On January 30-31, 1968, the Tet holiday, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF, known to Americans as “the Vietcong”) struck at five of the country’s six largest cities, 34 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals, and numerous military bases. NLF sappers even briefly captured part of the heavily fortified American embassy compound in the center of the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.
Vietnamese government troops allied to the Americans were badly bloodied and American casualties were high. Fighting continued in parts of Saigon for three weeks and in Hue, the old imperial capital, for almost a month until, as with Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004, most of its buildings were destroyed. To retake major urban areas, air power was called in. In perhaps the most infamous phrase of the Vietnam War, an anonymous U.S. major said of the retaking of Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
In a wave of TV images of unexpected carnage, all this broke over the American people, who had been assured that “progress” was being made, that, as American commander General William Westmoreland put it, “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.” (Sound familiar?)
The Tet Offensive was a home-front televisual disaster and proved a breaking point in terms of pubic support for the war effort (despite massive losses on the other side). A shocked Walter Cronkite, the avuncular anchorman of CBS News and an American icon, declared the war “mired in stalemate.” President Lyndon Johnson, who was watching that broadcast, promptly turned to an aide and said, “It’s all over.” And yet the war, already visibly hopeless, would continue through another seven years of carnage as American ground troops were drawn down, while air power was relentlessly ratcheted up. (Again, does any of this sound familiar?)
Now, 40 years later, we are nearing Tet 2008 (February 7th), embroiled in another faraway war in another faraway land where Americans are dying and another people, another society is suffering grievous wounds, once again on an almost unimaginable scale. Once again, an administration is assuring Americans that “progress” is being made, that a corner is being turned. Once again, the planes are being brought in. And once again, the voices we seldom hear are those of the civilians who are suffering. Barely noted in our world while the war is ongoing, they will promptly be forgotten — if the Vietnam experience is any measure — when it’s over (as someday it must be), while Americans focus on the “lessons” to be learned from an “American tragedy.”
Nick Turse and photographer Tam Turse are now in Vietnam meeting with Vietnamese who ended up on the other end of American weaponry (and, in some cases, the Vietnamese versions of present-day Hadithas). Traveling through the distant Mekong Delta, they offer these unforgettable voices from the missing archives of a lost war. Tom