It seems to me that folks are getting a wee bit too worked up about Shelby Steele's exterminate the brutes number over at the Wall Street [you'll forgive the expression] Journal. Steele isn't saying anything that Michael "Savage" Weiner hasn't been saying on his call-in show since long before the current round of genocidal fanatasism infected the fever dreams of America's inexhaustible supply of Monday-morning generals. I suppose it's always dangerous to live in a powerful society in which such vicious prattle passes for political commentary, but all the worrying seems to me to buy into the very same overestimations of our might and military wherewithal as Napoleon Steele. That is to say: the imminent danger of the US prosecuting wars as the genteel Ghostface Killah desires isn't, well, imminent.
Steele actually does a favor in laying bare the self-similarity of conservative social and military . . . thought. Just as social conservatives engage in the backward-forward projection of an idyllic social order located in the vaguely recent past, the war hawks image a past order in which wars were fought as wars ought to be fought. Why, it was practically part of the social compact! No dithering around in World War II, no way, no how--the Greatest Generation launched itself against the shores of Normandy and killed as many damn Germans and razed as many damn cities as it took to win. Hoo-ah! Their pansy boomer children, meanwhile, not only undermined two thousand years of Western moral consensus, but also pussified war by limiting it, nevermind that pussification occured pretty well and thoroughly under Truman and a bunch of WWII generals in a lil' ol' peninsual called Korea, wherein I'm informed a Evil Axis still resides.
Of course, the sort of war whose passing Steele laments was a function of the enemy we confronted. So is it true that "today the United States cannot go to war in the Third World simply to defeat a dangerous enemy?" Our Third World enemies aren't entire mechanized societies arrayed against us. In World War II, immense armies fielded by industrial nations whose entire national industries and populations were realigned and reorganized for total war clashed across whole continents and oceans. That's hardly the C.V. of our more recent conflicts, in which the rulers of United States, in order to placate the hallucinogenic madness of certain domestic constituencies, concoct theories of abstract danger and attempt to insert their clumsy fingers between one falling domino and its still-standing neighbor.
Steele's prescriptions for victory are galling only insofar as they suggest some propriety in the notion of devestating an entire nation and civilization based not on some attack or danger to the territorial integrity of the U.S., but rather upon the designation of some hapless third-world dictatorship as a "dangerous enemy." Dangerous how? Don't expect an answer.
Anyway, there's a lot of incoherent babbling about how white guilt for the sins of our imperial past proscribe manly, passionate war-making. The unintended irony is that, having made this diagnosis, Steele and his admirers propose to commit further sins of an imperial present--that we eliminate white guilt by eliminating the very peoples whose suffering at our hands in the past apparently emasculates us today. And therein lies the psychology at work throughout Conrad's work. "Exterminate the brutes!" Why? Because they are the evidence of our brutishness.
Here's the final paragraph of the article:
This is a fact that must be integrated into our public life--absorbed as new history--so that America can once again feel the moral authority to seriously tackle its most profound problems. Then, if we decide to go to war, it can be with enough ferocity to win.The fact to which Steele refers is something about the West's great moral transformation, achieved by getting kicked out of the non-West, or something. The closing paean to ferocity is telling, though. What Steele and plenty of other total victory advocates on the right ultimately regret is that by failing to crush our so-called enemies, we permit the propagation of countervailing narratives; our victor's history isn't complete. "Minimalism," in their estimation, permits the virus of doubt to grow back from the mouths of the recently defeated; it allows the societies that we invade and try to remake to retain the capacity to speak about our crimes and our injustices. Steele wishes that we'd use sufficient force to coerce our victims into believing the great lie: that it was their wickedness which brought our retribution, not ours which brought their suffering.
For better or worse, the enemy seems unwilling to grant Steele's hypothesis that "no one--including, very likely, the insurgents themselves--believes that America lacks the raw power to defeat this insurgency if it wants to." For better or worse, the insurgents seem to believe precisely that. For better or worse, we'll find out, one of these days, whose assessment was more accurate.