And it's one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn -
Next stop is Vietnam
Remember Vietnam? More than two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died. Country Joe McDonald was a war veteran. He first sang the I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag in 1965:
And it's five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We're all gonna die
It was innocent Vietnamese villagers, though, who died at My Lai on March 16 1968. Led by Lieutenant William Calley, "Charlie Company", a unit of the US Eleventh Light Infantry, massacred 500 unarmed villagers. My Lai was a turning point in the uncalled-for US invasion. How, Americans began to ask, could the US have God and "Charlie Company" on its side? In what ways was "Charlie Patrol", President Johnson and the US morally superior to the Vietcong, Ho Chi Minh and an ancient Far Eastern civilization? Even if it were worth fighting to keep communism and its weapons of mass destruction at bay by blasting civilians with napalm, what positive message was Uncle Sam preaching? "Men who take up arms against one another in public," said Abraham Lincoln - quoted in Lt Calley's trial - to Union troops during the US civil war, "do not cease on this account to be moral human beings, responsible to one another and to God."
With the experience of Vietnam behind them, what is the moral impulse driving George Bush and Tony Blair to war in Iraq? If Washington and Westminster know what they are fighting against - Saddam Hussein and his "weapons of mass destruction" - what are they fighting for? Is there more to it than installing an oily new regime in Baghdad subservient to Sheriff Bush? Or a military administration led by Tommy Franks, a general who looks as if he has walked straight off the set of Dr Strangelove?
What can our civilization offer this ancient land, still free of the excesses of US consumer culture, beyond "regime change"? Will we help invest in public hospitals on the one hand, and archaeology on the other, or in lucrative oil extraction and fast-food joints? How do we value this cradle of our own civilization, its history, peoples, antiquities? Do we mean to harm Iraqi civilians who have suffered quite enough over the past 11 years, but have no way of publicly expressing their concerns? How are they meant to trust Washington or Westminster when our support has never been certain?
During the second world war, Britain had no doubts about its enemy: Hitler, Nazism and governments which believed themselves to be above international the law. But we also had an intelligent view of what we were about. The war developed a moral and positive, as well as a military and destructive, purpose. Politicians who put John Ruskin, Robert Tressel and the Bible rather than Harry Potter at the top of their reading lists, pointed the way towards a well-meant New Jerusalem, a decent, democratic society, free from poverty, TB, rickets and public services run in the interests of private gain.
This was a very different country from today's New Britain, a land where politicians speak the language of US business schools, where our homes and public services are commodities, and greed a virtue. Before we take a wrathful, Old Testament God - nurtured at the time of Abraham in what is now Iraq - on a trip with us by B-52 and Tornado to smite Saddam and citizenry, we owe it to ourselves to state, on the international stage, what we truly believe today.
Is our creed more than a confusion of cheap energy, discriminatory education, junk food, shopping malls, cynical housing, privatized public services, property deals, celebrity culture, the machinations of multinational corporations, leisurewear, chic pornography, the right to bear arms, and a deep-seated fear of the Saracen bogeyman handed down in popular legend, and half-baked government dossiers, from the crusades? Most decent British and American citizens, not loath to protest against unrighteous war nor to fight for a just cause, want and deserve better than this. We need to know what we are fighting for, and to give more than a damn.
Of course we should be on our guard. Western civilization is under attack by angry people around the globe. We need to present the positive aspects of our culture, not its crass, bloated, knee-jerk side, nor the less-than-secret craving of certain US and British politicians for a "good" bloody war.
On February 18 1229, Frederick II, the Holy Roman emperor, achieved the return of Christian access to Jerusalem. He did this by negotiation with the Sultan, Al-Kamil. Frederick was condemned by the Pope. A peaceful crusade against the evil Ayyubid empire? His holiness didn't give a damn. What he wanted was infidel blood.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002