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May 3, 2006 2:25 am


The Burdened White Man



This feature in the WSJ by Shelby Steele is truly unhinged. I wish I had the temperance to 'engage' with it but I just point at it flabbergasted and hope that it is a missive from some other alternative reality.
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Charles V. Mutschler - 5/4/2006

My apologies to Mr. Silbey for mis-spelling his name.

I agree that the campaign in the Philippines has some similarities to federal Indian policy, though I don't know that I would draw the same conclusion Mr. Silbey appears to have reached. My other comments stand as is. I think we have different opinions. Mine is that the element of pacifism that has been felt in much of the western world is probably as much if not more of a reason for the reluctance to engage in war as anything else mentioned in this thread.

Thanks for the correction Mr. Silbey, and thanks for reading.

Charles V. Mutschler


Manan Ahmed - 5/3/2006

Yeah, you are probably right. And the straw-man is brown by definition, as well. Sigh.


Alan Allport - 5/3/2006

Still, to be clear, what I am arguing against is the misbegotten notion that America runs a 'clean' war with 'surgical strikes' using 'precision-guided technology' causing 'minimal collateral damage'.

In that case, with the greatest respect, what you seem to be arguing against is a straw man.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2006

Nuclear weapons, and the danger of full-scale engagement with other nuclear powers explains about 75% of it, I think; the rest is, as the saying goes, better explained by incompetence than malice....


Oscar Chamberlain - 5/3/2006

Some interesting comments about Steele's post. I find both the suggestion that we used to be better at fighting guerilla wars and the argument that reluctance to fight wars is a part of Western tradition to be plausible.

However, other factors have also led to limited wars. Here are three.

1. Nuclear weapons. The question of how carefully one must wage a conventional war to avoid a nuclear war haunted us--and I suspect the Russians on occasion too--during the Cold War. It remains a problem today.

2. Coalitions and legitimacy. Both Truman and the elder Bush used the UN to legitimize Korea and the Gulf war, respectively. In both cases there was a tradeoff between legitimacy and freedom of action. I have always found Bush's argument that taking Bagdad would have destroyed the coalition he had created to be legitimate. Certainly it was true.

3. Anti-insurgent wars are nasty. They involve the use of terrorism, reprisal, concentration camps (aka reservations). Our public has (or at least had) grown to believe that the United States should not use such tactics, at least not in the absence of a pressing need. I don't count that as a flaw myself.


Manan Ahmed - 5/3/2006

Presumably you're not saying that if anyone is killed, then the operation is by definition unrestrained? Because that does seem to be the logical end-point of your argument so far.
I do not necessarily see that as the logical end-point. Still, to be clear, what I am arguing against is the misbegotten notion that America runs a 'clean' war with 'surgical strikes' using 'precision-guided technology' causing 'minimal collateral damage'.

In fact, war is ugly and if America is engaged in Just War, than it should be able to publicly acknowledge the results of warfare.

So, to answer your question: there is no unrestrained military operation. Again, that does not mean that I think that all military operations are illegal, unjustifiable, etc.


Alan Allport - 5/3/2006

I was countering the notion of 'minimalism' or 'restrain' as an actual impact of force by pointing out that the American war machinery has _not_ been either minimalist in their execution of the war. And the evidence lies in the dead bodies and destroyed cities/villages at the very least.

Fine, although introducing the hypothetical perspective of someone killed by American arms (who could hardly be expected to have the most detached viewpoint on the subject) does not seem the likelist way of coming to a generally agreeable definition of what 'minimalism' is.

Could I ask: at what point does a 'restrained' military operation become an unrestrained one, in your view? Presumably you're not saying that if anyone is killed, then the operation is by definition unrestrained? Because that does seem to be the logical end-point of your argument so far.


Manan Ahmed - 5/3/2006

Ah. It appears you have mis-read me.
I was countering the notion of 'minimalism' or 'restrain' as an actual impact of force by pointing out that the American war machinery has _not_ been either minimalist in their execution of the war. And the evidence lies in the dead bodies and destroyed cities/villages at the very least.

And, indeed, my effort wasn't to trump all possible interpretations but to 'introduce' this possible viewpoint into the discourse.

As one has to constantly state in blogworld [and surprisingly never in realworld] that my consideration of one perspective does not rob me blind from all other perspectives.


Alan Allport - 5/3/2006

Seems like my understanding of your witticism is about as limited as deaths by a falling piano. Hence, I ask: huh?

