Monday, July 23, 2012


Tet Offensive all over again?

Analogies are admittedly risky. You can easily take them too far and reach the wrong conclusion. But you can’t stop your mind invoking them in an attempt to place new events into a coherent perspective constructed from past events.

Watching the war developments in Syria in the last few days I found my mind (and I am sure the minds of many others) traveling to a distant time and place; to an almost forgotten war.

In early 1968, the Viet Cong and their allies planned and mounted a very wide offensive that targeted Saigon and most other South Vietnamese cities. It was intended to surprise the enemy and catalyze a popular revolt in urban centers, which would serve a serious blow to America’s strategy of winning the war by gradually eradicating the Viet Cong from the jungles and villages of the countryside.

The surprise element of the Tet offensive (named after the lunar New Year festivities) was a success, and the Viet Cong were quickly able to attack and even control government facilities, as well as some embassies, in the capital and other cities. It took American and South Vietnamese troops about a month to regroup and mount a counter-offensive and eventually clear the capital and other cities of Viet Cong.

So, the intended direct objectives of the Tet offensive were not achieved. The communist rebels ended up losing close to 40,000 fighters compared to 3500 on the American side. That’s why many commentators at that time considered the Tet offensive, despite its early successes, a failure for the Viet Cong.

As it turned out, however, the offensive was indeed a turning point in the history of the Vietnam War that eventually led to America’s defeat. An indirect effect of the Tet offensive was that American and Allied forces were drawn into the cities and away from the vast countryside, which over time fell gradually to the control of the Viet Cong. In addition, the Tet offensive was a turning point for American public opinion which, until that time, had been led to believe that the Vietnam War was winnable and therefore strongly supported the war. That began to change after the Tet offensive.

Of course the war didn't stop in early 1968. It actually went on for seven more years. But the dye had already been cast and America was fighting a losing war that indeed ended with a total victory for the Viet Cong rebels and their communist allies in the north and in the region, and for world communism as well.

Was that the end of the story? Not at all.

The communists did win the war and take over all of Vietnam by 1975. But today, looking at Vietnam thirty seven years later, the irony is inescapable. It is in fact capitalism not communism that came out on top in Vietnam, and  in almost all former communist countries. Unified Vietnam went on, after a few-years’ hiatus, to shed communist ideology and embrace the free enterprise system wholeheartedly; and succeed to become one of the most thriving and rapidly developing countries in the region, fully integrated into the rest of the (capitalist) world.

Is there a moral to this story?

Those who are trying to juxtapose a Syrian who-is-who onto this analogy in order figure out which side will eventually win the struggle over Syria should save their energy. If there is a certainty in today’s rapidly changing world it is that despotic regimes will not be the final winners; whether communists or capitalists, whether they like America or hate America, whether they call themselves secular or Islamist, dictatorial regimes are bound to lose. Democracy and the collective will of people will prevail. It actually did in Vietnam. It will in Syria.

Dinosaurs were not able to survive the drastic change in the global environment sixty five million years ago, when a giant meteor collided with earth in a monumental explosion. Dictatorial regimes and (flawed ideologies) will also perish under the equally drastic change in their environment; a change brought about by an equally monumental explosion in technology. (Yes, technology; but more on this in future posts). This is true, irrespective of what the “Damascus Volcano” or “Aleppo Liberation” or any Syrian offensive is or is not able to achieve in the days ahead.  

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