I recently watched Ken Burns brilliant ten part documentary on the Vietnam War. It is now over 40 years since that terrible conflict ended, at least in so far as any American involvement was concerned. So the new documentary had the benefit of hindsight and sources both in Vietnam and the US which have emerged over time. This was not an “American view” of the war but genuinely balanced with thoughtful contributions from Vietnamese from North as well as South and also from those from both sides of the divide in America. That degree of even-handedness was only possible once time had allowed some of the wounds to heal. Veterans from the North Vietnamese Army, the Vietcong and American Vets have been meeting for some years without rancour and with shared experiences – and to a surprising extent shared values as well. In the US those who avoided the draft have found common ground with those who didn’t and who had served and suffered.
I mention Vietnam primarily to point to how the passing of time allows an objectivity to events to be made which would be impossible closer to their occurrence. The first step along the road to balance comes with the gathering of facts – the recording, often after painstaking research, of what actually happened. This is where the 9/11 museum and memorial at the World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan is outstanding. I have now visited it twice and can only praise its comprehensiveness insofar as its recording of what actually happened on 9th September 2001 (and the circumstances leading up to it) are concerned. But I suspect I was not the only visitor shaking my head as I left not because I did not know WHAT had happened on 9/11 but because I was little wiser as to WHY. True the basic facts about the rise of Islamic terrorism were displayed as were America’s actions post 9/11. But in the same way that we can now see that the American involvement in Vietnam was driven by banal and simplistic ideology so America’s response to 9/11 is arguably more of the same. Similarly there was little to suggest that 9/11 was at least in part a response to actions that the West, and especially the US, had taken over the years – not least the first Gulf War.
Successive American post WW2 Presidents saw countering the threat of Communism as their biggest global challenge. John Kennedy’s inaugural address said so – not directly but the code was not difficult to decipher. This was a form of ideological imperialism which argued that the American version of “freedom” was superior to anybody else’s. Maybe it was – but as we saw in Burns documentary the wish for the Vietnamese people to at last be rid of the imperial yoke (first French then American) was at least as credible a cry for freedom. America was selective in choosing to support the very corrupt and undemocratic South Vietnam because it was anti Communist rather than (say) the freedom movement in South Africa where the Nationalist and strongly Anti Communist Vorster (etc.) were seen as ideological allies. Choose your freedoms carefully.
9/11 was an attack on America in a way that Korea, or Vietnam or the first Gulf War were not. For the first time since Pearl Harbor Americans died in large numbers on American soil as a result of an organised and externally-driven attack. There was an immediate call, from the President downwards, for revenge on and punishment of the perpetrators. Military terminology (“The War on Terrorism”) was used, but this was to say the least highly questionable. In 1941 America knew who to declare war on and did so. In 2001 the only war declaration could be against an abstract – such as “terrorism” or “Islamic extremism”. Notwithstanding this America launched a ground war in Afghanistan which was for a time the home of Al Qaeda. The Taliban, who the US had once supported as anti-Communist, now became the enemy because they had given Osama Bin-Laden and Al Qaeda a home. Standing armies were sent to counter guerrillas in the same way they once had been sent to counter them – the Vietcong – in Vietnam. And with a similar lack of success.
Fear and ignorance leads to scapegoating and there was plenty of all three post 9/11, and there still is. It is legitimate to ask what America did to counter the Islamic terrorist threat prior to 9/11. After all the World Trade Center had already been attacked with loss of life in 1993. The First Gulf War In 1991 was not an attack on terrorism but on a rogue state – that allied attack on Iraq, led by the US, had little to do with countering Islamic militancy (and quite a lot to do with Oil). After 9/11 the febrile climate in the US led to the Afghan War and then, even more controversially, to renewed military conflict in Iraq with regime change the goal and Oil (again) the prize. In effect the NeoConservatives behind a weak and confused President saw their chance to push over a Middle East “domino” in Iraq even though Saddam Hussain had had nothing to do with 9/11. And the very oily Republican Right saw their chance to get their hands on some rich oil fields. Well we all know what happened next – huge loss of life in a long drawn out conflict and an unwinnable War comprehensively not won. Shades of Vietnam.
