BROOKE GLADSTONE: "Quagmire" means a wet, boggy ground yielding under the foot -- a fen or a swamp. This week I entered the words "quagmire" and "land" into the Google search engine and found some 36,000 pairings. Then I googled "quagmire" and "Iraq" and found nearly 37,000. Iraq is many things, but it's not wet -- and yet, according to Google anyway, Iraq is the quagmire of the moment. Because in political speech which is far more prevalent than geological speech, quagmire's principal meaning is metaphorical. It means the great sucking maw that was the Vietnam War. Here's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference earlier this month. [LAUGHTER]
DONALD RUMSFELD: Now the other part of your question.
DONALD RUMSFELD: Quagmire. We have had several quagmires-that-weren't thus far. And I don't know -- I didn't look that word up -- I should have, knowing you. But why don't, don't I think it is one. Well I, I opened my remarks today about the United States of America. Were we in a quagmire for 8 years? I would think not. We were in a process. We were in a-- we were evolving from a monarchy into a, a democracy. If you -- you call it what you want, and then-- be held accountable for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Periodically on this program we offer what we call a Word Watch wherein we examine words that have popped up in the media. Tom Engelhardt is an author, editor and creator of TomDispatch dot com in which he recently wrote at length on the word "quagmire."
TOM ENGELHARDT: In a way it reminds me very much of - there, there was a style of movie when I was a kid in which an adventurer went out to someplace like Africa, and there was always a scene where all of a sudden they stepped into some--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Quicksand!
TOM ENGELHARDT:-- quicksand-- and began to go down. It's literally the idea that the land unexpectedly ambushes you -- you didn't know it was there -- you stepped into the wrong place -- you're sucked down. It was obviously inadvertent. Quagmire was one of the, the images that - one of the few images, really, that made it out of the war and just lodged -- particularly in the military and political mind of America -- as one of the lessons to be avoided. You know, Colin Powell when he was still Joint Chief of Staff - his so-called doctrine was: we were always to have an exit strategy. And that exit strategy was a version of "not-quagmire."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One of the most interesting points that you make in your recent TomDispatch is that actually our understanding of quagmire as applied to Vietnam makes a lot of assumptions that, when examined, are actually wrong --because quagmire suggests that you can't get out! And you say -- well that really isn't what happened in Vietnam.
TOM ENGELHARDT: It's a very strange term for this war that we embarked on and continually planned for at the highest levels. There was quite careful ratcheting up of military power and so on and so forth. It was not, in the normal sense, a quagmire.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Even though it was long and drawn out and agonizing, it was nevertheless the intention of the government all along! Therefore, no quagmire.
TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes, I, I -- I mean the thing about war words generally is that they're often not so much a description of a war as world view imposed on a war and this certainly was in the sense that the one thing that quagmire does, is first of all it turns the, the land of Vietnam into the agent, the enemy -- and it turned us into helpless victims. I mean somehow we had ended up there through good intentions. We put our feet down, and the land began to suck us in and we never somehow could withdraw. So, in a way, the image took away agency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if the quintessential political quagmire -Vietnam - wasn't really a quagmire -- is then Iraq?
TOM ENGELHARDT:I think what's interesting is that maybe it's even a more accurate image for Iraq than it was for Vietnam! The quagmire as an image is locked inside the brains of American military and political leaders, and so for them -- I think they are experiencing it as a kind of quagmire because even though they planned to go into Iraq and stay for quite a while, they did not actually imagine the situation that's come about. If this word takes hold in America, it's a quagmire for our leaders. They could well be sucked down right here by that term and everything that goes with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom, thank you very much.
TOM ENGELHARDT: You're most welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Tom Engelhardt is a fellow at the Nation Institute and author of The End of Victory Culture: A History of American Triumphalism in the Cold War Era. [MUSIC]
Pete Seeger: [SINGING] WELL I'M NOT GOING TO POINT ANY MORE, I'LL LEAVE THAT FOR YOURSELF. MAYBE YOU'RE STILL WALKING, YOU'RE STILL TALKING, YOU'D LIKE TO KEEP YOUR HEALTH. BUT EVERY TIME I READ THE PAPER, THEM OLD FEELINGS COME ON. WE'RE -- WAIST DEEP IN THE BIG MUDDY; A BIG FOOL SAYS TO PUSH ON. WAIST DEEP IN THE BIG MUDDY; THE BIG FOOL SAYS TO PUSH ON. WAIST DEEP-- NECK DEEP-- SOON EVEN A TALL MAN'LL BE OVER HIS HEAD! WE'RE -- WAIST DEEP IN THE BIG MUDDY; A BIG FOOL SAYS TO PUSH ON.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, how Howard Dean trumped the media, democracy delivered on line and a dangerous dissertation.