NEW YORK, March 14 (UPI) -- Whatever happened to the word "quagmire"? Haven't heard it in a while. Used to hear it virtually every day. It's a great old Anglo-Saxon word, isn't it?
You can imagine Grendel emerging from the quagmire with peat moss hanging off his molars. You can imagine some headless Viking descending into the quagmire. It's unclear exactly what a quagmire is, but it's clearly a place full of monsters where you don't get out easily. It's a sort of colossal swamp infested with lizard-tailed dinosaurs, I think.
Unfortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't record which genius first called the Vietnam War a quagmire. Perhaps it's because Vietnam wasn't the first quagmire. Maybe a Brit coined the word in relation to the Zulu Wars. At any rate, as soon as it was used, it took off as our favorite political and military cliché. And it helped that Vietnam LOOKED like a landscape of many quagmires. It meant "a place where there's so much slime on your boots you can't run away."
For 25 years it was convenient shorthand at the Pentagon.
Should we send some guys in to stop the genocide in Rwanda?
They just busted our ass in Mogadishu. Wanna send an expeditionary force?
Hey, how about those Bosnians? They're getting pasted by the Serbs, and they don't even have any weapons. Maybe we should send them some tanks and a few thousand helpers.
By the way, they're going house to house in Kosovo with machine guns, and they've found some mass burial sites.
Really? That sounds bad. But I'm thinking . . . quagmire.
Blood in the streets in Haiti again. Should we . . .?
Don't make me use the "Q" word.
Al-Qaida just destroyed two American embassies. What should we do?
Well, we should find Osama bin Laden and kill him, but let's be careful about getting into a quagmire situation.
Actually, if you want to know who was the king of quagmire thinking, it was Colin Powell. Time and time again he was brought into Madeleine Albright's office. Time and time again she said we have to get tough with international criminals, genocidal regimes, terrorists and bullies.
"I'll get back to you," he kept saying.
"That would take a minimum of 200,000 troops on the ground," he would say -- and she didn't really believe him.
"The American public has a low tolerance for even a single American life being spent," he told her.
Her finest moment may have been when she said to him,
"Exactly what use do you intend to put that fine army of yours to, General Powell?" -- a remark that infuriated him no end. The various confrontations are well documented in David Halberstam's fine book, "War in a Time of Peace."
Gun-shy soldiers? In this country?
A Congress that didn't even like sending soldiers to Guam, much less a hostile foreign country? In America?
"We can't be the world's policeman." When was the last time you heard THAT one?
When the first Gulf War happened, Saddam Hussein was on a mission to steal oil fields. Later in the same decade, Slobodan Milosevic went on a mission to wipe out all the ethnic Albanians and Muslims in Kosovo.
Now. Which of the two would seem like the greater moral call to war?
Now we have a complete reversal. We have an entire administration saying, "We will be the world's policeman. We will protect people against dictators and bullies. We will put troops on the ground. We will do this even BEFORE there's any aggressive action, because it's too dangerous to wait for them to strike us first."
To which a few protesters have said:
Lock up those unpatriotic head-in-the-sand peaceniks. Send 'em to France.
Three weeks from now, or four, or five, when an American occupying force is ringed around Baghdad, and when an American soldier gets picked off by the first civilian Iraqi sniper, I think the operative word might be:
Do they have swamps in Iraq? I think we might need a new word.
(John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)