Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

BD bookshelf: Robbins’s ‘This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive’

I finally got a chance to read James Robbins’s relatively new book on the Tet Offensive. It is an odd volume, because it doesn’t have that much new in it, and the core argument seems to be that Tet ’68 would have been a strategic victory if only Lyndon Johnson had recognized it as such. ...

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I finally got a chance to read James Robbins's relatively new book on the Tet Offensive. It is an odd volume, because it doesn't have that much new in it, and the core argument seems to be that Tet '68 would have been a strategic victory if only Lyndon Johnson had recognized it as such. In fact, I think the American people did understand what happened and concluded that if that was going to be the cost of victory, they were not interested. As former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky wrote in a 2002 memoir, "Because they had been told that victory was just around the corner, Tet shook America's confidence in the war and in its government." (P. 271, Ky, Buddha's Child.) Also, the fact that the Communists were able to reduce their engagements and casualty levels in 1968 and 1969, after taking a tactical beating in Tet, calls into question the entire attritional strategy the United States pursued.

Robbins thinks different. I still think he is wrong. Even so, two major points from the book struck me as worth pondering:

He is right to insist that the Communist killings of several thousand people at Hue should be better known. And he is correct to emphasize that those killings were a result of policy, not the result of a company gone off the reservation, as at My Lai. (But, I wondered as I finished this chapter, what about the 9th Infantry Division's killing of thousands in the Delta, also as a matter of policy? I looked in vain in the book for the name of Gen. Julian Ewell.) And I didn't know the background of the guerrilla being executed in a Saigon street by General Loan in the famous Eddie Adams photograph. Known under the nom de guerre "Bay Lop," this guerrilla ran a death squad, and had been a few hours after killing perhaps 25 or more members of the families of police officers, Robbins writes. Earlier, Robbins reports, Bay Lop had taken hostages at the South Vietnamese army's tank training school and ordered the commander there to instruct Viet Cong in how to start the tanks. When the commander refused, Bay Lop killed him and his family, including his 80-year-old grandmother. One account says that five of the armored commander's children were murdered with hand grenades. Kind of puts a different gloss on that famous photo, no?    

I finally got a chance to read James Robbins’s relatively new book on the Tet Offensive. It is an odd volume, because it doesn’t have that much new in it, and the core argument seems to be that Tet ’68 would have been a strategic victory if only Lyndon Johnson had recognized it as such. In fact, I think the American people did understand what happened and concluded that if that was going to be the cost of victory, they were not interested. As former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky wrote in a 2002 memoir, "Because they had been told that victory was just around the corner, Tet shook America’s confidence in the war and in its government." (P. 271, Ky, Buddha’s Child.) Also, the fact that the Communists were able to reduce their engagements and casualty levels in 1968 and 1969, after taking a tactical beating in Tet, calls into question the entire attritional strategy the United States pursued.

Robbins thinks different. I still think he is wrong. Even so, two major points from the book struck me as worth pondering:

  • He is right to insist that the Communist killings of several thousand people at Hue should be better known. And he is correct to emphasize that those killings were a result of policy, not the result of a company gone off the reservation, as at My Lai. (But, I wondered as I finished this chapter, what about the 9th Infantry Division’s killing of thousands in the Delta, also as a matter of policy? I looked in vain in the book for the name of Gen. Julian Ewell.)
  • And I didn’t know the background of the guerrilla being executed in a Saigon street by General Loan in the famous Eddie Adams photograph. Known under the nom de guerre "Bay Lop," this guerrilla ran a death squad, and had been a few hours after killing perhaps 25 or more members of the families of police officers, Robbins writes. Earlier, Robbins reports, Bay Lop had taken hostages at the South Vietnamese army’s tank training school and ordered the commander there to instruct Viet Cong in how to start the tanks. When the commander refused, Bay Lop killed him and his family, including his 80-year-old grandmother. One account says that five of the armored commander’s children were murdered with hand grenades. Kind of puts a different gloss on that famous photo, no?    
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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