War Words

Most of the war words from the Vietnam years have rushed back so fast it’s deafening. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, in an op-ed (“The Imperial Presidency Redux”) in the Washington Post, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a figure from that time, should speak not just of an “imperial presidency,” a phrase which first arose in the Nixon years, but of a growing “credibility gap,” that gap of gaps from the Vietnam era. (“And the WMD issue will build because hyped intelligence produces a credibility gap. The credibility gap is likely to undermine the Bush doctrine and block the radical transformation of U.S. strategy to which the Bush administration is dedicated.”) But just yesterday at a joint news conference, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard B. Myers found themselves twisting and squirming lest they be mired in Vietnam language. Rumsfeld began the news conference by comparing the present Iraqi situation to the period just after the American Revolution:

“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.”

Then, having equated Ba’athist “remnants” and Fedayeen “death squads” with the Shays rebels and demobilized Continental Army soldiers (whoops!), he added, “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.” Of course, for this analogy to be even faintly on target, French Royalists, having dispatched their fleet to Yorktown, would have had to occupy (“liberate”) the thirteen colonies, promising freedom some distant day. (And, of course, we’d enter a world of absurdities.)

After his little historical discourse, Rumsfeld was confronted by a reporter who wanted to know why this wasn’t a “guerrilla war.” (It wasn’t because it wasn’t — was Rumsfeld’s answer, more or less.) And then, the famed “quagmire” made its first appearance and Rumsfeld began to dance harder.

“Now, the other part of your question. Quagmire. Quagmire. We have had several quagmires that weren’t thus far, and I don’t know — I didn’t look that word up, either. I should have, knowing you. But 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…. If you want to call that a quagmire, do it. I don’t.”

And when the quagmire refused to dry up and go away, he began to get irritated:

Q: But sir, is there — it seems to me that calling it an insurgency or a guerrilla war begins to bring to mind to people the last one that the United States had, which was Vietnam, which I think most people can agree was not a resounding success. You go from Vietnam, your classic quagmire, and —

Rumsfeld: There are so many cartoons where people, oppressed people are saying, “Is it Vietnam yet?” — hoping it is and wondering if it is. And it isn’t. It’s a different time. It’s a different era. It’s a different place. But I was asked a question, would I call it that? I said what I would call it.

Q: Which is?

Rumsfeld: Oh, I’m not going to repeat it, Pam. We’ll get the transcript. It was the answer to the first question. If someone wants to call it something else, fine, do that, and be held accountable for being wrong, just as I’m held accountable for being wrong, and goodness knows I am from time to time. I try not to be, but I am.

Just this week, someone at the on-line version of Mother Jones magazine googled “Iraq” and “Vietnam” and then “Iraq” and “quagmire” and came up with a quick 2,380 hits for the first and 201 for the second. In fact, the old war words aren’t about to go away any time soon, no matter how hard Rumsfeld tap dances around the stage. After all, first and foremost, they’re still embedded in the brains of our leaders. And they all remember as well that not so many years ago our present Secretary of State, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, propounded the so-called Powell Doctrine based on what were believed to be the “lessons of Vietnam.” And I think you may be hearing a lot about that too sometime soon. Its essence was not just to go into any war at full throttle but to have an “exit strategy.” The quagmire is already with us and as an image it’s the very opposite of an exit strategy.

At the edge of our July 4th weekend — and note that I’m planning to do the unprecedented and take three days off from these dispatches, starting tomorrow — I thought it might be of interest to revisit at least one “classic” war word of that lost era, “quagmire.” War words frame wars. They seem to arise from the war itself, but often they are secret explanations for what’s happening. They impose our order on otherwise alien events. Quagmire is particularly interesting because it takes all agency, all responsibility away from us. It’s a subject I wrote about in my old book, The End of Victory Culture, and I thought that I might let you revisit those passages with the developing situation in Iraq in mind — because in a sense, Rumsfeld isn’t wrong. About quagmire anyway. It’s not an accurate description of what’s happening in Iraq, but it wasn’t an accurate description of what was happening in Vietnam either.

In addition, after the passages from my book, I’m including a single interview from Chris Appy’s new book, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides. Gripping to read and a chastening reminder of how disastrously wrong imperial adventures can go, Patriots is a book I’m especially proud to have edited. I have no doubt it will someday be considered a classic.

