Neoconservatives and more overt Leftists alike want us to believe that war or preparation for war are the essence of conservatism, or are at least among its essential pillars. National Review, the Heritage Foundation, and the Republican Party — all of which purport to speak for conservatives — all champion “a strong national defense” and higher military spending, usually in times of peace as well as war. Democrats, academic leftists, and the liberal media also portray right-wingers as committed militarists. It’s part of the left’s myth of right-wing fascism. The real left and the phony right both agree that to be conservative means favoring military interests. The magazines and think tanks of both sides promote the idea.
No wonder then that so many people, especially conservatives, believe it. But they’re wrong. War and the military are antithetical to conservatism. The military and its business do not protect the institutions and values that conservatives esteem, they undermine them. This is true despite the best intentions of the men and women in the armed forces. No matter how conservative they may be personally, the nature of the military as an institution is radical. It is a leveler.
The literature of antiwar conservatism is abundant but requires research to uncover. Thankfully much of the research has already been done by scholars at the Ludwig von Mises Instiute and writers at Antiwar.com and Lewrockwell.com. Of particular note as an introduction to the topic are The Costs of War, a collection of essays edited by the Mises Institute’s John Denson, and also Joseph Stromberg’s Antiwar.com profiles of leading antiwar conservatives such as Richard Weaver, the “Old Right,” and Robert Taft. But for a one-stop summary of the conservative case against war and militarism the best source to turn to is Robert Nisbet.
Nisbet, who died in 1996, stands beside Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver in the pantheon of post-war conservative intellectuals. His importance would be difficult to overstate. Kirk, “the dean of American conservatism,” held Nisbet in the highest regard. By profession Nisbet was a sociologist, a rare rightist in a field dominated by Marxists and other left-wingers. He has recently been the subject of a brief, but excellent, intellectual biography — Robert Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist, by Brad Lowell Stone.
“Budget-expanding enthusiasts for giant increases in military expenditures” are not conservatives in Nisbet’s view. In his 1986 monograph Conservatism: Dream and Reality he writes of them: “Of all the misascriptions of the word ‘conservative’ during the last four years, the most amusing, in an historical light, is surely the application of ‘conservative’ to the last-named. For in America throughout the twentieth century, and including four substantial wars abroad, conservatives had been steadfastly the voices of non-inflationary military budgets, and of an emphasis on trade in the world instead of American nationalism. In the two World Wars, in Korea, and in Viet Nam, the leaders of American entry into war were such renowned liberal-progressives as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. In all four episodes conservatives, both in the national government and in the rank and file, were largely hostile to intervention; were isolationists indeed.”
Nisbet discusses “the lure of military society” and its dangers at length in 1975’s The Twilight of Authority. It is a work of considerable prescience. Nisbet writes: “If terror, as manifested by such groups as the PLO and the IRA, increases by the same rate during the next decade as it has during the past decade, it is impossible to conceive of liberal, representative democracy continuing, with its crippling processes of due process and its historic endowments of immunity before, or protection by, the legal process.” Nisbet also understands that the popular reaction against a “bad war” like Vietnam was an historical aberration and that “the proper image of war, of military, and of war society should be…an American war of independence from England, a Civil War, a Spanish-American war (one of America’s all-time great national thrills!), a world war for democracy, or a world war against Fascism. Or, for present purposes, the war of a courageous, beleaguered, American-supported Israel.”
Most wars are “good wars” in which we are convinced of the righteousness of our cause, be it democracy or anti-fascism or freedom. Wars are fought over values that cannot normally be questioned. To oppose the war becomes to oppose the sacred cause. But Nisbet shows that the only causes war ever really advances are those of statism and social decay.
First, war is not only the health of the state but also its very origin. “The state is born of war and its unique demands. Those social evolutionists who have tried to derive the political state as a development from kinship — that is, as an emergent of household, kindred, or clan — have simply not recognized the issues involved. The first political figure in history is not the patriarch but the military leader.” Furthermore “the kinship group and the militia were thus set into complete and unremitting opposition so far as their aims and needs were concerned.” War is unavoidably statist and anti-family.
War also brings what Nisbet calls “licensed immorality” of two kinds. It authorizes violence that would in any other circumstance be considered psychopathic and, in today’s world, provides a vicarious thrill to those who watch the violence on the news. War licenses sexual immorality too, as shown by the Roman experience. “It was not easy for the young Romans, after a number of years in the field where every form of violation of the canons of continence was scarcely more than routine, to return to the iron morality of the traditional Roman family system, with its built-in coercions, constraints, and subjections to patriarch and matriarch.” What was true for the Romans remains true today: “I do not think it extreme to link the breakdown in moral standards in all spheres — economic, educational, and political — as well as in family life — the effects of two major wars — celebrated wars! — in this century. What is in the first instance licensed, as it were, by war stays on to develop into forms which have their own momentum.”
