Late one soft summer night in 1966, my brother Christopher slipped out of our north Oxford house and bicycled to the centre of the city. There he spent a worryingly long time with a spraypaint can, inscribing the words ‘Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?’ on a long builders’ hoarding outside Trinity College in Broad Street. You will have to work out for yourselves how I know this, but I do. The punctuation was perfect, and a handwriting expert could easily have told it was him. The slogan endured for months and even appeared in a TV drama filmed in the city some months later. This was how we felt then. There was no other cause so great.
Even on its own terms, the Vietnam war was a terrible error and multitudes did indeed die for a mistake. Its conduct was vainglorious and deluded, largely based on boneheaded bafflement that so much violence could achieve so little against such tiny, ill-equipped foes. Did they really not grasp that men will fight very hard indeed for their own countries? I am completely fascinated to find that so many people of my more or less leftist generation now wish to see one, two, three, many Vietnams, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria — and, I suspect, Iran and perhaps Russia too. They should know better.
It is in the curious and misunderstood events of 11 September 2001 that the riddle is answered. I must admit that, as a former Marxist-Leninist, I was far too cool and dispassionate about this outrage. I assessed it as a military and political event. I thought then — and think now — that people underestimated the importance of the fact that so many of the murderers came from Saudi Arabia.