Neville Chamberlain once infamously called Czechoslovakia a “Faraway country of which we know nothing”. This was an argument, of sorts, not to get involved if Nazi Germany (as they seemed sure to) attacked the Czechs. In the mid 1960s the same phrase could have been used with rather more legitimacy by the Americans in respect of Vietnam. That South Vietnam was under threat from Communist North Vietnam was true. That it was any of the United States business is highly questionable. Were Americans and American interests under threat from Ho Chi Min? Far less, as it happens, than they were from the People’s Republic of China and there was nobody in the US that argued that war with China should be contemplated – for obvious reasons. So why Vietnam? Because the US judged that North Vietnam could be defeated militarily. Roll forward twenty-five years and the same mistake was made in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is human to make mistakes – but it is reproachable to keep making the same ones. Nobody should underrate the threat of Islamic Terrorism and after 9/11 America had a legitimate interest in seeking to defeat the forces which had led to it. But 9/11 was not Pearl Harbor where an enemy state had attacked the US and where the right and only response was war with It. In September 2001 the attackers were not the military of a foreign power but citizens of a number of different countries held together by nothing more than their allegiances to a malignant ideology – members of a cult. They were also guerrilla warriors who neither had, nor needed, conventional armies nor weapons. As a group they hid in the shadows until they attacked, and then faded back into the shadows when it was over. They were also kamikaze killers who died at the same time as their victims. The success of Al Qaeda is illustrated most obviously by the fact that it took the US twelve years to track down Bin Laden.
The key point about the causes of 9/11 is surely how they emphasised the essential need for working with the moderate Muslim world to help them counter the threat, a threat that is often one to their world as much as it is to the West. It also needed understanding of the motivations and underlying causes of the terrorism. The 9/11 memorial contains the names of all the innocent victims of the WTC attack. The nineteen terrorists who also died on that fateful day are, of course, not commemorated. But in a way they were also victims – dead because they had been sucked into the malevolent ideology of Islamic extremism. If in future such horrors are to be avoided the West needs more than tightened security, “evil bastards” rhetoric and raw power. It needs especially to work intimately with the Muslim world not just to identify threats but to understand where the threats come from, and why. And to find a way to dissuade Muslim believers to take any steps towards jihad. If the preachers of violence fail to recruit their preaching will fail.
It is this that today that makes Trump’s America so dangerous – everything is reduced to a binary “For Us or against Us”. To attempt to ban immigration of those whose religion is Islam (the world’s largest and fastest growing faith) shows an open contempt which can hardly be expected to help build partnerships with the overwhelmingly peaceful Muslim world. And the populations of western countries, including the US, need to be helped to understand Islam and to realise that extremism and jihads are not inherent to the religion and that the vast majority of Muslims present no threat. But it is also important not to deny that Islamic belief, albeit of a grossly distorted sort, lay behind 9/11 and all other acts of Islamic terrorism. There is no alternative but to start at the Mosques and other centres of Islamic teaching, including the madrasahs, and find where the extremist message is being promulgated. But parts of the Muslim world could benefit from greater tolerance as well. You can surely, in the modern world, be a devout Muslim but also see that other religious choices (and none) are legitimate. The secular Western lifestyle is ubiquitous across the world. A Muslim is entitled to think it decadent, but not to deny the rights of the millions of us who follow it.
The painful memories of the Vietnam War are now rather distant ones and that allows an objectivity that Ken Burns documentary so skilfully brings. It is not cold and dispassionate but it does show that the binary judgments of the time and the immediate aftermath were ignorant and wrong. The War was much more nuanced and complex than simplistic sloganising (on all sides) suggested. The same applies to 9/11. That we were the victims of the propagation of an evil ideology is true, but it is a superficial and limited view. To explain 9/11 you cannot just focus on a mad outlaw in a cave surrounded by his cult followers planning an evil attack. To answer the question as to WHY it happened requires much more than that. And to stop it happening again requires more than shooting from the hip.
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