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.
Steele connects this minimalism in war as a direct consequence of White guilt; and I must say that I think he has something here. White guilt over past racism and imperialism is today being constantly exploited by those whose primary desire is to disunify people by promoting class warfare and the marxist dialectic. Either you are oppressed (a poor brown person) or an oppressor (a rich white person). This makes it hard for even the morally transformed White nation (which Steele admits America has become) to fight even the most vicious enemies--if they happen to fit the oppressed victim stereotype.
Possibly white guilt's worst effect is that it does not permit whites--and nonwhites--to appreciate something extraordinary: the fact that whites in America, and even elsewhere in the West, have achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation. One is forbidden to speak thus, but it is simply true. There are no serious advocates of white supremacy in America today, because whites see this idea as morally repugnant. If there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities.
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.
Sadly it is not simply a matter of eliminating the guilt. We must also call to account those in our society who make a living off of this guilt; promote it and stoke the fires of envy; and then fan the fire for their own political agenda. Otherwise we will always be winning the war, but losing the battle.
UPDATE: Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom has some additional insight:
At the heart of what Steele is saying here is an idea that I have critiqued at length in other contexts (particularly, the formation of identity narratives, and their impact on how we deploy “history” epistemologically). In short, the only way this guilt works is if we come to believe that we are, by virtue of certain cosmetic or superficial or logistic similarities, responsible for the actions of those in the past who were in many other respects “like us”. And this can only come to pass if we internalize certain historical occurrences as a form of cultural “memory”.
But it makes no sense to say we “remember” things that we took no part in, and so it makes no sense to culturally hamstring ourselves over events that we are under no obligation to take ownership of.
Which is not to say it is inappropriate even to acknowledge past national sins (and so be circumspect about letting shameful history repeat itself); rather, it is to say that acknowledging “learned” history is materially different from being told we must “remember” that history—and the difference is not at all trivial.
As I’ve mentioned here on numerous occasions, the first fight we must win is internally and domestically. And it is a fight for the soul of classical liberalism, which is being undercut (in my estimation) by nearly 40 years of a concerted effort by those whose goal is power and control to relativize meaning and deconstruct, through incoherent linguistic assertions that have unfortunately been widely adopted out of self-satisfied feel-goodism (specifically, an ostensible deference to the Other that allows us to convince ourselves we are “tolerant” and “diverse,” when in fact we have created the conditions to turn those ideas into something approximating their exact opposites).
Jeff has been a master at exposing the pervasively irrational postmodern rhetoric and politics, that together are the primary strategy used by the left to obscure its totalitarian plans. The political left lost the intellectual debate in the last century; and now depends on the distortion of language; identity politics/cultural relativism; and political correctness to push its ideological agenda forward.
UPDATE II: If you want to see an example of the kind of identity politics that Jeff Goldstein alludes to in his post; and what I discuss at length in multiple posts besides the main one above; then go read Oliver Willis' response to Steele's essay. For Mr. Willis, the entire issue is simple identity politics. Black conservatives, he says, "essentially serve as painted-on black faces over conservative policies that hurt blacks either by design or coincidence."
This is nothing more than the new progressive kind of ideologically-sanctioned racism so popular in social circles of the left. In Willis' world, it is not your ideas that matter; it is the color of your skin. That predetermines everything, including what you must think. If you don't think that way then there must be something wrong with you.
I especially liked his casual swipe at one of the great economic thinkers of our time, Thomas Sowell. That Sowell is an amazingly intelligent voice of clarity, reason and sanity in the world of economics, matters not a whit to the Oliver Willises of the world. He is BLACK and therefore is only allowed to think in a certain way. Otherwise it is "shuck and jive". Willis, fortunately for political correctness, can get away with making such an outrageous racially stereotyped statement because he himself is black. You are automatically absolved, and all is forgiven with regard to any PC crime of being insensitive and loutish towards others--but only if you already are a member of a sanctioned victim group yourself. If someone said it about him, I'm sure he'd be appropriately outraged.
Now, who would you say is the person here suffering from a fundamental racist view of the world? Whose attitudes would you might be a wee bit "destructive" --or at least condescending--toward his fellow blacks? Oh dear. I'm white, so I guess I'm not supposed to say such things.
Willis is hardly the only leftist whose ideologically-sanctioned racism wears a "painted-on mask" of concern and compassion for the "oppressed". It is in his political interest to punish any black person (or any other individual member of an accepted "victim" group) for the crime of independent thought. He doesn't see them as individuals--he only sees them as "blacks".
Let me summarize Mr. Willis' argument against the ideas in Shelby Steele's essay: Mr. Steele is black and is not saying what we enlightened people think all blacks should be saying. If someone who is black has ideas or thoughts that are not approved by us (i.e., the left), then they are not real blacks and are traitors to their race.
In case you have forgotten what the definition of racism is, let me quote it for you: Discrimination or prejudice based on race.
As I recall, Martin Luther King wanted people to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The left's identity politics is effectively dragging us back to the days when the only thing that mattered about a person was the color of his --or her-- skin. Now, that's really progressive, isn't it?
Willis's comments on Steele and Sowell demonstrate yet again, the profound intellectual and moral bankruptcy of today's left.