As a little introduction to my “quagmire” selection and his interview with Vietnam-era official James Thomson, Appy adds the following comments, which might serve as a preview of things to come when that other old war word “withdrawal” enters public discourse as it must sooner or later:

“‘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 below, 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.”

From The End of Victory Culture (pp. 197-201):

…The idea of “withdrawing” from Vietnam arose with the war itself. It was there from the beginning, though never as an actual plan. All real options for ending the war were invariably linked to “cutting and running,” or “dishonor,” or “surrender,” or “humiliation,” and so dismissed within the councils of government more or less before being raised. The attempt to prosecute the war and to withdraw from it were never separable, no less opposites. If anything, withdrawal became a way to maintain or intensify the war, while pacifying the American public.

“Withdrawal” involved not departure but all sorts of departure-like maneuvers — from bombing pauses that led to fiercer bombing campaigns to negotiation offers never meant to be taken up to a “Vietnamization” plan in which ground troops would be pulled out as the air war was intensified. Each gesture of withdrawal allowed the war planners to fight a little longer; but if withdrawal did not withdraw the country from the war, the war’s prosecution never brought it close to a victorious conclusion. With every failed withdrawal gesture and every failed battle strategy, that sense of “nightmare” seemed to draw closer, and a feeling arose that the country had somehow been entrapped in Vietnam.

This may be the strangest aspect of any reading of the Pentagon Papers, that secret history of the war commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. No better documentation exists on the detailed nature of planning for upwardly ratcheted destruction in Indochina. Yet, among successive groups of planners one senses in the documents a growing feeling of inadvertence, helplessness, victimization, and self-pity. Not just GIs but the most powerful of the war managers came to feel that they had been drawn into a landscape of horror devoid of familiar landmarks.

So the war — with all its devastation — came to be, in part, about a very abstract subject: who had the power to define the “real” Vietnam. 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….

The flaw in this war talk was the thought that what could not be faced would remain safely confined to faraway Vietnam. Yet, even as Americans “withdrew” from Vietnam, what could not be looked at there drew closer….

Copyright C 2003 Tom Engelhardt

From Patriots, The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides:

“This was crazy and deceitful policy making.”

James Thomson

As a young boy he lived in Nanking, China, the son of missionary educators. After launching an academic career in Asian history and politics, he was drawn to Washington in 1961, inspired by President Kennedy. He was hired as an aide to Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles and was later made special assistant to McGeorge Bundy, President Lyndon Johnson’s first national security adviser. In that capacity, from 1964 to ’66, he spent most of his time on Vietnam policy.

In an upstairs room of his Cambridge, Massachusetts house, Thomson moves piles of books and clutter to clear space for a conversation. A rumpled man, with an air of sadness buoyed by an irrepressible sense of irony, he lights a cigarette. His gravelly voice cuts through the fog of smoke.

Early in my tenure with McGeorge Bundy–the summer of 1964–my secretary announced that Colonel So-and-So was here with “the book.” I said, “OK, let him in.” So the colonel comes in, salutes, and says, “Sir, we have the schedule for the next seven days, weather permitting, and we need your White House clearance on this.”

I open it up. It’s a map of IndochinaLaos, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and part of Cambodia. And there’s dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot–a track of little dots indicating a path that something or someone was going to take.

And I said, “This is?”

He said, “The usual.”

I said, “You mean?”

He said, “Oh, armed recce,” r-e-c-c-e. [pronounced "wrecky"].

“Mm-hmmm,” I said. “Oh, yes. I see. It says ‘armed recce’ right here.”

“And this,” he said, “is the path that the planes will take.”

So I said, “Would you mind leaving the room for a minute, Colonel?” I call Bromley Smith, who was the perennial executive secretary there. “Bromley, the colonel has come in here with something he says he does weekly, to get White House clearance on armed recce. What do I do?”

Smith said, “Well, if it looks right to you, sign it. Just sign off for Mac [Bundy].” Gulp. So the colonel came back in. I signed off and as soon as he left I asked Bob Komer [Mac Bundy's senior aide] what armed recce was. He goes “armed reconnaissance.” And I thought, Oh, reconnaissance. Yes. You mean taking pictures. The armed part, I assumed, meant that if people fire at you, you can fire back. The colonel came back every week and I got accustomed to saying, “Oh, it looks fine to me–good flight plan.” I still thought it was about taking pictures and fire if fired upon.

