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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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 It was a war never fully engaged and not quite withdrawn from, a recipe for neither cohesion nor victory.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.