Fair enough; here's a less flippant alternative. Any argument that goes, roughly, "tell that to X", X being the victim of some particular tragedy, is a sort of emotional blackmail rather than a valid rhetorical case. By logical extension you could claim that even if only one person had been killed by the Americans in Iraq, their use of military force still wasn't minimalist; after all, tell it to the poor guy who croaked. What you're implicitly suggesting is that anyone who makes a claim of minimalism is callously ignoring the private tragedies that have occured. But that's just silly. It's unreasonable to expect someone who has suffered a personal loss to be able to think about that event with dispassion, but that doesn't mean that their subjective viewpoint trumps all other possible interpretations of what has happened or its overall significance. Would you, for example, accept the argument that the only Americans who have a moral right to speak about the Iraq War are friends or relatives of those who have died?


Manan Ahmed - 5/3/2006

Seems like my understanding of your witticism is about as limited as deaths by a falling piano. Hence, I ask: huh?


Alan Allport - 5/3/2006

Could we ask the victims on the ground in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq how minimalist the American approach to war, truly is?

Manan, if you were squashed by a falling piano, would it be unseemly of me to point out that, however unfortunate the peculiar circumstances of your loss, it remained nonetheless true that death by musical instrument was a rare event?


Manan Ahmed - 5/3/2006

As for the manifest destiny of American force, perhaps we ought to take into consideration the manifest destinies it drops a MOAB on. Could we ask the victims on the ground in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq how minimalist the American approach to war, truly is?


David Silbey - 5/3/2006

Mr. Mutschler mispells my name and misinterprets my point. The policy in the Philippines resembled the policy in the American west in that it emphasized both tactical operations and pacification efforts. American soldiers attacked insurgents and educated children. Counter-insurgency should not just be about combat.


Charles V. Mutschler - 5/3/2006

Mr. Sibley's point is worth further study. He comments, "The United States, nonetheless, won handily within 2-3 years. Why? Because the United States Army had spent the last generation fighting guerrilla wars on the frontiers and understood the kind of war it was fighting. It thus fought that kind of war effectively and won it."

However, it should be noted that significant outcry arose over the Indian wars, and the Grant administration's Peace Policy and redoubled efforts to assimilate Indians into the dominant culture were the prevailing federal practices. Military campaigns were not the preferred option, and there was a body of pro-Indian sentiment, especially among rich elite reformers. Atrocities were not popular - Sand Creek and Wounded Knee were scandals at the time, not just a century later.

Having read Steele's piece before commenting here, my initial response was that he isn't unhinged, but I think there is more to it than just the racial aspect.

Personally, I think it might be worth considering the apparent natural reluctance to use military power which seems to have been a feature of liberal western governments for the past century. I'm thinking of the outcry after World War I and the efforts to outlaw war - the Washington Naval Conferences, the Kellog - Briand Pact, and Oxford House Resolution in the 1920's and 1930s; the continuing arguments about the propriety of using atoming weapons since 1945 and the apparent lack of international will to effectively limit nuclear proliferation which vexes our own times. Or the lack of international agreement on stopping conflict in places like Bosnia or Darfur over the past two decades.

I agree that Steele has a point, but I wonder if his argument isn't missing a larger issue, that being a general reluctance to engage in war that seems to have a fairly long history in western thought. That, however, is a completely different topic. I'd have to agree with Mr. Luker and Mr. Allport that this isn't the raving of an unhinged man.

Thanks for reading.

Charles V. Mutschler


Greg James Robinson - 5/3/2006

Some more recent and perhaps relevant historical examples would be Pershing's 1916 expedition into Mexico to "punish" Pancho Villa after his raid on New Mexico, and the efforts of the Marines in Nicaragua in the late 1920s to capture Sandino. In both cases, the United States was unable to attain its limited objectives, working in an unfriendly area against guerilla fighters.
The article is one of those poisonous "just" questions that arise with annoying frequency. I am reminded of my first cousin's description of a High School class he attended in Virginia, where the subject of the Vietnam War came up. A student said, "Why didn't the Americans just nuke 'em"? The teacher said he did not know, and did not list the manifest and very good reasons why not: 1) The terrain of the country and the probable ineffectiveness of the strategy in achieving "victory"; 2) The risk of starting World War III; 3) The effect on national and World opinion


Ralph E. Luker - 5/3/2006

I am to understand that if the United States had had sufficient experience in guerilla wars prior to the invasion of Iraq, it would have settled this thing with dispatch by now?


David Silbey - 5/3/2006

Well, sez you, Mr. Steele. Even a cursory look at the history of the colonial 'little wars' of the nineteenth century (which Iraq resembles far more than it does WWII) would suggest that failure is rarely caused simply by lack of will, even with a grossly asymmetric balance of power between the two sides.

Yes, this needs to be shouted from the roof tops. The Leni Riefenstahl-esque obsession with "will" and "determination" simply obscures the fact that it is always possible to lose wars, that guerrilla wars are particularly difficult for industrial nations to fight, and that the United States has been particularly bad at fighting them in the late 20th century.

