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The Meaning Of Tet
A historian argues that in Vietnam America’s cause was just, its arms effective, and its efforts undermined critics back home—and that this is how things must work in a free society
May 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 3
This strange propensity for self-critique, civilian audit, and popular criticism of military operations—itself part of the larger Western tradition of personal freedom, consensual government, and individualism—thus poses a paradox. The encourage ment of open assessment and the acknowledgment of error within the military eventually bring forth superior planning and a more flexible response to adversity. The knowledge that military conduct is to be questioned by soldiers themselves, to be audited and scrutinized by those outside the armed forces altogether, and to be interpreted, editorialized, and often mischaracterized by reporters to the public can ensure accountability and provide for a wide exchange of views.
At the same time, this freedom to distort often can hamper the military operations of the moment, as Thucydides himself saw and Plato feared in The Republic —and as was the case with the Tet Offensive. Frankness and hysteria, in place of reasoned and positive assessment, may have prolonged America’s agony in Vietnam and lost battles in the field, but they surely didn’t endanger the war against communism. Had America been as closed a society as was Vietnam, then it might well have won the battle but lost the war, much like the Soviet Union, which imploded after its involvement in Afghanistan, a military intervention similar to America’s in Vietnam in terms of tactical ineptitude, political denseness, and strategic imbecility, but a world apart in the Russians’ denial of free criticism, public debate, and uncensored reporting about their error.
How odd that the institutions that can thwart the daily battle progress of Western arms can also ensure the ultimate triumph of its cause. If the Western commitment to self-critique contributed to the American defeat in Vietnam, then it also was paramount in the explosion of Western global influence in the decades after the war, even as the Vietnamese army fought for a regime increasingly despised at home, shunned abroad, and bankrupt economically and morally.
In the next few decades, it shall come to pass that Vietnam will resemble the West far more than the West Vietnam. The freedom to speak out, the titillating headline, the flashy exposé, and the idea that a man in tie and suit, not one sporting sunglasses, epaulets, and a revolver, is the Commander in Chief, are in the end more likely to win than lose wars, on and off the battlefield. Thucydides, who deplored the Athenian stupidity surrounding the Sicilian expedition and had hardly a good word to say for the Athenian assembly and its unchecked rhetoricians, nevertheless was impressed by the Athenians’ amazing propensity to correct past blunders and to persevere against adversity. If we began this article with that historian’s sharp criticism of Athenian fickleness and absence of support for its own expedition, we should end by noting Thucydides’ other, less well-known observation concerning such an open culture’s conduct of war. It turned out that the Syracusans fought as well as they did against Athens, Thucydides believed, because they too were a free society and “democratic just as the Athenians.” He concluded that free societies are the most resilient in war: “The Syracusans proved this point well. For precisely because they were the most similar in character to the Athenians, they made war upon them so successfully.”