In fact war is revolutionary. “Many of the basic values of war and revolution are identical. In each there is legitimization of violence in the name of some moral or social end that transcends violence. The appeal in each is overwhelmingly to youth — its unique energies, strengths, and also values, the latter so often subordinated in peacetime to the values of the older and established members of the social order. In both war and revolution there is an emphasis upon loyalty, honor, and cause that is all too often difficult to find in ordinary political and economic society.”
War, like revolution, simplifies and distorts morality, leading to zealotry. “One of the great appeals of war in the modern world especially has been its capacity to effect moral crusades on the grand scale, with the enemy seen, or made to appear, as the embodiment of evil and the challenger of all that is good. It was the French Revolution that first moralized military operations in a large sense.” Moreover, modern, ideological warfare resembles revolution in its moralistic contempt for bourgeois lifestyles. “To both mentalities this society, especially in its modern capitalist form, can seem egoistic, venal, needlessly competitive, often corrupt, and fettered by privilege unearned. Careful reading of the memoirs of the great generals in history will, I am sure, real as much distaste for all this as one finds in the memoirs of revolutionists.”
Nisbet does not consider it coincidental that revolutionists like Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro adopt military fatigues as their habiliments. Nor that the People’s Liberation Army should be the dominant institution of revolutionized China. He also reminds his readers that Max Weber found the origins of communism in the communal life of the military. Certainly the idea of a totally commanded and controlled life — totalitarianism — resembles military discipline. This discipline, regimentation really, stands in contrast to the self-control and continence that Western civilization and its conservatives have traditionally cherished.
Intellectual life is likewise shackled by war. Nisbet cites the example of Woodrow Wilson’s “Four Minute-Men” whose “canned speeches, filled with references to traitors and enemies of the sacred war effort, to cowards, draft-dodgers, and wearers of the white feather, as well as to those making the supreme sacrifice, could be counted upon, as time passed, to generate a whole spectrum of home front atrocities that ranged from the excision in public libraries of stories and songs composed by Germans all the way to the public pillorying of those with German names or family ties to Germany.” Today it’s Muslims rather than Germans, and instead of “Four-Minute Men” we have William Bennet’s “Americans for Victory over Terrorism.”
American ideologies on both the left and the right are deformed by war and mobilization for war. Again World War I is the paradigm: “A great deal of the spirit of localism, of grass roots, and of pluralism that had characterized so much of American reform thought, ranging from anarchist utopianism to the special forms of socialism that characterized, for example, Eugene Debs and the editors of The Masses, disappeared with the war. A very different spirit, rooted in the centralized power of the national government and which in a sense took war-society minus war as its ideal of planned economy, replaced the older one.” Roughly the same thing happened on the right in World War II, where unique, American-particular forms of conservatism, almost all decentralist and anti-statist, were replaced with an ideology fit for a garrison state. Just ask William F. Buckley.
Nisbet concludes The Twlight of Authority’s chapter on military society by summarizing the effects of war on culture and providing an insight into war’s appeal to misguided conservatives. Here Nisbet leaves no room for doubt about what the conservative’s proper attitude toward war must be.
“War and the military are, without question, among the very worst of the earth’s afflictions, responsible for the majority of the torments, oppressions, tyrannies, and suffocations of thought the West has for long been exposed to. In military or war society anything resembling true freedom of thought, true individual initiative in the intellectual and cultural and economic areas, is made impossible — not only cut off when they threaten to appear but, worse, extinguished more or less at root. Between military and civil values there is, and always has been, relentless opposition. Nothing has proved more destructive of kinship, religion, and local patriotisms than has war and the accompanying military mind. Basic social institutions can, on the incontestable record, survive depression, plague, famine, and catastrophe. They have countless times in history. What these and related institutions cannot survive is the transfer of their inherent functions and authorities to a body such as the military….
“Yet, evil as war and the military are as the pillars of society, there are, in ages of twilight such as our own, worse afflictions, at least in the imaginations of those who feel threatened by breakdown, corruption, moral erosion, and downright physical danger. War society — with its promised protection from these, its proffer of security to civil populations, its guise of revolutionary achievement, as in China, Russia, Cuba and many another nation, its repudiation of all the economic and social values which have become repugnant to people under depression or inflation, its manifest means of relieving the terrible weight of boredom that modern democratic and industrial populations increasingly find themselves enduring, and, perhaps foremost, its sense of mission or crusade — can be, indeed already shows vivid signs of being, almost redemptive in appearance.”
These have been just a few excerpts from one chapter of The Twlight of Authority, which is only a small part of Nisbet’s entire corpus — which in turn is only tip of the iceberg of antiwar conservative literature. All of Nisbet’s arguments are further elaborated upon in his other works and in the works of other antiwar conservatives. Theirs is a long and distinguished tradition, one almost totally unknown to today’s shallow right.
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.