Israel’s Tet Moment?

First published at on 11th October, 2023

Shortly after midnight on January 30-31, 1968, during celebrations of the Lunar New Year (Tet) , NVA and Viet Cong (VC or NLF) forces launched the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam. The site(*) includes pages on declassified Tet documents, and a 50th anniversary retrospective on the Offensive. According to the latter, 70-80,000 troops in total were involved in the attacks, although estimates vary widely, as do estimates of the casualties. The important northern city of Hue was only cleared of NVA and VC troops on the 24th of February, and the siege of Khe Sanh only lifted two months later. Even though military intelligence was aware that something big was in the offing, the scale of the offensive shocked the military and the governments of both the US and South Vietnam.

The offensive was a military disaster for the NVA and VC. The expected popular uprising against the occupiers and their running dogs did not eventuate. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) surprised the Yanks and the VC with their effectiveness in repulsing the attacks. The VC was broken as an independent force in the South, and its units had to be made up by NVA soldiers. In the larger scheme of things, to wit, US media, public opinion and politics, it was the key to eventual victory. Opinion turned more strongly and broadly against a war about which nothing but optimistic assessments had been coming from the Administration and the military. The abiding image of the Tet Offensive is of the Saigon Police Chief summarily executing a VC prisoner, accused of executing a South Vietnamese Lt Col and his family, in the street.

Within months, the US began a drawdown of forces and the process of “Vietnamisation” of the war effort, and as the 1968 elections loomed, President Johnson announced that he would not seek another term, and the Democrats fell with him as the Nixon Republicans swept to power.

The Democrats had their revenge in the overthrow of Nixon, after which Congress cut military and economic aid to South Vietnam by 30%. When the NVA launched its major offensive, Gerald Ford’s pleas to Congress to increase military aid were ignored by the party which had engineered the war originally.

This may sound not so much as history but as prediction, and there is certainly a lesson here for America’s current and possibly erstwhile allies. The Ukrainians are looking very nervously over their shoulders as I write. However, is there any possibility that the US will ever turn its back on a request for military aid from Israel? Nonetheless, what parallels might be drawn?

Vietnam exposed the government and the military of the US to trenchant criticism in a way and on a scale that had not occurred to that point. The draft was fuel to that fire, as it was here, but it was not the only or, I think, the main factor. Something about the democratic social contract had been broken. The gulf between the official story of the war, involving as it did such notions as opposition to communism, the defence of the freedoms promoted by the U.N., the universality of American democratic values, and U.S.’ leadership of the Free World was such a mismatch with the bungled reality that such values themselves came under question.

Israel has a strong peace movement, which defines one of the fault lines of Israeli politics. What the effect on the peace movement of this attack and the military response will be, who can say? One thing is certain though. The prestige of the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet has been shattered by this event. Something similar might have been said about the intelligence failure of 1973. But in that case, the IDF was able to enhance its prestige by recovering from its initial defeats to achieve victory against powerful state armies on two fronts. That description does not apply to Hamas. It may be that Israeli society experiences the tensions of the U.S. (and Australia) of 1969/70 in its response to Gaza and its attitudes to the IDF.

It is misleading to describe the Hamas incursion as a “terror attack,” any more than to describe ISIS’ sweeping away of the opposing armed forces of various states in its initial creation of the Caliphate as a “terror attack.” It was a military campaign, one of the primary weapons of which was terror. 9-11 was a terror attack. Hamas’ seemingly rag-tag army attacked and defeated the IDF in its own bases, destroying the vaunted Merkava tanks, and murdering civilians in the process. But let us not delude ourselves that this was not primarily a successful attack on the IDF on a startlingly broad front. I doubt that the Israeli public will misunderstand that when they assess the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet, the Prime Minster and the Defence Minister.

Israel is now at a crossroads, facing Gaza. Netanyahu has announced the call-up of 300,000 reservists. That number may ring a bell. Russia, once Plan A had been thwarted, also decided to call up 300,000 reservists. Oh, how we laughed; “we” being the Western pundits. Well, Russia did manage the call-up of 300,000 reservists, not without some hiccups. But the Israeli call-up is, on some reports, experiencing severe difficulties in provisioning the largest call-up since 1973, or perhaps ever.

Recall that the US and the EU have been scrambling to supply artillery shells to Ukraine, and have been scouring the reserves of any country which had 155mm ammunition, in particular, in its inventory. South Korea has a strict policy of not providing lethal military aid to combatants; Ukraine, for example. But South Korea negotiated to sell 100,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition to replenish diminishing US reserves. Similarly, the US has dipped into the reserves it controlled in Israel to supply the insatiable Ukrainian demand for shells. At least 300,000 rounds were in the process of being transferred at the beginning of this year. Suddenly, the imperatives for ammunition have changed. But the Western supporters of both Ukraine and Israel cannot manufacture more than a fraction of the ammunition that was already being consumed in Ukraine.

Is this virtual total mobilisation necessary to contain Hamas? Gaza has a population of 2 million in an area of 360 sq km. In declaring war on Hamas, and effectively on Gaza, Israel must keep Hezbollah at bay in the north, and protect the Golan Heights from incursions. Hezbollah has bases in Syria, including sites outside Damascus, so any commitment to fully support Gaza will tend to draw Lebanon and Syria into the conflict. This show of force was probably to discourage such involvement, and so far it seems to have worked, as only minor skirmishes have occurred at the Lebanese border.

Western audiences seem incapable of realising that Arab and Persian eyes view the situation in Gaza differently, and this polarisation, characteristic also of internal Western divisions, is extraordinarily dangerous. Netanyahu’s aggressive stance may work to discourage Gaza’s Muslim neighbours, but if the IDF attacks Gaza en masse, and the aircraft and rocket attacks continue at near the same level, then, no matter how much Arab leaders may privately consider Hamas and the Palestinians to be troublesome pests, public outrage may force their hands.

Would Hamas have attacked had not the West, and the US in particular, been preoccupied with Ukraine? The Zelensky curse, thought to be contained, has struck again.

(*) The first appearance of the site in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine is on 21st of January, 2018. The pace of changes picked up in 2020/1, then increased markedly in 2022/3. For context, the New York Post published the Hunter Biden laptop story on the 14th of October, 2020. Five days later, 51 “former intelligence officials” signed a letter to the effect that the laptop bore the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.

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