Say It: This Is a Quagmire

On the day U.S. soldiers occupied Baghdad, draped the American flag over Saddam Hussein's statue and pulled it down, 103 GIs had died in the Iraq war. The number killed since that supposedly triumphal moment on April 9 may double in this coming week, in a war that an American general now admits is ongoing.

The total number of American soldiers killed since the toppling of Saddam's statue is 96 by July 8, including the nine Americans killed in the bombing in Saudi Arabia. That makes a total of 199 dead so far, not including the six British soldiers killed last month.

The media is being forced to recognize this reality, but continues to minimize the numbers. Using the definition "killed in hostile encounters" and May 1 as the date when President Bush declared the cessation of hostilities, the reported death toll is lowered to "about 24" Americans, according to the New York Times front-page spin based on figures from Paul Bremer III. (NYT, July 4). The official non-fatal casualty number acknowledged since May 1 is 177 Americans. Most of the dead and wounded are grunts, "low-ranking ground troops who are performing mundane activities like buying a video, going out on patrol, or guarding a trash pit."

The manipulation of the American body count, like the earlier manipulation of the costs of war and occupation, only feeds the growing anger among military personnel and their families, as cited in the New York Times. During the Vietnam war, troop demoralization rose as Americans continued to die while President Nixon promised that the war was winding down. A similar phenomenon appears to be happening already in the 115-degree temperatures of occupied Iraq. No one wants to sacrifice his life for President Bush after he's held an aircraft-carrier press conference declaring "mission accomplished." No family wants the death of a son or daughter minimized to airbrush the President's victory image.

Contrary to the expectations promoted by the Administration and media, Iraq is now a quagmire, not a cakewalk. Remember Jay Garner? Gone. Remember the cheering Iraqis with flowers? Never appeared. Remember the nukes and weapons of mass destruction? We're bribing and threatening informants. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that "intelligence doesn't necessarily mean something is true. I mean, that's not what intelligence is."

No one in the media, military or political establishment can use the "Q-word" apparently, for fear of dredging up the images of Vietnam that they have been trying to erase for the past generation.

Quagmire is not a metaphor for Vietnam, but has a specific meaning. It is a strategic defeat. The occupier can't declare victory and can't withdraw. It's too early to be certain, but quagmire is becoming an accurate description of the American crisis:

  • The occupation forces are stretched thin, forced into non-military roles such as policing and infrastructure repair, which makes them vulnerable to small-scale ambushes. A single suicide bomber could wreak havoc;

  • the occupation forces cannot withdraw, for that would mean humiliation and failure;

  • nor can the occupation forces expand significantly, not only for political reasons, but because they are bogged down in Afghanistan, Bosnia and many smaller destination spots in the U.S. Empire;

  • the original plan for installing a new regime has stalled for reasons never adequately explained. Gen. Garner was forced out, and the Pentagon's favorite government-in-exile led by Ahmed Chalabi is marginalized and quarreling;

  • Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, the imperial mindset is dangerously incapable of understanding its opposition. The Iraqis must be fighting not because they oppose the occupation but because Saddam Hussein is secretly manipulating them from hiding.

  • the most dangerous characteristic of quagmires is that there is no way out for the occupiers except through acknowledging the mistake. The longer the denial, the worse the quagmire.

  • Opposition parties like the Democrats become sunk in quagmire as well. Some of them can declare "I told you so," but they fear the consequences of an American military withdrawal.

  • Often, it takes the military, starting with the soldiers on the ground, to bring the nature of the quagmire to public attention. That may be beginning to happen. Last week, military officials needed military escorts to escape "seething spouses" at a military base in Georgia. (NYT, July 4)

Ending a quagmire eventually requires a strong peace movement and public frustration. The American people have little patience with quagmires, at least those with televised casualties. That is why the percentage of Americans who think the war is going badly has shot up from 13 percent to 42 percent since Bush declared it over. In a quagmire, when body counts, costs and credibility are sufficiently worrisome, politicians step forward with plans to save the larger system by strategic retreat.

This trapped imperial mindset is always on display in Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, edited by aristocratic neo-conservatives like William Kristol, as in the glory days after President Bush's media adventure aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. "Victory!" proclaimed the neo-cons, for "The Restoration of American Awe and the Opening of the Arab Mind." (May 12, 2003). Sounding unconsciously like the Crusades, the magazine announced proudly that we had taken away Saddam's "hayba," his aura of invincible authority.

The danger to America and the world is that the Bush Administration believes this analysis, which is nothing more than a projection of our own insecurities onto Saddam as “the Other.” It is the Bush Administration, after all, that insists on projecting an American hayba, or image of invincibility, as its new National Security Strategy.

Who knows, the Americans may overpower the remaining Iraqi resistance, get the electricity and water running in due time, set up some Fort Apache outposts, manage to make the media withdraw, and create another ... Afghanistan. But for now, it's time to break through the denial of the media and the politicians before more Americans die while guarding Baghdad trash pits. It's time to call it what it is, a deepening quagmire.

Tom Hayden is a veteran progressive activist and politician. He has written nine books, including the just published “Irish on the Inside.”.


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