February 26, 2008
Today it is almost axiomatic that conservatives are nationalistic, interventionist, and overly fond of answering political problems with police or military solutions. The power of John McCain’s candidacy probably boils down, in the end, to the craving Republicans felt for a genuine war-time hero—after 8 years of being governed by a nattering chickenhawk and his team of empire-building draft dodgers and opportunists. Those of us who rightly pointed out that Ron Paul was a far more consistent representative of conservative principles were continually frustrated by the sheer thick-headedness of pro-war Republicans, who seemed literally incapable of intellectually processing the idea that any mission which American troops were currently “accomplishing” might be in fact be a bad idea. In his typically canny way, that political piranha David Frum knew what he did when he penned that farrago of lies “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”
Having appeared on numerous conservative radio shows to promote other projects unrelated to foreign policy, I have had to tread lightly and watch my words, lest the subject of our current foreign adventure might arise. I quickly learned U.S. policy in Iraq is for most conservatives literally beyond discussion. It is not that these people will not debate the war; they literally cannot. Even questioning American actions abroad while our troops are in the field strikes them as a form not so much of treason as of blasphemy. It’s as if our troops were several hundred thousand Christs, and to criticize their mission amounted to jeering at Jesus on the cross. “You saved others, why don’t you save yourself?” Of course, we are doing no such thing; in fact, we’re jeering at Pilate. Not that it matters—except to the soldiers themselves, who gave more money to Ron Paul than to all the other candidates in the race combined.
The experience of trying to debate the war with otherwise sensible and thoughtful conservatives has forced me to consider the deeper connections between right wing political movements and instinctive militarism. On the one hand, conservatives claim a preference for small, localized government, low taxes, an unforced and unplanned variety of social mores and customs that vary from place to place, continuity with the past, and the primacy of prudence as the virtue that governs all the others. We favor gradual change over sudden, patchworks of hallowed customs over rationalized ideologies, and oral tradition over written books of rules.
Admittedly, many of us made a deal with the devil in the Cold War, following William F. Buckley’s prescription that to defeat the totalitarian enemy abroad, we must accept for a time a similar regimentation at home—“for the duration” of that struggle. What we learned in the 1990s, with the ascendancy of the neocons, is that the struggle would never end, that having despatched Communism our political masters would look about for new enemies to confront, even invent them if they had to. It was only the events of 9/11 that distracted the neocons from ginning up a confrontation with China, as they are now trying to do with Russia—even as they urge us to fight “World War IV” against the entire Arab world. Militarism, from being the means, became the goal itself. A militaristic discipline and wartime spirit were now the necessary counter-force to modern, consumerist decadence, and must be kept stoked, in effect, forever. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.
Is this just naked opportunism, a mask for advancing the goals of the Israel Lobby, enriching the likes of Halliburton, seizing foreign oil supplies, or winning elections? I don’t think we can responsibly reduce the resurgence of militarism to any one of these. Conspiracy theorists, like millenarians, are hopeless optimists, who imagine that somewhere there are 13 evil men who meet periodically over martinis in Amsterdam to plan out the evils we suffer—and if only we could shoot down their Gulfstreams en route to the Bilderberger Convention, the world would revert to sanity. If only.
