A spectre is haunting America: the spectre of anti-Communism. In a word, Vietnam. Only three weeks into the bombing war in Afghanistan, the dreaded word 'quagmire' headed a New York Times piece by the Vietnam-era commentator R.W. Apple Jr, pointing out the 'many echoes' between the new conflict and the war America tries hard to forget. A rash of articles erupted, explaining how different they really were: Vietnam hot and green, Afghanistan cold and arid, the Taliban had no nearby sanctuary like China or North Vietnam, militant Islam lacks the patriotic strand in revolutionary Marxism, and so on. That Vietnam ended long ago does not explain these hasty disclaimers: World War Two, now recalled with treacly nostalgia, ended even further back. But it ended in a blaze of pure glory: the enemy governments either collapsed or signed a dictated peace, so all the sacrifices had been worthwhile. The end in Vietnam was more enigmatic. Either the world's strongest military and economic power was defeated by a Third World country with less than a fifth of America's population - a military miracle - or, even more shameful, the US abandoned a small ally it had solemnly sworn to defend. 'If we are driven from the field in Vietnam,' President Johnson had pledged in July 1965, 'then no nation can ever have the same confidence in American promises or American protection. We will stand in Vietnam.' Uncomfortable precedents indeed for America's allies in a new open-ended crusade against another ill-defined conspiracy, whose tentacles reach into the United States itself: the selective war on global terrorism.
LRB 21 February 2002 | PDF Download