How can you be haunted by something that doesn’t exist—or, at the very least, something that defies formal recognition? Unlike ghosts or bumps in the night, for example, the American war in Vietnam did take place, and yet what so many people find “haunting” about Vietnam is less the outcome, an American defeat (which barely exists in these terms—anyone watching the History Channel recently could be forgiven for thinking that America did rather well in Southeast Asia in the 1960 and 1970s), than something altogether more intangible. It is the so-called the Vietnam syndrome, which embraces both left and right and usually evokes a fear and distrust of central American government instead of acceptance that a bad war turned into a hopeless loss. Despite the best army in the world, billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of acres of carpet bombing, and magnificent intelligence, the United States lost a military campaign. Not because some 60,000 Americans lost their lives, while over 2 million Vietnamese lost theirs, but because the just war to fight belonged to the Vietnamese, not to us. We were wrong at the outset and wrong at the end. It was a terrible mistake. That shouldn’t haunt us, however. What is “haunting”—or more properly put, disturbing—is the reluctance to accept defeat when victory was never ours to be won. Such a refusal is never more counterproductive than now because yet again we are confronted by the view, expressed mainly by queasy journalists, that the campaign in Afghanistan is “ haunted ”by the Vietnam experience—that there’s a fear of being dragged into a similar war.
There’s a categorical difference, however, between Vietnam and the plan to capture the leaders of al-Qaida. The just campaign is ours. Al-Qaida, an organization with no authority and no moral concern, murdered close to 5,000 people. Yet like the Vietnamese in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and it allies now have a problem persuading many people in far-off places that their cause is just. In an effort to ward off the haunted and to persuade those who instinctively believe that America forever considers itself in the right—and there’s no shortage of such people—it would be no bad thing if the United States and its close ally, Britain, admitted it had been wrong in the past—in Vietnam, for example, or Iran. Anyone in doubt about how wrong the United States and Britain were to topple the Iranian government in 1953 can read all the grim documents courtesy of the New York Times Web site.
Moreover, those who would impose a king upon the Afghans as part of a post-Taliban settlement would be wise to turn to those very same haunting documents. As a result of the 1953 coup, the Iranians were given a shah, and that gift, as much as anything Islamic, characterizes modern Iran’s attitude toward the United States. If the United States fears democracy in Afghanistan and favors a more authoritarian regime, then what hope does it have of promoting democracy in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Palestine? Moreover, if one is troubled by Iran in 1953, why risk being haunted all over again by what may occur in Afghanistan in 2001 or 2002 or even 2003?