A short history of quagmires, from Florida to Iraq

Bush's address about Iraq last night highlighted his new PR strategy for selling Iraq: in the face of widespread public demoralization about the war, the White House is going to keeping talking about how close we are to "victory" and "winning" the war (a strategy master-minded by a professor at Duke University here in Durham, N.C.).

Given the new "victory" theme, it must annoy the White House more than anything to hear Iraq described as a "quagmire," a favorite choice among war critics. It sounds ugly. It invokes the long torment of Vietnam. And it has the advantage of side-stepping questions of whether the war is wrong or right, and cutting to the chase of what many Americans seem to care about: are we going to win?

Our history books, despite recent improvements, still basically tell a story of "victory:" the U.S. may face hard challenges, but we ultimately tackle them and "win." It's an uplifting notion, but of course the reality is that our history has been filled with chronic issues over which we cannot declare victory.

Consider one of our country's first "quagmires," as told by history professor William Loren Katz:

The United States sunk into a quagmire soon after its troops invaded Florida in 1816 to capture runaway slaves and to close down the largest station of the underground railroad in North America which was run by escaped Africans and their Seminole allies and had been attracting thousands of enslaved people. The U.S. violent occupation lasted forty-two years, resulted in 1500 U.S. military deaths, and cost Congress and taxpayers $40,000,000, and brought devestation and misery to the penninsula.

One of the most dramatic moments in this battle came on Christmas in 1837, when red and black Seminoles battled back Colonel Zachary Taylor near Lake Okeechobee, in Southern Florida. As Katz relates,

On Christmas Day Colonel Taylor's men awoke to find 26 U.S. dead and 112 wounded. Four dead Seminoles died and none had been captured. The battle at Lake Okeechobee was the most devestating U.S. defeat in more than four decades of Florida warfare, and one of its of the worst defeats in centuries of aggression against Native Americans.

And how did Col. Taylor spin the event?

Taylor's army limped back to Fort Gardner, and as his men tended the wounded and mourned the dead, he wrote a report that declared victory and claimed "the Indians were driven in every direction."

Sound familiar?