02 May 2006

The Reasons for Minimalist Approaches to US Wars

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Shelby Steele wonders why we just don’t win.

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.

Steele identifies white guilt as the reason for post-WWII America’s inclination to approach wars half-heartedly and our willingness to accept substitutes for victory, right up to, and including, defeat. The ascendancy of ressentiment certainly plays some significant part in all of this. But I think Steele is overlooked the significance of the estrangement of the American haute bourgeois from participation in the military; and the rise, in the era of endlessly expanding prosperity and security which followed the victory in 1945, of a sense of invulnerability, particularly on the part of American elites.

Americans born post-WWII are commonly rather spoiled, never really having experienced hardship, never confronting the necessity of sacrifice. That’s precisely why so many Americans today are completely irresponsible and frivolous with respect to patriotism, why they don’t believe there is any real obligation to support elected governments in time of war.

They think America is so rich, so powerful, so secure, that war is just a game. “We destroy the credibility of the Administration. We undermine domestic support for the war, and compel Bush to withdraw US forces by helicopter from Baghdad. Then we’ll write triumphant editorials in the Times, and elect a democrat in 2008. Everything will be wonderful.”

They don’t believe the US can really lose anything that matters. They don’t believe that a US defeat has any consequences affecting them. “US withdrawal will just put those Red State warmongers in their place, and get us back in the saddle where we belong,” they think. It has not occurred to them that they just might be very wrong. That this time American defeat might have real consequences.

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