There’s a long history of conservatives making common cause with the most adventurous, militaristic elements in a given country, the better to fend off destructive internal developments. I don’t know enough ancient history to speak of Greece and Rome (Dr. Gottfried, I’d welcome your interventions here!). But it’s undeniably true that the Crusades were launched in part to redirect the anarchic military energies of Christian knights across the Continent away from internal feuds and civil wars—and toward a suitably wicked foreign enemy. It helped that the Crusades were (apart from exceptions such as the Fourth) a long just war waged in self-defense by a Christendom which had been under Islamic siege for centuries, a misguided and poorly executed series of campaigns to liberate majority Christian populations from grinding oppression. But an unjust war might have served just as well. Likewise, in the wake of the French Revolution, the Right in several European countries abandoned its traditional (aristocratic) internationalism, and sought to whip up patriotic sentiment as an alternative locus to class resentment. There is also the question of finding work. In France, the only avenues for advancement open to dispossessed conservatives after the catastrophe of 1830 were in the Army. Government positions were only granted to anti-clericals; being seen attending Mass was career suicide, especially after 1870, as Hannah Arendt noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Leaving aside the brute political necessity of redirecting popular sentiment and gaining power, one can’t help observing a natural affinity between conservatives and the military. There is surely something in the typical make-up of a person willing to disapprove of sexual and social innovations and scoff at elitist critiques of traditional ways which attracts him to the order, discipline, ritual, and asceticism of military life. Even if he does not take part in it personally, he naturally admires the soldier as the heir to the chevalier—the icon of an ancient ethos that transcends the calculation of the merchant, the stodgy caution of the peasant, the sneering skepticism of the professional intellectual. Indeed, to visceral conservatives, a soldier is second only in dignity to a priest. Perhaps this is why, for most of the history of the Church, the ranks of the saints have been filled first by priests and nuns—and secondly by soldiers.
With all this in mind, I wonder if the Old Right of which Justin Raimondo writes so eloquently was not necessarily the natural state of conservatism in America, but rather a happy exception—a brief but worthy reaction to the evil futility of World War I, and the extreme forms which bureaucratic militarism was taking in Russia, Germany, even (of all places!) Italy in the 1920s and 30s. Are we in fact doomed as a movement to yoke our carts to the chariots of war? If so, is there something profoundly wrong with conservatism—a fundamental tension between its ends (stability and liberty) and its means (regimentation and invasion)? Were this true, we’d be morally bound to follow the libertarians in shaking off the embrace of the military, purging ourselves of the instinct which leads us to admire the soldier and the policeman. The great conservative partisan of liberty Wilhelm Ropke was troubled by this tension.
Let me offer an alternative suggestion which requires a less radical shift of psychology—and will alienate fewer (mostly just the stupidest) instinctual conservatives. How about we rethink our attachment to the military, keeping in mind the following realities:
* War is a revolutionary force, frequently destroying the very institutions it was meant to save. This is obviously true in the losing countries. Which fire-eating Confederate in 1865 would not have wished that he could go back and accept the compromises offered by President Lincoln in 1860? (Of course, not every institution is worth saving—but that’s beside the point here.) Ditto the French right-wingers who supported the war with Prussia in 1870—which led directly to the Commune and the loathsome Third Republic—and the conservatives who goaded the German and Austrian kaisers and the Russian Tsar into a war which destroyed all three monarchies. But the experience of war can also undermine key institutions among the victors. As Allan Carlson and Bill Kauffman document, the effort of waging World War II helped massively and permanently increase the power of the U.S. federal government, drive women into the workplace, encourage Americans to move off farms and into the cities, and in dozens of different ways to break up the old America which the soldiers had fought to defend.
* Not every army is conservative. Think East Germany, Cuba, Venezuela. Go back further, and remember the fanatically nationalistic, anti-Christian armies of the French Revolution and of Napoleon. Indeed, there is no social force which can so quickly smash the arrangements for living which have prevailed for centuries than an army in the hands of radicals. It was not for nothing that “progressives” in America in the early 20th century favored the militarization of large parts of American life.
* Not all soldiers are militarists. While we can certainly point to many instances of jingoist generals provoking conflicts so that they could win their spurs, or justify their bloated budgets, we have ample counter-examples in the soldiers who’d seen enough of combat to favor cautious, prudent policies. The sad case of Colin Powell comes to mind, but greater names include Dwight Eisenhower, Smedley Butler and Andrew Bacevich.
* Most soldiers fight for the defense of their homelands and ways of life. Any proposed military conflict which is not strictly fought for these reasons is betrayal of the troops by their commanders—and should be denounced as such.
I think that these observations, repeated relentlessly to pro-war conservatives, might begin to make a dent. It’s too late in this election year, where the truth about American war-making has been buried in a pile of elephant crap. But truth has a nasty habit of clawing its way back up into the light.