The Magazine

Quagmire Nostalgia

The media are forever bogged down in Vietnam.

Nov 11, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 09 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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"THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD, it's not even past," William Faulkner once said. He would have been right at home in the antiwar movement, where the past is now more present than ever, or at least more present than it has been since 1991. Every time war, or the threat of war, or the idea of war presents itself, the past emerges. And not just any old past, but one past in particular: the past of the Vietnam War. To the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the academics, and the aging boomers who show up at the protests and rallies, this one war is war's template, the true model of what all wars must be like. Every war is seen as a quagmire, a possible quagmire, a likely quagmire, a quagmire waiting to happen. Quagmire nostalgia is moving the old folks, like Anthony Lewis and Frances FitzGerald, as they look back on their youth and their glory. Quagmire envy is seizing the students, who want to establish their own rites of passage, and long for a quagmire to call their very own.

The Q-word first resurfaced a year ago, in a lead story by R.W. Apple of the New York Times on October 31, 2001: "Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word quagmire has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad." Two weeks later, the Taliban was being driven out of Afghanistan, to the rapturous cheers of the citizens, but there are always green pastures for quagmire fans. If they look hard enough, they always see Vietnam, even in matters of style.

"It's this high-handedness that echoes the run-up to Vietnam," says Frank Rich of the administration's rhetoric about the war:

"The analogy can be overdone, certainly, since today's armed forces are highly unlikely to find Iraq a military quagmire and no one can even try to make a case for the legitimacy of Saddam's regime. But . . . the arrogance of this C.E.O. administration . . . recalls the hubris of those Ivy League and corporate 'whiz kids' on Robert McNamara's Pentagon team who saw themselves as better and brighter than the rest of us."

And so it turns into an ethical quagmire. But if the Bush people run the war well, and don't lie about it when it's in progress, does it matter if they're "arrogant" or not?

Then there is of course Anthony Lewis, a decorated quagmire veteran, writing in that bible of quagmire, the New York Review of Books: "I kept thinking of one thing: Vietnam," he informs us. "Iraq is a large, modern, heavily urbanized country. If we bomb it apart, are we going to be wise enough to put it back together? . . . Here, as in Vietnam, the advocates are sure that American power can prevail--and sure that the result will be a happy one. But here, as in Vietnam, so many things can go wrong."

True enough, but then, as in so many cases, so many things can go right. Japan and Germany also were large, urban countries. We bombed them to pieces and put them back together, and those two worked out rather well. These examples, of course, are never considered by quagmire-mongers. Other wars--the Gulf War, for instance--are brushed from their minds as if they never existed. Implicit in this is the idea that Vietnam alone was the real war. Those that appeared more successful were exceptions, or luck-outs, or flukes. But history and common sense suggest something different--that it was Vietnam that was the aberration.

In 1947, when Truman, Eisenhower, and the people around them set down the predicates on which the Cold War was fought, they hit on a strategy of surrogate battles, supplying financial and military aid to countries who came under Communist pressure. This worked brilliantly for the next 40 years, in Europe, and even in Central America. But it tended to fail in the jungles of Asia, where many of the regimes being pressured were too inept, too corrupt, or too justly unpopular to use aid effectively, and where Communists tended to piggyback on authentic rebellions. Just what to do under these conditions was something the Wise Men could not figure out. Faced with a client state that was going to pieces, Americans had three possible options, none of them popular: (1) to pull out, and hand over the state to our enemy; (2) to keep pouring in aid, which was liable to be wasted; and (3) to take over the war themselves.

As Michael Barone points out in "Our Country," Americans had poured billions into trying to save Nationalist China until Truman pulled the plug--and even then the angry cry of "Who lost China?" poisoned the political atmosphere for years to come. "By August 1949," he writes,

"Gallup found that Americans by a 48-23 percent margin expected that China would fall to the Communists. . . . Americans understood why it was impossible to keep Chiang Kai-shek in power, and, far from favoring military intervention . . . were strongly against it. . . . But Americans were nonetheless unhappy with the Communist triumph."

They took it out on Truman. His job approval rating sank from 57 percent in June 1949 to 37 percent a year later.

This was the mindset that produced Vietnam. From the war's start to its finish, Americans were never too certain if it was a civil war or an outside invasion, if it was a local event or an international movement, or if it was a vital national interest at all. It was a war never fully engaged and not quite withdrawn from, a recipe for neither cohesion nor victory. This confusion, these doubts, were the quagmire-makers. We will have wars with mistakes, wars that have setbacks, and campaigns that go badly. We will likely never have another war like Vietnam.

The quagmire-predictors have come up short again and again. Stubbornly, quagmires refuse to develop--not in Bosnia, not in Central America; above all, not in the Gulf War. And since we mention the Gulf War, is it fair to note that most of today's quagmire nostalgists issued the same warnings then as today? Yes, it is, since they never acknowledged this, never admitted it, never confessed they were wrong. In fact, since Vietnam they have been wrong about everything, at least about everything concerning the world, power, and war. They were wrong on disarmament, wrong on the nuclear freeze, wrong on defense, wrong on the contras, and wrong, stunningly wrong, on the Gulf. The stumbles and fumbles never developed. They were not prepared for smart bombs, much less smart generals. Such things were not in their script.

And so the affection of quagmire fanciers for the era of the Vietnam War. That too-long but still brief bloody window--from 1967 to, say, 1974--was the one time in memory in which the real world matched the picture that these people have of their country--a bloody, inept, and dysfunctional culture, marked by violent death and inadequate leadership, where promising men were shot dead by psychotics, and dishonest presidents lied all the time. Into this troubled and violent era was packed a century's worth of assassinations, malaise, riots, and recession. It was capped, best of all, by the resignation of a (Republican) president they had long hated, who turned out even worse than they feared. They thought this was normal, but of course it was not. As prophets of doom, who one time were right, they were unprepared (and perhaps unbelieving) to see the country right itself, remake its economy, reform its military, stabilize its political system, and start once again to be proud of itself. Nothing annoys them more than the thought of Americans' being proud of themselves, so they're constantly on the lookout for disaster. Ronald Reagan was expected to bring war and depression; he ended the Cold War, and started a boom. They had great hopes for the Iran-contra scandal, which did not really hurt Reagan. And when another president at last was impeached, it was one of their own, an ex-Vietnam protester, William J. Clinton, Rhodes scholar and groper. And then of course they found themselves defending corruption, arguing noisily that obstruction of justice wasn't that bad after all.

And so they go back, like a sow to its furrow, to the cool mud of their quagmire, where presidents are always corrupt and deluded, and armies inept, and they alone are enlightened. "In a real dark night of the soul," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, "it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day." To the professional antiwar movement, it is always 1968, the dark night of the American soul. And it is, of course, always pitch dark, the way they like it.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.