Thursday, June 30, 2005

Of Mires and Men

Decision '08 calls attention to this piece by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, calling the U.S. invasion of Iraq a ...

... you guessed it:

The Bush crowd bristles at the use of the "Q-word" - quagmire - to describe American involvement in Iraq. But with our soldiers fighting and dying with no end in sight, who can deny that Mr. Bush has gotten us into "a situation from which extrication is very difficult," which is a standard definition of quagmire?

It's easy to make a target of Bob Herbert. His tropes are as easy and satisfying to swat down as chloroformed toilet flies.

But I love the drama as Mr. Herbert unveils "the Q-word" in June 2005 like some shudder-making revelation. Does he read his own newspaper? The NTY has been mired in quagmires since ... well:

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.

Iraq? Try Afghanistan. That's Johnny Apple on Halloween, 2001.

Norah Vincent wrote in Salon two weeks later that, "For a long, long time to come, the word 'quagmire' will be associated with the New York Times' coverage of our present war in Afghanistan. This sadly onomatopoeic term has appeared in the Old Gray Lady nearly 20 times in the last 30 days, and has spread to nearly as many newspapers and magazines across the country."

It's as though the NYT took on a new marketing strategy after Sept. 11: Tired of newspapers that don't tell you what you want to believe is true? Read the NEW 'New York Times': NOW WITH 30% MORE QUAGMIRE!!!

I wonder what people like Mr. Herbert mean when they call Iraq a quagmire? He offers a definition: "a situation from which extrication is very difficult." Well, yes, it certainly is that. But that doesn't automatically mean it's a situation that ought to be fled as fast as possible.

It also implies that the entire goal of the person or entity in the "situation" is getting out of it. And I don't think that's the American problem in Iraq. If you're driving alone through a bad part of town with a busted gas gauge, yes, you probably want to get out of there as fast as possible. But if you've gone into a bad part of town to clean it up, that's a different situation with a different goal.

Who can deny it indeed? Mr. Bush didn't get us into it. We got us into it -- deliberately. What was the metaphor? "Draining the marsh?" Wading into the cess pool of repressive Middle Eastern regimes and clearing out the futility and fascism and failure. It's dirty work. You can't do it if your only goal is to get out of the mud as fast as possible.

The figurative sense of quagmire, which is so dear to the hearts of NYT writers, has been around since at least 1775. The word itself is rarely used in a literal sense anymore. But it preserves an otherwise obsolete quag "bog, marsh." This goes back to an Old English verb that meant "shake, tremble (like something soft and flabby)." Which only confirms my belief that the real quagmire is in the brains at the New York Times.