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HNN Poll: Is Iraq Developing into a Quagmire?

Are we getting bogged down in Iraq? Is it a quagmire? If so, what do we mean by quagmire? Vietnam? Was Vietnam a quagmire? Post your comments below.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Press briefing, June 30, 2003)

... As we celebrate our liberty, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the challenges that our country faced in its early years. It was a period of chaos and confusion. Our revolution was followed by a serious commercial depression. Britain's colonial ports were -- in the West Indies were closed to ships flying the American flag. There was rampant inflation and no stable currency.

Discontent led to uprisings, such as the Shays Rebellion, with mobs attacking courthouses and government buildings. In 1783 demobilized soldiers from the Continental Army surrounded the statehouse in Philadelphia, demanding back pay. Congress fled for more than six months, meeting in Princeton, Trenton and finally Annapolis, to avoid angry mobs.

Our first attempt at governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed, in a sense. It took eight years before the Founders finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first president.

That history is worth remembering as we consider the difficulties that the Afghans and the Iraqis face today. The transition to democracy is never easy. Coalition forces drove Iraq's terrorist leaders from power, but unlike traditional adversaries that we've faced in wars past, who sign a surrender document, hand over their weapons, the remnants of the Ba'ath regime and the Fedayeen death squads faded into the population and have reverted to a terrorist network. We are dealing with those remnants in a forceful fashion, just as we have had to deal with the remnants of al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and tribal areas near Pakistan....

Q: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask you about a couple of words and phrases that keep popping up in the commentary about what's going on. One of them is "guerrilla war," and the other one is "quagmire." Now, I know you've admonished us not to --

Rumsfeld: I never have admonished you.

Q: -- not to rush to any judgment about a quagmire just because things are getting tough. But can you remind us again why this isn't a quagmire?...

Rumsfeld: ... why don't I think it is one? Well, I opened my remarks today about the United States of America. Were we in a quagmire for eight years? I would think not. We were in a process. We were in a -- we were evolving from a monarchy into a democracy. What happened in Eastern Europe? Were they in a quagmire when the Berlin Wall fell down and they started struggling and working their way towards democracy? Was Afghanistan in a quagmire, as they went through that awkward stage of trying to schedule a Bonn process and then a Loya Jirga, and now they still don't have a permanent government, nor is it perfectly peaceful there.

If you -- you call it what you want, and then be held accountable for it. My personal view is that we're in a war. We're in a global war on terrorism and there are people that don't agree with that -- for the most part, terrorists. And our goal in each of those countries is to get the terrorists out of Afghanistan, get the Saddam Hussein regime out of Iraq and allow the people of those countries to take over their countries and put their countries on a path towards something approximating a representative, civil society that's not a threat to its neighbors.

If you want to call that a quagmire, do it. I don't....

Q: (Inaudible) -- what a quagmire suggests that, really is, whether you have a good exit strategy. The criticism would be that you're in a situation from which there's no good way to extricate yourself. And -- (Inaudible.) --

Rumsfeld: Then the word "clearly" would not be a good one. You would wish not to have used it, were you to do so -- (Laughter.) -- which, of course, someone as wise as you would not.

Chris Appy, Author of Patriots, The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides

'Quagmire' remains the paramount metaphor of American defeat in Vietnam. Yet the more we learn about Washington decision-making during the war, the less apt the metaphor. An abundance of evidence, old and new, makes clear that U.S. policy makers knew full well that the odds of success in Vietnam were poor, and that U.S. escalation could not really be expected to do more than forestall defeat. In public, of course, they said the opposite -- that progress was steady, that the enemy was demoralized and in decline, that there was light at the end of the tunnel (a wartime metaphor that was mocked almost as soon as it was uttered).

With eyes wide open, they created their own quagmire, sent American soldiers to die in it for more than ten years, and were finally dragged out kicking and screaming by a public that would tolerate it no longer. Why did they do it? There is no single answer to this question but one worth emphasizing emerges from several of the interviews I conducted for my book. As James Thomson suggests ... a key reason was simply that no American president was willing to risk the charge of being called a loser, even if it meant prolonging a ruinous and unnecessary war.

Tom Engelhardt: From The End of Victory Culture

As the enemy fought its way into America's Vietnam, a confusing new set of war words gained currency, combining a desire to impose American reality on the Vietnamese, to defend it from the Vietnamese, and to hide it from the public. It was a withdrawal language that like various withdrawal strategies would get Americans only halfway home.