It has nothing to do with will or the home front. The Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 was a classic guerrilla war (after an initial conventional phase). It was marked by serious discord at home (McKinley got the treaty to take the Philippines passed by only one vote and only because fighting had broken out a few days before). American resources were committed piecemeal and erratically.

The United States, nonetheless, won handily within 2-3 years. Why? Because the United States Army had spent the last generation fighting guerrilla wars on the frontiers and understood the kind of war it was fighting. It thus fought that kind of war effectively and won it.


Alan Allport - 5/3/2006

... is I think less controversial than it superficially appears to be, partly because of his deliberately provocative use of language. But I think its real flaw has nothing to do with its discussion of race but is squirreled away in the opening paragraphs:

"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."

Well, sez you, Mr. Steele. Even a cursory look at the history of the colonial 'little wars' of the nineteenth century (which Iraq resembles far more than it does WWII) would suggest that failure is rarely caused simply by lack of will, even with a grossly asymmetric balance of power between the two sides.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/3/2006

Fairly obviously, Steele isn't interested in trading the defeat of racism for some subsequent victories in other realms. He asks a legitimate question: why hasn't the United States engaged in the peripheral wars of the last part of the 20th century with anything like the manifest determination in earlier wars? In at least _some_ of those wars (Cuba, Korea, Afghanistan), victories probably would have led to a more positive result for the peoples involved, yet there's not the will and concentrated power brought to bear to win a victory. You can rationalize that in various ways, if you don't share his assumption that even a paternalistic American benevolence is a better thing than an anti-American despotism.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2006

To be fair, I went back and read the piece (I'd skimmed it before, and seen a comment or two elsewhere).

I wouldn't use the word "unhinged".... though I think there's an anger at the core of his argument, an almost Nietzschean desire to solve problems with the full force of will available to us, and weary of failure.

This assumes that the failures (and what he defines as failure would often be considered victory) are tactical ones, not strategic ones, that we fail (over and over, of course, by his definition) not because we've picked bad goals but because we've chosen second-class tactics.

Worse, his argument is tautologically impaired: if we've actually succeeded in driving racism from the core of American/Western civilization, how can he then turn around and blame the very guilt which succeeded for our failures elsewhere? Would it have been better to "win" in Vietnam (and only the good Lord knows what that would have looked like) and still be blatantly racist? Would it have been better to topple Saddam Hussein in 1991 with the full fury of supremacists scorned?

I'm sorry, he's Humpty-Dumpty'd the term and his logic is leaking all over...


Ralph E. Luker - 5/3/2006

Much as I hesitate to do so, I think I disagree with all three of you. It seems to me that Steele is attempting to lay out a rational explanation for the United States' at best modest military success in post-World War II ventures. It's an argument made by a conservative in a conservative venue for a conservative audience.
The problem is that until the last decade, conservatives could blame the Democrats' lack of resolve for a series of marginal international engagements in which the United States had no full-scale victory: the "loss" of China, and near-humiliating engagements in Korea, Cuba, and Viet Nam.
In the Bush I and II administrations, there have been similar unfulfilling engagements and conservatives and Republicans can no longer blame Democrats' lack of resolve. Their own Republican administrations have delivered much the same unfulfilling results. Bush I copped out of full-scale victory in the first Iraq War. Someone like Steele, then, has to look for an explanation that is more deeply rooted than partisan politics. Perhaps his own concern with color and race leads him to an inadequate explanation -- even for his conservative audience. But he has fairly clearly identified a problem -- one his conservative audience must clearly feel. And he knows that, at the center of power in the Bush administration, Colin Powell had already articulated a warning in "the Powell doctrine" and "you break it, it's yours" that the Bush administration clearly ignored. It diverted attention from Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden as early as possible (thus frustrating any legitimate response to 9/11) by turning 9/11 into a rationale for attacking Iraq. Although it invaded Iraq with overwhelming fire-power, it has refused to send troop levels that might actually pacify the countryside, spent enormous resources in producing no satisfactory conclusion for any party to the conflict, and clearly has no exit strategy. That is a problem for conservatives who would, under ordinary circumstances, have supported this administration's policies. But there must be some underlying reason why, since World War II and regardless of the party in office, the United States, with its overwhelming power, has not entered a war with an undivided determination to win. You can argue that Shelby Steele's explanation for that fact is flawed -- even deeply flawed -- but it's hardly "unhinged."


Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2006

You don't. Either you accept "white guilt" as the shibboleth for "liberalism and all its postmodern, postcolonial ills and to blame for everything" (from which all his other conclusions flow) or you don't, and it's a bunch of gibberish.....


Robert KC Johnson - 5/3/2006

Oh, my. I don't even know how one would begin to "engage" with that.

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