The Socialist Unity Network
Fallujah and Tet


Historical analogies are seductive in trying to make sense of a complex reality, but they are false friends if they are used as a substitute for thinking. Recently there have been some rather far fetched comparisons between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam war. In particular some have compared the political impact of the American reverse at Fallujah with the 1968 Tet offensive. One highly influential friend of ours has gone as far as comparing Fallujah with the battle of Dien Bien Phu!

Let us remind ourselves what actually happened at Fallujah.

After 4 American mercenaries were brutally killed by a crowd of armed Iraqis in Fallujah, television pictures caused some outrage in the US where the 4 were somewhat dishonestly described as "civilian contractors." The town of 284000 people was then sealed of by a force of 20000 Marines for four weeks demanding that the killers be handed over. This seems to have been a crude reaction by the American government to appease public opinion back home, deploying a large military force but with political objectives that could not be achieved by military means.

Despite sporadic skirmishing there was no attempted assault on the town. An estimated 12 US soldiers died during the siege, and up to 850 Iraqis - probably most of the Iraqis were non-combatants. The Americans seem to have deliberately bombed the main hospital, reinforcing the impression that this was a punitive operation following the model of the Israeli Defense Force.

At the beginning of May the US forces handed over control to a former Iraqi soldier, Muhammed Latif, who had been a Major General in Saddam's army. He was allowed to raise a force of 1100 Iraqis in the town wearing Saddam era military uniforms who would "keep order". This was clearly celebrated as a victory by the insurgents, but was neither a catastrophic military nor political defeat for the Americans, and seems to have been a pragmatic way of extricating themselves from an ill conceived adventure, by shifting in Fallujah to the model of occupation they already employ in Afghanistan - i.e. sponsoring local warlords. A model that has been described by the Iraqi academic Kemil Mahdi as an "extremist Zionist dream".

The mainstream US media did not report the siege as a defeat, nor did they report the scale of civilian death. There was slight increase in anti war sentiment (support for the war fell to 47% in one poll). There were no significant demonstrations or protests in solidarity with Fallujah anywhere in the Western world.

Let us be clear that the Americans suffered less casualties at Fallujah than the British did at Warren Point in 1979, when 17 paratroopers, and a Lieutenant colonel  from the Queen's Own Highlanders were killed by the IRA, on the same day that they assassinated Earl Mountbatten.

Comparison with Dien Bien Phu is laughable.

The Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu had its 50th anniversary this year, on 7th May. It was a very large scale battle, where a 15709 strong French expeditionary Force were overwhelmed by an estimated 100000 Viet Minh led by General Giap after 57 days of very intense fighting. . (As an aside, there is folklore that a significant number of former Waffen SS troops were deployed at Dien Bien Phu in the legion etrangere).

French losses were crushing. At the end of the battle the French had only 5863 able bodied soldiers, and of the 10863 taken prisoner by the Vietnamese, only 3290 ever returned home. The French also lost 56 combat aircraft

The French estimates that up to 12000 Viet Minh were killed and up to 30000 wounded.

The overwhelming significance of the battle was twofold. Firstly an entire French army had been destroyed in the field and no longer existed as a fighting force. Secondly the strategic aim of the French High Command, of establishing a military redoubt that would deliberately draw the Viet Minh into a conventional battle had catastrophically failed, so that the remaining French army units were demoralised and no longer prepared to fight.

The day after their defeat, on 8th May 1954, the French Republic asked for an armistice at the Geneva Peace Conference and the French Empire in Indochina was over.


Comparison with the Tet Offensive of 1968 is only slightly less silly.

The first thing to say is that the Tet offensive was also on a very large scale, preceded by a huge diversionary battle where 25000 soldiers of the  North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked the US base at Khe Sanh for 77 days, again commanded by General Giap. The Tet offensive itself was a coordinated series of uprisings across South Vietnam by 70000 organised guerrillas from the National Liberation Front (NLF), who captured the cities of Hue and Ben Tre, and momentarily held parts of the US embassy in the capital, Saigon. The Americans lost 14000 troops in 1968 and at the end of the Tet Offensive General Westmorland requested 200000 reinforcements.

Actually the best political account of the significance of the Tet offensive is from SWP member Jonathan Neale in his excellent book "The American War". Jonathan summarises the outcome of Tet brilliantly in one sentence: "It was a shattering defeat for both the Southern Guerrillas and the American Ruling Class."

The paradox is that the American army both won the battle of Khe Sanh decisively, and almost completely destroyed the NLF, who lost an estimated 45000 troops, and were effectively destroyed as an organisation.

To understand this it is useful to consider the Vietnam War as a series of simultaneous conflicts, following Ernest Mandel's account of the second world war. At one level there was a proxy war between the USA and the USSR who are supplying both the NVA and the NLF. At another level there was a national liberation struggle, combining both guerrilla fighting in the south and conventional military forces from independent North Vietnam. Thirdly, there was a peasant war against landlordism and cronyism in South Vietnam. Finally, it both required and justified a war on the home front in the USA against "communism" and in favour of a militarised authoritarian society. All of these struggles were connected and interacted.

The Tet offensive became a decisive American victory against the guerrilla forces, and it destroyed communist party organisation in the villages, demobilising the peasant insurgency. Nevertheless, the scale of the Vietnamese assault, and the fact that the American victory required hard fighting was a political defeat for Washington, both showing their vulnerability, and also cracking wide open the political consensus in support of the war at home.

Does it matter?

It is a grave mistake to underestimate the resilience and resolve of the imperialist forces, not should it be assumed that the generals are stupid. They study the lessons of Vietnam at West Point and Sandhurst as well! War never goes according to plan except in the fantasies of politicians, and the American General staff always distanced themselves from the extreme optimism of Rumsfeld. Military men are pragmatic and expect to deal with volatile changes of plan and occasional set backs.

The Americans haven't lost the war yet, and wishful thinking won't bring that day any nearer.



July 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism