Review: Quagmire

Biggs, David. Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.

The word “quagmire” in history is used most often to describe what are probably the two most infamous anticolonial wars in the twentieth century: the Algerian War (1954-1962) and the Vietnam War (1965-1973).[1] When attached to these wars, quagmire refers to a political situation faced by the colonial powers—France in the case of Algeria and the United States in the case of Vietnam. In his book Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, however, David Biggs attempts to reimagine the word and its frame of reference vis-à-vis Vietnam. Quagmire indeed describes the political events that are commonly associated with the term, he argues, but it also describes the environmental quagmire inherent in attempting to build a nation on the Mekong Delta’s muddy, “unsolid surfaces.” (6). As Biggs elaborates, “by exploring the quagmire as both a natural and a political place, this book challenges a prevailing tendency among writers to stretch Vietnam’s history across an invisible national map that ignores its variable, complex terrains” (7). Environment is central to the project and experience of nation-building in Vietnam, not a sideshow or an afterthought. Furthermore, the political and environmental quagmires, along with their social and economic consequences, are intertwined. Understanding this is the only way to a fuller, more nuanced history of nation-building in Indochina.

Biggs is quick to note that his history “is less a critique of the modern philosophy of nation-building or state-centered development than a study of the ways that nature figured into these designs” (8). This is a unique stance in historiography today, when critiquing nation-building is à la mode, but it is an essential stance if the author’s project of recentering the environment in the history of nation-building in Indochina is to be achieved. Critiquing state-centered development as his point of departure would have put politics at the center of Biggs’s study; therefore, decentering that critique allows him to focus his (and the reader’s) attention to the environment. Of course, a critique of nation-building is inescapable in any discussion of the environment, and one need only read this book to know why, but the critique alone does not allow a full appreciation of the environment’s relationship to the work of nation-building and development. Additionally, using the critique as a starting point would prompt Biggs to use the periodization schema of the nation-state in discussing the environmental history of the Mekong Delta. Starting from the delta environment is a way to overcome this. Suggests Biggs, “as a new addition to the genres of both frontier and war literature, this book employs a different approach, one that considers the delta’s colonial and postcolonial pasts as continuous pasts inscribed into the landscape” (10). The periodization schema of the nation-state imposes artificial divisions on all areas of historical inquiry, including the environment, which causes historians to view the environment through the lens of the nation-state. Biggs suggests that historians flip this and view the formation of nation-state through the environment.

Given the constraints of a monograph as a method of presenting information, the author’s success at making his case may come as a surprise. Biggs makes his argument chronologically, which is almost required in a history of nation-building, and organizes his chapters thematically. Indeed, the chronological unfolding of the argument along with the thematic organization of chapters would seem to suggest that each theme is associated with a specific time period, but Biggs does a good job of using the narrative device of history to suggest the continuity of quagmire, overcoming the organizational requirements the discipline believes are inherent in the presentation of historical knowledge. He also does a good job of using a wide variety of sources to make a coherent argument that would almost surely overwhelm other scholars attempting the same project. With knowledge of French, English, and Vietnamese, Biggs is able to write a history of nation-building from many different perspectives and several different time periods. His synthesis of all the language sources is impeccable, but it is his ability to integrate each language into his history that is truly exceptional. No less a feat is his ability to pull from a myriad of source materials, perhaps more skillfully than most can from a handful. Along with accounts, histories, reports, newspapers, and journals, Biggs also uses interviews, geological surveys, photos, maps (contemporaneous and reconstructed) and first-hand observations. In Biggs’s care, nothing is superfluous; each source adds texture to the argument and avoids becoming extraneous information.

Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of Quagmire is Biggs’s mastery of the scientific material. It is one thing for a historian to become fluent in the language of the human sciences; however, it is an entirely different undertaking to learn the language of the natural sciences. Not only does a project undertaken like the one in this book require a sound knowledge of the science, but it also requires an ability to explain the science in a way that experts and non-experts alike find satisfying. Furthermore, and perhaps most challenging, the writer has to integrate the science into the history in a way that adds to the argument in a way that doesn’t overburden it. Biggs overcomes all these challenges. His handling of the science never feels forced or uninformed, and his ability to keep it central to the history without it becoming overwhelming is a skill the reader comes to envy by the end of the book. How Biggs was able to learn the science, conduct research in different languages in different countries, construct a convincing argument, and produce a coherent history with what appears to be relative ease is a question all readers will close the book asking. Biggs’s attempt to recenter the environment in the history of nation-building in the Mekong Delta is not only successful, but also a model that the rest of the historical community would do well to follow.

[1] Both wars go by other names, but the reader is probably most familiar with the ones used here.


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