Winning the Battle Losing the War: A NYT Op-ed from James Willbanks

The Tet Offensive: A Concise History, by James WillbanksJames Willbanks’s op-ed “Winning the Battle, Losing the War” appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. James Willbanks is the author of The Tet Offensive: A Concise History.

In the piece, Willbanks looks at how the Tet Offensive, while considered a tactical victory for American forces in conventional military terms, eventually undercut Lyndon Johnson’s credibility with the American people. Willbanks goes on to argue, “Perhaps more important, the offensive shook the administration’s own confidence and led to a re-evaluation of American strategy.”

What lessons, if any, can historians, politicians, and military leaders draw from the Tet Offensive in thinking about Iraq? Willbanks writes:

Historians are often reluctant to draw comparisons between historical events, and this has been especially true for Vietnam and Iraq, because the two wars have more differences than similarities. That being said, however, American military actions today can be informed by one general lesson from the Tet offensive, and that is the importance of not putting the best face on a military situation for political reasons.

Willbanks concludes with an assessment of how General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have conveyed the successes or failures of the surge to the American people:

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, is a student of the Vietnam War whose doctoral dissertation at Princeton was titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.” Clearly, he internalized those lessons, because in discussing the surge and the progress of the war in Iraq he has studiously avoided building undue expectations and has repeatedly said that there will be tough times ahead. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was likewise careful in his recent comments about re-evaluating troop reduction plans this summer. The wisdom of their approach will become especially evident if insurgents in Iraq engage in any Tet-like offensive this year — especially with a presidential election looming and the future of the American military commitment in Iraq hanging in the balance.

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