Symposium: The Tet Offensive (6)

The failure of the military to believe and act on signals intelligence happened so often during my years in Vietnam that I coined the term “Cassandra Effect” to describe it. Like the mythical Trojan clairvoyant Cassandra, I was blessed with the ability to foresee the future—by exploiting enemy communications—and cursed with not being believed.

It happened with the Tet Offensive. But it also changed the outcome of the 1967 battle of Dak To. And most painfully for me before the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon at the end of April 1975.

I’m long since retired and no longer cleared for classified information. But those currently still active tell me that the situation has changed for the better. These days, I’m told, the operators and the intelligence personnel are so closely bonded that it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which.

I profoundly hope my informants are right. And yet I see two ongoing tendencies that remind me of my days in Vietnam and greatly concern me.

One is the “can-do” attitude which fails to recognize signs of defeat. That happened in Iraq and again in Afghanistan. We do not seem to be able, as a nation, to accept the evidence that we are failing militarily and withdraw.

The other is our willingness to call it quits and leave those who fought by our side to the mercies of their enemies. When Saigon fell, we abandoned thousands and thousands of South Vietnamese who had stood next to us to fight the communists. We have now done the same thing in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I read, to my horror, stories of Iraqis and Afghans who translated and interpreted for us trying vainly to escape to the U.S. to avoid being killed by our enemies in their country.

We are a can-do, optimistic nation. I admire that in us. But I see that we are also a nation that can’t seem to learn by our mistakes. That frightens me.

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