No word more encapsulated this confused process than the one that came to stand in for the whole experience. Vietnam, it was commonly said, was a "quagmire" that had sucked America in. This crucial withdrawal word seems to have entered the national vocabulary in 1964 with the publication of journalist David Halberstam's book The Making of a Quagmire. Like much of that vocabulary, it has refused to withdraw from political discourse ever since.

"Quagmire" and its various cognates and relations -- swamp, quicksand, bog, morass, sinkhole, bottomless pit -- were quickly picked up across the spectrum of American politics. In 1965, Clark Clifford, then an unofficial adviser to the president, warned Johnson that Vietnam "could be a quagmire. It could turn into an open ended commitment on our part that would take more and more ground troops, without a realistic hope of ultimate victory." Writing in opposition to the war in 1968, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., combined the images of quagmire and nightmare into a single image of horror. "And so the policy of 'one more step' lured the United States deeper and deeper into the morass.... Yet, in retrospect, each step led only to the next, until we find ourselves entrapped in that nightmare of American strategists, a land war in Asia."

During the Tet Offensive of 1968, TV anchorman Walter Cronkite ended a personal report on the war by concluding, "To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion." Folk singer Pete Seeger sang his dismay over a war that left Americans "knee deep in the Big Muddy," and in 1974, an army commander offered this assessment of the American dilemma: "The ultimate objective that emerged was the preservation of the U.S. leadership image and the maintenance of U.S. integrity in having committed itself; it could not then pull away from the quicksand in which it found itself."

Embedded in war talk, the quagmire was never so much a description of the war as a world view imposed on the war. A quagmire is "a bog having a surface that yields when stepped on." To the Vietnamese, their country was not a quagmire. It was home and the American decision to be there a form of hated or desired (or sometimes, in America's allies, both hated and desired) intervention. For those who opposed the United States, the war was a planned aggression of the most violent sort, the latest of many foreign invasions inseparable from Vietnamese history.

For Americans, the initial benefit of the word quagmire was that it ruled out the possibility of planned aggression. The image turned Vietnam into the aggressor, not only transferring agency for all negative action to the land, but also instantly devaluing it. It undoubtedly called to mind as well movie scenes in which heroic white adventurers misstepped in some misbegotten place and found themselves swallowed to the waist, with every effort at extrication leading toward further disaster.

Here was no rich land to be settled. Its swampy nature made it valueless as real estate and robbed the American presence of any suggestion of self-interest. As a quagmire, the land became evidence of American "good intentions." The United States was there only because the Vietnamese needed and wanted help. This geological Admiral Yamamoto had "lured" Americans in and mired them there, ambushing an unsuspecting country. Because the United States "stumbled" into this quagmire by "mistake," the detailed nature of war planning was automatically denied. In this way, "quagmire" offered an implicit explanation for involvement in Vietnam (it sucked us in, once our good intentions had suckered us there); and for why the United States remained so many years and battles later (the harder it tried to leave, the more it was pulled down).

Its early adoption as a metaphor for the war indicates how quickly Americans began to reimagine themselves as victims not victimizers. In the "quagmire" can be seen the first glimmerings of a postwar sense that victimhood was the essence of national identity. In the idea of the land as aggressor lay the future obliteration of the memory of the Vietnamese victors; in an acceptance that all efforts at extrication only embedded Americans deeper in the muck of war lay proof that, had they been in control of events, all they would have wanted was to depart.

"Quagmire," of course, hardly captured the U.S. situation in Vietnam. There, detailed war planning, including the structured use of the spectacle of slaughter, came up against an organized, mobilized people, ready to resist foreign aggression under unimaginable levels of destruction for lengths of time inconceivable to American policy makers. What kept those policy makers in the war was not quicksand, but the thought that with the next ratchet up the scale of destruction and pain all this would somehow end as it should (and, to the last moment, disbelief that this was not so).

Seeing Vietnam as a quagmire, however, was one way in which Americans attempted to distance themselves from the war's reality. It was part of a language of self-deception and cover-up that painted an oddly flattering picture of a nation unfairly experiencing an "American tragedy." If such war talk proved a linguistic quagmire into which Americans quickly sank and from which they have never fully emerged, it was meant to de-Vietnamize the conflict, to withdraw the American gaze from any tragedy other than an American one, even while the United States continued to fight. It was meant to deflect attention from the centrality of the Vietnamese to the war and from the bloody nature of U.S. war plans. It was meant to take Americans part way home without an admission of defeat….
Copyright C 2003 Tom Engelhardt

The excerpts above first appeared in a selection published on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.