On the first of the Democratic Presidential debates last night, Bernie Sanders referred to Syria as a quagmire within a quagmire. For Americans of a certain age, 'quagmire' evokes the U.S. war in Vietnam so many years ago. A quagmire in this case means a military involvement that there is no easy way of extricating your troops from.
My question, though, is, what was a quagmire originally?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the first instance of 'quagmire' in print was in 1570. "Quag", now obsolete, meant bog or marsh, from Middle English quabbe, which in theory goes back to Old English *cwabbe, meaning to shake or tremble (the Online Etymology Dictionary adding "like something soft and flabby"). And "mire" meant, well, pretty much the same thing, only from Scandinavian roots, like Old Norse myrr. So not just a bog but a double bog--a sort of "quagmire within a quagmire" situation, really.
As a word which literally meant, shaky ground, it's not surprising that originally there wasn't just one spelling. There were quamyre and quabmire and quadmire--even quakemire. The metaphoric use of the word of the word meaning "in an inescapable bad situation" was with us as early as 1766, but fell out of common usage for a lot of the nineteenth century.
In the way words sometimes do, though, it came into fashion again because of a specific military meaning it had in the sixties, after the publication of a popular book by David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, which specifically addressed the situation of military involvement the U.S. faced in Vietnam.
But it turns out that an earlier intelligent observer saw America's penchant for getting into quagmires long before Halberstam did. If only he'd come up with a solution for that then:
"You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question. I am at the disadvantage of not knowing whether our people are for or against spreading themselves over the face of the globe. I should be sorry if they are, for I don't think that it is wise or a necessary development. As to China, I quite approve of our Government's action in getting free of that complication. They are withdrawing, I understand, having done what they wanted. That is quite right. We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours. There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it -- perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands -- but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector -- not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now -- why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation."
Mark Twain, Returning Home, New York World [London, 10/6/1900]
(Photo by Terry Ballard taken of portrait circa 1905, owned by the Mark Twain library in Redding, Connecticut.)