Friday, May 5

Bollocks of Steele

Shelby Steele, "White Guilt and the Western Past," Opinion Journal, May 2

I spent two days staring at this thing, angry enough to jump in a mud puddle on the off chance that Shelby Steele would wander by and get splashed.

Sure, David Neiwert had pretty much taken him out with a headline. It still gnawed at me, because the whole End of Racism thing pisses me off. It's more personal than many other political issues. White people who proclaim that racism died a generation ago don't know what they're talking about. (In case you don't know, Steele is African-American, a Hoover Institute sinecure paid to tell the Right what it wants to hear from Black folk.) Racism is not Jim Crow laws. It's not Separate but Equal, but Separate and Brutally Kept in Place.

But then something else occurred to me, a good excuse to deal with this briefly since I'd go on forever otherwise. The bravery shown by people who marched and sat-in and boycotted and died to begin to put an end to an exceedingly long and ugly stain on this society cannot be dismissed like last year's faded singing sensation. Their contribution was as great as that of our military veterans and as deserving of eternal recognition. And as with our armed forces, that means remembering precisely what they did for us, not sticking somebody on a stamp and calling it even.

The thing that occurred to me was that Steele's dependent clause, that we have taken to fighting wars at less than full measure, was as full of shit as the racism hangover that supposedly engenders it:
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.

Just for starters, why "the nuclear option aside"? If the argument is for the full measure of military power, why aren't nukes included? Because they suggest public insanity? Because we must provide a measure of plausible humanity along with the slaughter? What? Y'know, the "Nuke Baghdad/Tehran/France" crowd can avail itself of the same argument. And the use of nuclear weapons is the one sure way the US has of imposing its will on everybody else--on the surface, that is--so I think we're owed an explanation as to why "the nuclear option aside".

The reality is quite the opposite--any situation calling for the full measure of our military might would at the very least cause us to consider the use of nuclear weapons. It's a situation we actually lived under for a couple decades, Mr. Steele--you can look it up--and fortunately, cooler saner heads than yours prevailed. These are the circumstances of the modern world, no matter how some of us might wish for an era of kingly combat and comely indentured serving wenches.
And this seems only reasonable given the relative weakness of our Third World enemies in Vietnam and in the Middle East.

There are at least a half-dozen responses to this, and I hope I'll get around to them all. But I wanted to single this sentence out for its betrayal of a mindset which refuses to die despite being rebuked in toto and before our very eyes over the past three years.

This is, in fact, the Vietnam version of "the end of racism". For years the war's defenders insisted we didn't lose at all: "We weren't allowed to win," being the battle cry of terminal denial. You will still see claims the US "never lost a battle" (not exactly so), followed by the insistence that "We eradicated the Viet Cong in the Tet Offensive, but the media reported it as a loss" (true as to the first part, bass-ackwards in the second). Now that, for whatever reason, it's not longer considered expedient to avoid the D word, it's claimed that the loss somehow did not occur in the field, or didn't really count because we brought the wrong shoes. This amounts to a rather shocking admission of ignorance even of recent history (if you prefer a de-politicized example, try the Soviets in Afghanistan), let alone military history, let alone common sense. It's why so many of our warfloggers, up to and including the ones at the Pentagon, imagined war as being as settled as a Division I football factory taking on a state college on week two of the season. It ain't.
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.

Oh, poop. We're divining the beliefs of the insurgents themselves without even understanding the nature of an insurgency. An insurgency arises only when there is considerable difference in the weight of the forces. You "make room" for an insurgency by being an invader, a large target, and by having enormous communication and supply networks to defend. You "make room" for an insurgency because leveling everything within a 1500-mile radius is not what you set out to do. Is this really so hard to think through? The US is not going to attack Carthage, raze it, and sew the fields with salt. And so long as we keep picking fights with kiddies 1/100 our size, we're not going to face an adversary who pulls on red jackets and marches onto an open field to have it out under Marquis of Queensbury rules. That's just stupid.

Unfortunately, it's not so stupid that it wasn't roughly all we prepared for in Iraq.
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.

One: while it's not my intention to answer the White Guilt Thesis here, it's absurd to suggest that the concept of "limited war" derives solely from tender-heartedness, a misapplication of resources, an unfamiliarity with guerilla war, or creeping hippie dogma. Two: it's both ridiculous and, well, amusing, given the circumstances, to suggest that the US should mobilize maximum force (nuclear option aside) against tenth-rate powers when, given the overheated rhetoric about WMDs and Infinite Clashes of Civilization vs Evil that preceded our most recent episode, this wasn't even considered. And it wasn't considered because the merest mention of conscription would have blown the whole program to smithereens, while actually taxing the current generation to pay for the thing would have led to outright revolt from the Right. Despite the fact that the American public largely swallowed the idea that Saddam Hussein personally planned 9/11 they still aren't flocking to enlistment centers. That's a very impressive sword you're waving there in the hallways of the Hudson Institute there, Mr. Steele, but in the future you might consider tempering.

