Images of war raise ghosts of Tet Offensive

Just as in '68, Americans shocked by what they see


April 08, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Fallujah. Kirkuk. Najaf. Ramadi. Even Baghdad.

For some observers, this week's coverage of the widespread, intensified armed resistance to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq has summoned up ghosts of a past conflict: the January 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.

U.S. forces ultimately quelled that uprising, which led to battles for control of cities throughout South Vietnam. But its depth and sophistication - reflected on the networks' nightly news in millions of homes throughout the country - shook the confidence of many Americans.

Many had believed that the war could be won purely by the superiority of the U.S. military, as repeatedly cited by President Lyndon Johnson's administration. But photographs and unprecedented television footage captured unsettling images of American soldiers struggling to reclaim their posts in urban battlegrounds.

In recent days, some journalists, analysts and politicians are expressing similar apprehension in the wake of coverage of sustained American casualties and the fight for control of several Iraqi cities.

"There is a strong parallel," said Bernard Kalb, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who covered the Vietnam War for CBS News. "The surprise of Tet, the fact that it took place at so many different points within Vietnam, was stunning."

In Iraq, "up until now, there's been two or three or four dead a day at most," Kalb said. More than 30 American troops have been killed in fighting in Iraq since Sunday - almost exactly a year after the fall of Baghdad.

U.S. officials have portrayed this period as one of a challenge to occupation rather than open warfare. Recent days have cast that characterization into some doubt. "Americans taking a wallop is always a surprise," said Kalb, who served as a State Department spokesman under President Reagan.

"These are jarring, jarring images," said former Times correspondent and author David Halberstam, who has written extensively about Vietnam. As after Tet, he said, "there's the same sense of misgiving."

"Is it the same as Tet? I don't know."

But repeated stories from networks, news channels and newspapers are forcing many Americans to confront unwelcome questions, Halberstam said. "Aren't the people shooting at us the people we're supposed to be helping?" he asked.

In briefings this week, Halberstam said, the usually hale Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld looked exhausted. Administration officials "knew that they are suddenly deep in the big muddy," Halberstam said. "I think they are stunned by this, by how quickly this is happening."

In looking at Iraq, "there's only one similarity to Vietnam - the Tet Offensive," declared Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, in a sound bite replayed on cable news shows. "Suddenly, the American people said, `We're not in control there.'"

And the tone of reporting has shifted, too, beginning with last week's massacre of four U.S. contract workers in Fallujah and increasing with this week's insurrection.

"It appears to be a country in chaos," CNN anchor Bill Hemmer said Tuesday. "Throughout Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition is facing revolts and resistance," Walter Rodgers, CNN's senior foreign correspondent, said Tuesday night. He framed the situation this way: "Is the American experiment turning sour?"

Even as Rumsfeld maintained that U.S. forces still held control over Iraq, Fox News Channel anchor John Gibson put no gloss on recent events. "Thirty-five Americans have died in three days in intense fighting in a two-front war," Gibson said yesterday afternoon. "The insurgency is breaking out all over Iraq."

On ABC last night, anchor Peter Jennings interviewed two retired generals who explicitly compared the situation in Iraq to the war in Vietnam.

On MSNBC, Ret. Army Col. Jack Jacobs said there is little military connection between the resistance in Iraq and the coordinated Vietnamese opposition. But he acknowledged the analogy with the Tet Offensive could seize the public's imagination.

"It definitely is a public relations deal here," Jacobs said yesterday. "The administration has to disassociate what is happening in Iraq right now from what happened in 1968."

The networks and news channels were tentative in challenging the Bush administration's stance in the months before the invasion of Iraq, Halberstam argued. He said dissenting voices did not receive serious consideration from network news executives.

"They did a poor job of ventilating the issue," Halberstam said. "They're playing catch-up now. This is much tougher than they thought."

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