Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has announced that the Iraq war “has been consistently and grossly mismanaged,” and our troops “are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire.” “Quagmire” is not a state of war but a state of mind. So the senator’s words aren’t necessarily wrong, they are merely irresponsible and potentially deadly -- to U.S. interests and Middle East freedom.
When U.S. troops landed on Omaha Beach on D-day, they were pinned down by heavy fire and couldn’t move. If some wiseguy had grabbed a megaphone and announced, “I hate to tell you, but this invasion has been grossly mismanaged and we are now stuck in a quagmire,” he would not have been wrong. But luckily those soldiers decided that Omaha Beach was no quagmire. They fought their way inland and helped liberate Europe.
The U.S. has been stuck in countless potential quagmires in many wars. Each time, we could have announced “this is a quagmire and we’re going home.” Thank God we didn’t -- usually.
Granted, Kennedy isn’t urging us to run away. He thinks we should switch strategy, make a success of Iraq and then go home. So we tell our troops that Iraq is a quagmire -- and expect them to fight on bravely and win nonetheless, as various geniuses futz with the war plan until the senator is satisfied? Not even a Massachusetts liberal could believe that. (I think.)
Soldiers are human beings. Why should they risk their necks if they are stuck in a quagmire and their leaders are out to lunch?
But Kennedy isn’t really talking about President Bush and Iraq at all. When he says “quagmire,” he is pushing the Vietnam button -- using a code word for our supposed mistakes in defending non-communist South Vietnam against the communist North and a homegrown terrorist insurgency. Many liberal old-timers are positive they did humanity a gigantic favor by getting the U.S. out of Vietnam. But let’s look at some facts.
Revisionist experts claim that we could have won in Vietnam if we hadn’t lost heart.
Lewis Sorley, career Army officer and military thinker, believes South Vietnam was secure by early 1971 -- contingent on our continuing to support it with arms, money and occasional firepower. Which we didn’t do. Robert Thompson of the British Advisory Mission to Vietnam believes that “on Dec. 30, 1972, after 11 days of those B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area, you had won the war. It was over.” If we had kept faith with the South. Instead we withdrew, in ever-increasing panic.
Sorley believes that the Army itself played a role in our failure to keep faith. But public opinion played an even larger role.
Our defeat was catastrophic for Southeast Asia. Tom Wicker -- a liberal New York Times columnist and leading critic of the U.S. role in Vietnam -- summed things up four years after our final defeat. “What Vietnam has given us instead of a bloodbath [is] a vast tide of human misery in Southeast Asia -- hundreds of thousands of homeless persons in United Nations camps, perhaps as many more dead in flight, tens of thousands of the most pitiable forcibly repatriated to Cambodia, no one knows how many adrift on the high seas or wandering the roads.”
We failed to follow through and Asians suffered. Political leaders helped shape public opinion, which helped shape U.S. policy. The conservative British historian Paul Johnson comments -- discussing Vietnam, supporting his assertion with poll numbers -- that “it was not the American people which lost its stomach for the kind of sacrifices [President] Kennedy had demanded in his Inaugural. It was the American leadership.” Kennedy sent Americans to South Vietnam early on. He promised in his inaugural that Americans would pay any price for the survival and success of liberty.
All of which means that today, Ted Kennedy’s comments are too important to ignore.
The Bush administration must explain to the nation that quagmires are created by politicians and pundits, not soldiers. It has yet to confront head-on the potentially deadly resonance between the public’s natural unease with the news from Baghdad and statements like Sen. Kennedy’s.
We must also confront our memories of Vietnam. If we don’t, they will drive us crazy -- or maybe they already have. Freud invented psychoanalysis to help hysterical and otherwise loony patients confront painful memories, to find truths that would set them free.
America needs emergency psychoanalysis right now, before statements like Ted Kennedy’s start destroying our will to do what is good and what is right.