Three: there were damned good reasons to wage limited war in Korea and Vietnam, and to avoid large-scale support of Afghan rebels, just as the Soviets avoided massive support of the Vietnamese. Even absent the Cold War our level of "involvement" in Iraq has caused us a considerable international migrane. All-out war would do worse, and perhaps much much worse. As it is there's no question the potential other major powers of the planet are watching us with an eye to thwarting our further schemes. I know it's a requirement on the Right to affect macho unconcern with international realities, but like most macho posturing it uses the wrong head to think with.
Why this new minimalism in war?

It began, I believe, in a late-20th-century event that transformed the world more profoundly than the collapse of communism: the world-wide collapse of white supremacy as a source of moral authority, political legitimacy and even sovereignty. This idea had organized the entire world, divided up its resources, imposed the nation-state system across the globe, and delivered the majority of the world's population into servitude and oppression. After World War II, revolutions across the globe, from India to Algeria and from Indonesia to the American civil rights revolution, defeated the authority inherent in white supremacy, if not the idea itself. And this defeat exacted a price: the West was left stigmatized by its sins. Today, the white West--like Germany after the Nazi defeat--lives in a kind of secular penitence in which the slightest echo of past sins brings down withering condemnation. There is now a cloud over white skin where there once was unquestioned authority.

I mostly quote this in case you missed the real flavor of this leftover wad of 19th century bubblegum. And to address the fact that the politics behind this are as screwy as the military notions. We are not going to reinstitute The Great Game, sad as that may be to some folks. We could, I suppose, attempt to get away with totalitarian control of as much of the globe as we think profitable, just as we could have flattened Vietnam, or the Soviets destroyed Afghanistan. It works so long as you can deny there's any price to be paid, any legitimacy to any other viewpoint, and so long as you are not personally responsible for the actual nuts-and-bolts of putting the thing together.

Our "limited activity" in Indochina--which could have been avoided altogether had we extended our pledge of the right of self-determination to people who (shudder) weren't White Like Us, Mr. Steele--included the dropping of five times the total bomb tonnage we dropped on Germany in WWII. The Vietnamese were our allies in that one, sir, somehow managing to maintain an effective insurgency in the face of a Japanese invader who scrupled at nothing to control conquered territory.

"The iniquities of the fathers shall be visited unto the third and fourth generation". Doesn't it go something like that? (And White people wrote the Bible, of course.) But that isn't the case here, Mr. Steele. The iniquities are all too quickly forgiven, and forgotten, once they're finally exposed. It's the hard lessons of colonialism abroad and White Supremacy at home which keep smacking us upside the head, if you'll pardon the expression.

3 comments:

R.Porrofatto said...

Steele's obscene diatribe was indeed infuriating. I don't know how you could write about it without using some form of the word fuck a kazillion times. But you've gutted it even if you didn't curse a blue streak. Steele's tired notion that our execution of war is humanely limited derives from a prevailing fantasy view of who we are—that our motives are always pure, and while we may do wrong, there is no wrong we can't do rightly (viz. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc.). When we fuck up or play Gestapo it's for all the right reasons, or just a simple misunderstanding of our sainted intent.

Equally imbecilic is the idea that our ferocity is impeded by the excess ruth of our gentle natures. (This dangerous conceit seems to be in popular percolation now as another excuse for the Iraq debacle, queued up for delivery.) We like ferocity so much we even brand it—shock & awe, baby. But you're also right, and isn't it obvious, that he's totally missed the nature of the war we're allegedly fighting, or else he has no idea of the meaning of the word "liberate." (These boys also have a very odd idea of what winning means, too.)

As to Vietnam, I've read that the tonnage of bombs we dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was a multiple of ALL bombs dropped by everybody in WWII, and that the total firepower expended exceeded the total of all wars in the prior history of humanity. That and a couple of million dead Indochinese, how much more ferocity would have won it for them?

The White Guilt thing was so stupid I can't think about it without my head exploding.

D. Sidhe said...

I wasn't so much outraged as genuinely baffled that anyone could make the argument that we're losing in Iraq because we're not willing to be mean enough *because* they're Arabs.

I think we can assume that the Hoover Institute is currently working on finding an Arab-American to say much the same thing as Steele did. Those people are nuts.

pebird said...

If the British had just used their superior power - those pesky Americans never could have won. Must be the insane King George theory.