Tet was that an enemy that supposedly had no forces left was suddenly mounting a major offensive. We realized then that our government had been misleading us on a scale that was hard for people raised in the 40′s and 50′s, when we trusted our leaders, to understand. Whatever his faults, Bush has not lied on the LBJ scale. Tet was an immense moral setback for the US government. This is a setback to be sure, and a propaganda coup, but scarcely the kind of shock created by Tet.

Well, the press seems to want to play it that way. Daniel Drezner has some useful observations.