In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, writer Shelby Steele wrote an op-ed that is breathlessly, spectacularly stupid even by rightie standards. Truly, the thing should be preserved in formaldehyde and displayed in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum.
Steele has noticed that we don’t fight wars like we used to.
There is something rather odd in the way America has come to fight its wars since World War II.
For one thing, it is now unimaginable that we would use anything approaching the full measure of our military power (the nuclear option aside) in the wars we fight. And this seems only reasonable given the relative weakness of our Third World enemies in Vietnam and in the Middle East. But the fact is that we lost in Vietnam, and today, despite our vast power, we are only slogging along–if admirably–in Iraq against a hit-and-run insurgency that cannot stop us even as we seem unable to stop it. Yet no one–including, very likely, the insurgents themselves–believes that America lacks the raw power to defeat this insurgency if it wants to. So clearly it is America that determines the scale of this war. It is America, in fact, that fights so as to make a little room for an insurgency.
Certainly since Vietnam, America has increasingly practiced a policy of minimalism and restraint in war. And now this unacknowledged policy, which always makes a space for the enemy, has us in another long and rather passionless war against a weak enemy.
So far, so good. But if you haven’t already read Steele’s piece you will never, ever, guess why he thinks we don’t fight wars like we used to. It is, he says, because of white guilt.
No, really. I am not making this up.
White guilt makes our Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems–even the tyrannies they live under–were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the white West. We must “understand” and pity our enemy even as we fight him. …
…Today words like “power” and “victory” are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, “might” can never be right. And victory, when won by the West against a Third World enemy, is always oppression. But, in reality, military victory is also the victory of one idea and the defeat of another. Only American victory in Iraq defeats the idea of Islamic extremism. But in today’s atmosphere of Western contrition, it is impolitic to say so.
Whites need to feel better about themselves so that they can resume blasting third world peoples into smithereens for their own good, says Steele, who is an African American writer seriously in need of therapy.
You’ll have to read the piece yourself to experience and appreciate the full-frontal absurdity of it. I’m not going to repeat the entire argument here.
As Glenn Greenwald wrote, righties clasped this piece to their virtual bosoms.
… many pro-war Bush defenders are drooling with reverence and praise, and for some reason, are viewing Steele’s piece as some sort of license to unleash some of the truly ugly impulses which they usually have the decency, or at least political sense, to hide.
This rightie, for example, is going on about “identity narratives” and calls for the defeat of “institutionalized linguistic assumptions,” which, I take it, are what is holding us back from our proper role as world conquerors. It’s way more academic ontological theory than I want to handle before breakfast. Or after breakfast, for that matter.
David Neiwert argues that what the righties are really celebrating is the excuse for racists to enjoy and honor their racism. Digby summarizes:
The argument here is that racism is dead so we needn’t worry about killing, deporting, marginalizing or demonizing “the other.” How convenient for the party that has been exploiting the southern strategy for forty years and finds itself nearly as unpopular as the disgraced president who first embraced it.
Billmon touches on what I want to write about today:
[Steele’s op ed] is, to say the least, a unique argument — one in which standard counterinsurgency warfare tactics (not to mention our president’s liberator fixation) are redefined and then dismissed as the geopolitical equivalent of the VISTA program. It’s the neoconservative take on street crime displaced about 8,000 miles, with Iraqi insurgents filling in for black inner city youth.
I would suggest this is simply Steele’s way of putting the war in a familiar context — that of his pseudo-scientific social theories — rather than any kind of coherent argument about U.S. policy in Iraq. As the saying goes: To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I suppose it was too much to expect Steele to restrict himself to jabbing his thumb in America’s own racial sores, while leaving the quack theories about Iraq to his ideological comrades-not-in-arms at the American Enterprise Institute.
But as Glenn notes, there is a method to Steele’s madness. His little dissertation isn’t just a Hoover Institute seminar on criminal justice run amok. It’s an ingenious, if muddled, attempt to push the old law-and-order buttons in order to justify a more directly genocidal approach to warfighting. Just as filling prisons with bad guys (or, if your Charles Bronson, gunning them down in the street) is still the conservative answer to crime, massive firepower is still the conservative way to win a guerrilla war. The only problem is that our own bleeding hearts won’t let us do it.
Awhile back I posted an argument that the reason we Americans haven’t had an all-out, whoop-it-up total victory since World War II is that the nature of war itself has changed. And to this post, Mahablog commenter aloysha added:
The nature of war has gradually changed over time. … War between nation-states evolved from mainly being waged between armies, to being Total, involving entire populations. … As military technology evolves over time, it empowers different social organizations. For example, about 500 years ago the invention of the cannon favored a concentration of power, which enabled the rise of the modern nation state. Only a King could afford cannons, thus subduing the armies of smaller competitors, ie warlords. This balance has held pretty much until recently, finding expression in ever more expensive items such as battleships, ICBMs and stealth fighters, which only a large nation state could afford.