It took quite a while to learn that armed recce meant not only taking pictures, but shooting at anything that looks suspicious. Armed reconnaissance planes basically flew up and down both halves of Vietnam and over Laos, taking pictures and shooting at anything they wanted to. Many months later I realized I was authorizing quite a bit of killing with no knowledge of what it was all about and it staggered me.

Years later a ferociously antiwar friend of mine, Jonathan Mirsky, was teaching at Dartmouth and he and a group of faculty and students were arrested for blocking a bus of draftees. The defense argued the case on the basis of the illegality of our war efforts. According to my lawyer friends, it was the one and only time in the history of the Vietnam War that a judge allowed this kind of testimony. I testified that I did in fact approve all those flight plans and was party to a criminal action and therefore people like Mirsky had a right to commit civil disobedience. After all, we were not at war at the time of those missions.

In August, 1964 I had been on the National Security Council staff only a month when a message arrives saying: “Am under fire from Vietnamese torpedo boats.” It was from the [destroyer] Maddox. So I run across the hall to Bob Komer and I say, “Bob, what do we do?” It’s around noon and he says, “Jimmy, when this kind of thing comes through, the big boys take over. You and I go have lunch.”

Two days later, during the second so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident, I’m suddenly told to go to a policy planning meeting chaired by Walt Rostow over at State. Normally Komer goes, but he couldn’t make it. So I was the National Security Council representative. I go to this long dining room on the seventh floor and there is a crowd of people presided over by Rostow. They’re having sherry or something non-lethal. As I enter, I hear Rostow saying, “You know, the wonderful thing is, we don’t even know if this thing happened at all. Boy, it gives us the chance really to go for broke on the bombing. The evidence is unclear, but our golden opportunity is at hand.”

I was a little taken aback. I sit like a new boy through this meeting. Then I come running back to Komer and he said, “How did it go, Jim?” So I describe it. He said, “Jesus Christ. You’ve got to get on the horn and tell Walt to button his lip about that evidence thing.”

I said, “Excuse me, Robert? I am a little kid over here. I just turned thirty and this is the first time I’ve been in a Rostow meeting. Who am I to tell Walt to button his lip?”

“Well,” he said, “I’ll call Mac [Bundy].” And the next thing I know, Mac has called Walt to tell him to button his lip. An act of violence on our part was going to be undertaken in response to something that had not happened or was not proved. This was crazy and deceitful policymaking.

Immediately after the Johnson landslide of 1964 I’m thrust into the later stages of planning policy options for post-election action on Vietnam. I was increasingly surprised and shocked by what I heard. They seemed to be ruling out any kind of negotiations, any kind of gradual withdrawal option, any kind of neutralization, any kind of international conference, all these other possibilities. Instead they were going for slow-motion but systematic escalation and the aerial bombardment of enemy positions north and south.

The first week in December, 1964, Mac Bundy calls me into his office. He says, “James, I want you to sit down on that sofa and I want you to take this folder and read it. Take your time. Read it slowly and tell me what you think.” It was a statement of the chosen option–the slow-motion escalation through systematic aerial bombardment to bring the enemy to his knees.

I said, “Look, I know very little about the weaponry of war. The last airplane I could recognize was the P-38 in World War II. But I do know one thing. No matter what we do–even if we bomb them back to the Stone Age, push them back into the bush, and destroy everything they’ve built–they know that someday we will leave. And they’re willing to wait. And they know that we know that someday we’ll leave. So given my lack of qualifications, I nonetheless think that this is a road to folly at a time when we have the greatest opportunity imaginable to discretely disengage.”

After a long pause, Mac finally says, “Well, James, you very well may be right. Thank you for looking at it.” Those words of his, for better or worse, kept me working for him. He could hear dissent as long as you didn’t shout it from the rooftops or pass it around. But Johnson made only one option possible–this “reasonable” middle course. It seemed to me a fraud. And more and more of what I read makes me think that the president was the problem. I used to think it was the advisers. But that intimidating guy who could not ever be the president who had lost a war was the key figure and he was unpersuadable. And he was surrounded by people who found it almost intolerable to stand up to him.

Copyright C 2003 Christian G. Appy, used by permission of Viking Penguin

[This article was written for Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author most recently of The End of Publishing  (U Mass. Press).]

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