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Why the Tet Offensive? Sun Tzu Knows the Answer

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At the beginning of 1968 the Vietnam war was a stalemate. The conflict resembled an American-style boxing match between a lightweight and a blindfolded heavyweight. The Communist Vietnamese lightweight danced nimbly around the ring, unseen by his opponent. While he could deliver quick jabs, and an occasional one-two combination, he was ever wary of the risk that his powerful adversary would find, corner, and attack him. He could pursue his tactics indefinitely, but he knew that he could not defeat his enemy in this fight. The United States-South Vietnamese heavyweight knew his opponent was in the ring and could feel, but was not deeply hurt by, the jabs and punches. He was forced to swing blindly when his adversary was close in hopes of landing the decisive roundhouse punch. He occasionally made contact, but rarely was it solid, causing him to expel great energy for little progress. He was certain not to lose the bout, yet he was frustrated that the decisive blow of victory would continue to elude him. This boxing analogy offers a simplistic description of the nature of the conflict both sides faced the problem of how to conduct the war so as to win the bout. The Communists answer was to break the other boxers will to continue and force him to forfeit the match. Their strategy was to strike at the heart of the opponents strength, the will of the American people, resulting in their decision to launch the Tet Offensive of 1968. This paper evaluates that offensive in light of the principles of a great military strategist Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu espoused the principles of deception, flexibility, surprise, fluidity, intelligence, and resolving problems by an indirect approach. Seven of Tzus key themes apply to the Tet Offensive attacking the enemy strategy, knowledge of friendly and enemy capabilities, the art of deception, the indirect approach, shaping the enemy, mans role as the decisive factor in war, and the application of intelligence gathering activities.

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  • Unconventional Warfare

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