Sept. 10, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 1
Military history buffs have long relished the opportunity to second-guess the tactical decisions of Alexander the Great, George Washington, Napoleon, Douglas MacArthur and history's other famous war commanders.
Asst. Prof. Seth Jacobs (History) will assist these "armchair generals" in earning their own battle stars as an analyst in a History Channel television series that airs this fall.
Jacobs will make several appearances on the network's "Command Decisions" show, a weekly program that explores the tactical options of generals and admirals who have fought on battlefields from Thermopylae to Baghdad. Panels of military experts and civilian historians assess the choices available to the on-site commanders and the immediate and long-term consequences of their decisions.
The viewer can then make his or her own choice of the possible courses of action and then weigh their decisions against what eventually happened.
"It's an ingenious idea for a television series," said Jacobs. "It makes clear to the layman what historians have ground into their cerebral cortex in graduate school: 'History is studied backward, but it is lived forward.' There's nothing inevitable about the way history turned out. People had an array of choices and they had to pick one. Had they chosen differently, the entire course of a battle or a war, or even history itself, could have been different.
"I like that," he said.
Jacobs, who specializes in the Vietnam War, will be a guest evaluator on the Sept. 17 "Command Decisions" (9:30 p.m. EDT) episode that will explore American Gen. William Westmoreland's defensive tactics during the 1968 Tet Offensive, a turning point in the Vietnam conflict. On the eve of the Tet holiday, North Vietnam launched a series of surprise attacks across South Vietnam, including an assault on the US Embassy in Saigon. Although the attacks were eventually repelled, the string of battles gave an impression of vulnerability in the American military strategy - an impression magnified by media coverage of the event.
From the American point of view, Tet was a clear military success, Jacobs says. "But at the end of the show I point out that in spite of all of the superficial signs of an American military victory, it marked the beginning of the end for the United States. Even though the Americans and the South Vietnamese threw back the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese offensive, and even though the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese couldn't hold any of the territory, they proved that the country still wasn't secure.
"Before the Tet Offensive all of the talk was about winning the war; after the Tet Offensive all of the talk was about 'peace with honor,'" Jacobs said.
On last week's "Command Decisions" show, Jacobs was a member of a panel that evaluated MacArthur's battle options in planning and executing the perilous Inchon amphibious invasion in Korea in 1952.
Jacobs said he expects to be included in a future "Command Decisions" show focusing on the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu between French and Vietnamese forces that effectively ended French colonial rule in Vietnam.
-Reid Oslin •