War as symbol

War, even the war of despots, used to be a total commitment. Since WWII the unity of commitment has faded. War has become more of an internal political and ideological football and less of a means for defense of self or allies. One side is indeed all in and that side is the aggressor. That side can be an invading force as in Korea or Vietnam or it can be a terrorist campaign as in 9/11. It is the defense and the response to these attacks that is fractured. The Legacy of the Tet Offensive is about this phenomena. The NRO item is an interview with James S. Robbins, author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You call the Tet Offensive a “powerful symbol divorced from its reality” and describe it as a having become “more than a battle; it is a legacy, a legend, a continually replicating story line.” How does history get this out of control?

ROBBINS: The four most important frequently wrong things to correct are: Tet was not a surprise attack; it was not intended only to be a symbolic strike; it did not turn the American public against the war effort; and it did not drive Johnson to the negotiating table, because he had been futilely calling for peace talks since the war began.

That war was fought with many constraints. These constraints were to satisfy internal political factions. For those factions, war was a symbol whose importance was much higher than any consideration for national sovereignty or violent pursuit of ideology or even massacre.

Hue was the only city in South Vietnam over which the Communists gained substantial control. During their three weeks in power in Hue, they massacred thousands of “enemies of the people,” often in the most gruesome ways imaginable. Mass graves turned up for years afterward. It was one of the greatest such wartime atrocities in history. But the American press coverage was minimal, and Communist apologists in this country tried either to minimize the scope of the massacre or deny it ever happened.

War is a symbol. The misrepresentation of actual conflict is only one facet. The painting of the military in despicable terms is another. The cost of war, often misrepresented and exaggerated, is another.

A war in defense against aggression is not much of a luxury. The use of war as a symbol for ideological fantasies is.

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