In recent times, technology has shifted, to empower decentralized, smaller organizations, ie sects and terrorists, which is the main reason why they have appeared and grown strong. The hatreds and rivalries were always there, itâ€™s just that formerly, technology enabled a strong central state to keep the lid on the rabble.
War used to involve nations fighting over territory. Now our real enemies, the terrorists, are not attached to territory. We used to pound a state until the head of state surrendered. Now, among our decentralized cells of enemies, there’s no one with the authority to surrender. We might be armed with the most powerful, high-tech weapons ever devised by man, but our enemies can effectively strike us with anthrax or a “dirty” nuke in a suitcase or, as on 9/11, a few guys with box cutters. How does a nation-state use conventional warfare to strike at such an enemy? It seems anachronistic and out-of-place, like sending a 19th-century horse cavalry to execute a mounted saber charge against inner-city street gangs.
In Vietnam, the biggest reasons we didn’t apply total war was not “white guilt,” but the Soviet Union and China. Johnson and then Nixon tried to fight a “middle way” war that would be tough enough to subdue North Vietnam but not so tough as to draw other superpowers into the conflict against us.
And then there was the simple contradiction summed up in the phrase â€œWe had to destroy the village to save it.â€ We could have won a military victory in Vietnam, yes, just like we could win a military victory in Iraq if we pull out all the stops. But we would have to destroy cities, villages, populations, pretty much the whole country, to do so. Few would be left alive to appreciate the peace and freedom purchased by war on their behalf. Such a victory would not defeat Islamic extremism, as Steele argues; it would inflame it.
We’re trying to apply war in a surgical way — cutting out only our enemies — and we don’t seem to have figured out how to do that without killing the patient we say we want to save.
It might be argued that we’ve been weakened by our own military strength; we’re an armored knight prepared to slay dragons but besieged by stinging ants.
Donald Rumsfeld, I suspect, recognized this historical shift in the nature of war. In 2001 he took on his role as Secretary of Defense with the notion to transform the military to prepare it for “irregular” or “asymmetric” warfare, meaning wars against enemies that are not nation-states. Rummy was thinking smaller, lighter, faster; he was thinking special ops and high tech. And that made some sense. But Rummy botched the job, in part because his own vision hadn’t evolved enough.
David Von Drehle argued that Rummy’s plans were defeated by the “old ‘iron triangle’ of contractors, Congress and the brass.” Williams Lind argued recently,
While Rumsfeldian â€œTransformationâ€ represents change, it represents change in the wrong direction. Instead of attempting to move from the Second Generation to the Third (much less the Fourth), Transformation retains the Second Generationâ€™s conception of war as putting firepower on targets while trying to replace people with technology. Its summa is the Death Star, where men and women in spiffy uniforms sit in air-conditioned comfort zapping enemies like bugs. It is a vision of future war that appeals to technocrats and lines industry pockets, but has no connection to reality. The combination of this vision of war with an equally unrealistic vision of strategic objectives has given us the defeat in Iraq.
Go here for more on “Fourth Generation” war. Essentially Lind is calling on rethinking war at all levels; “not merely how war is fought, but who fights and what they fight for.” I cannot say if Lind knows what he’s talking about or not, but it’s evident to me that such rethinking is necessary. And for a lot of reasons we don’t seem to be able to do that. The President claims that everything changed after 9/11, yet he keeps trying to compare our current conflict, whatever it is, to World War II. He’s still sinking money into the bleeping “star wars” missile defense shield, for pity’s sake, while leaving ports and chemical plants unguarded. The contractors and lobbyists and generals still want their big boats and guns and planes.
And the war hawks are not only incapable of grasping that our military tactics and goals need serious updating; they want to retreat to the glory days of General Funston in the Philippines.
Colonel Frederick Funston boasted he would ‘rawhide these bullet-headed Asians until they yell for mercy’ so they would not ‘get in the way of the bandwagon of Anglo-Saxon progress and decency.’ The United States did in the Philippines precisely what it had condemned Spain for doing in Cuba. Soon stories of concentration camps and ‘water-cures’ began to trickle back to the United States …Mark Twain … suggested that Old Glory should now have ‘the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross bones.’ [S.E. Morison, H.S. Commager, W.E. Leuchtenburg, A Concise History of the American Republic. Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 490]
Shelby Steele may be eager to take up the White Man’s Burden, but I think we’d be better advised to let it go.