Hamas-Israel war and parallels with the Tet offensive in Vietnam

The Hamas-Israel War and parallels with the Tet offensive in Vietnam

The Hamas-led invasion of Israel has generated a lot of ink. In and outside of Israel analysts are trying to figure out what the most important factors inducing the conflict were and what consequences it will have inside Israel as well as beyond its borders. When an unexpected attack[1] such as this takes place, two analytical vectors usually come to the fore: first, what historical antecedent can help us understand this; and second, who is to blame?

Much of what has been written thus far in terms of historical precedent has been too conventional. The comparisons to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war are seductive. Israel was indeed caught off-guard on October 6, 1973 at the beginning of what became called the Yom Kippur War[2], as they seem to have been on October 7 2023. Most writers over the decades have outlined the complacency of the Israeli military after its overwhelming victory in the previous Arab-Israeli conflagration in 1967. Others have pointed to the lack of political imagination on the part of Israel, i.e. it did not even consider the possibility that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat would launch a war he knew he could not win. But it was not a war to defeat Israel. It was to strengthen Egypt’s bargaining position and reactivate international diplomacy[3], and on both counts Sadat succeeded even though Israel reversed the initial setbacks.

Perhaps a more apt comparison lies in history far outside of Israel—in Vietnam early in 1968. In late January of that year, during the Tet lunar new year when most Vietnamese were celebrating the holiday, the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong launched an impressively widespread offensive against South Vietnamese troops and their American allies that hit most provincial capitals, a number of US military bases, and scores of small cities and towns.[4] It was the biggest offensive to date by either side in the conflict. In terms of overall military effectiveness, after some initial advances and taking over or severely damaging a number of towns and bases, the offensive stalled and was pushed back by US and South Vietnamese forces.

As the Tet offensive caused a paradigmatic shift in the US, both politically and culturally, it is likely the Hamas invasion will do the same in Israel.

The real tremors of the Tet offensive, however, were felt more substantially thousands of miles away in the United States. The American public—and Washington—was shocked at the shear audacity and breadth of the onslaught.
[5] Recriminations flew around Washington casting blame for the intelligence and military failure. More importantly, it changed the narrative of the conflict. Until then most Americans were led to believe that the war was going swimmingly well, and that US objectives were being achieved. But not after this. The entire US war strategy had to be reevaluated. Americans increasingly began to doubt the war effort and the US government’s portrayal of it—domestic opposition to US involvement in the war increased exponentially.[6] It spelled the beginning of the end for the Lyndon Johnson administration, disrupting politics toward an utterly chaotic remainder of the year.

This is what the Hamas offensive was. Unexpected and unanticipated disruption. Hamas, not bound by the conventional negotiation paradigm that had been established by others, upended the apple cart while hoping that what falls from it eventually improves its lot. In an immediate sense, it will disrupt Arab-Israeli diplomatic normalization that had been gaining steam in recent years, a process that Palestinians believe has further marginalized them.[7] Palestinians know that Arab countries will ultimately follow their own national interests, but this new Israeli-Palestinian war will make it that much more difficult for any Arab leader to move forward with Israel in the short term. In that sense, Hamas’ mission was accomplished. And as the Tet offensive caused a paradigmatic shift in the US, both politically and culturally, it is likely the Hamas invasion will do the same in Israel.

Teheran has for long supported Hamas and may benefit in the short term from the disruption to Arab-Israeli normalization.

Current comparisons with the 1973 war are accurate in the sense that the analytical focus to date has been on Israeli failure. No doubt the investigation to come will find various elements of Israel’s military, intelligence, and political apparatus at fault.[8] And the focus on Iran being at least partially responsible is not without some validity. Teheran has for long supported Hamas[9] and may benefit in the short term from the disruption to Arab-Israeli normalization. But as with the North Vietnamese forces in the Tet offensive, in a strict military sense, this type of thinking minimizes the initial strategic and operational methodology of Hamas’ invasion, even though the wrath of Israel will surely be forthcoming. It also tends to ignore the overall level of Palestinian frustration and despair—and the Israeli role in contributing to it, a situation that helped create the facilitating environment for radical and violent responses to an extent. However, the sheer brutality of the Hamas onslaught, the senseless killings and taking of hostages, especially defenseless children and the elderly[10]—and the violence that will inevitably come on both sides and is indeed unfolding at the time of the publication of this article[11]—may create a deleterious narrative for Hamas. Sometimes the guy in the small hut is deeply motivated to wreak havoc and destroy, and in the process of doing so, being destroyed.

[1] Ynet (2023). ‘An unprecedented surprise attack on Israel reminiscent of 1973’, Ynet, 7 October 2023, retrieved from https://www.ynet.co.il/news/article/h1u003tcxp.
[2] History.com (2023). ‘Yom Kippur War’, History.com, 16 August 2023, retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/middle-east/yom-kippur-war.
[3] LTC Meek, S.R., (2016). ‘The Illusion of Defeat: Egyptian Strategic Thinking and the 1973 Yom Kippur War’, School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College’, 4 June 2016, retrieved from https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/tr/pdf/AD1022141.pdf.
[4] Office of the Historian (2023). ‘U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War: The Tet Offensive, 1968’, retrieved from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/tet#:~:text=In%20late%20January%2C%201968%2C%20during,finally%20repelling%20the%20communist%20assault.
[5] Willbanks, J.H., (2009). ‘Shock and Awe of Tet Offensive Shattered U.S. Illusions’, 29 January 2009, retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2009/01/29/shock-and-awe-of-tet-offensive-shattered-us-illusions.
[6] Zelizer, J.E., (2018). ‘How the Tet Offensive Undermined American Faith in Government’, The Atlantic, 15 January 2018, retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/how-the-tet-offensive-undermined-american-faith-in-government/550010/#:~:text=An%20initial%20spike%20in%20public,it%20was%20the%20right%20decision.
[7] Malvisi, G. (2023). ‘64% of Palestinians Opposed to Abraham Accords, majority say 2020 pact made Israel more aggressive’, Arab News, 20 May 2023, retrieved from https://www.arabnews.com/node/2303321/middle-east.
[8] Shotter, J., (2023). ‘The day that stunned Israel: attacks shake faith in intelligence services’, Financial Times, 8 October 2023, retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/575cfb86-3a96-42b2-9af6-e9ae2a011f18.
[9] Said, S., Faucon, B. and Kalin, S., (2023). ‘Iran Helped Plot Attack on Israel Over Several Weeks’, The Wall Street Journal, 8 October 2023, retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/world/middle-east/iran-israel-hamas-strike-planning-bbe07b25.
[10] Euronews (2023). ‘”They shot children, babies, old people”: kibbutz survivors describe Hamas’ deadly assault’, Euronews, 10 October 2023, retrieved from https://www.euronews.com/2023/10/10/they-shot-children-babies-old-people-kibbutz-survivors-describe-hamas-deadly-assault.
[11] Sabbagh, D., (2023). ‘Israeli ground offensive in Gaza faces physical and political risks’, The Guardian, 14 October 2023, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/14/israeli-ground-offensive-in-gaza-faces-physical-and-political-risks-hamas.

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