‘Manly’ Teddy and the Neocons

In his essay “War is the Health of the State,” Randolph Bourne criticizes war as an enterprise that increases the state’s control over its subjects. During times of peace, people think less about the state and more about living their everyday lives. However, when war starts, the people and the state become one, and the state expands its power over the populace, drafting them into the military and censoring the press. Dissenters are marginalized and sometimes imprisoned. While Bourne criticized the state for starting wars and demanding blind loyalty from its subjects, President Theodore Roosevelt (TR) viewed war as a healthy undertaking that increased a nation’s “manliness.” Not surprisingly, today’s neocons look to Roosevelt to justify their imperialistic military adventures.

One would be hard pressed to find a situation in which TR did not advocate the use of military force. Indeed, he would probably have agreed with Bourne’s thesis that “war is the health of the state.” According to historian Robert J. Maddox in his article “Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders,” TR thought war “could be a tonic to the nation’s bloodstream.” Nations that went too long without war, in Roosevelt’s view, were in danger of becoming “unmanly.” During his presidency, he said America “needed a war,” and he found one in the Philippines, a territory the US acquired after winning the Spanish-American War. TR’s “manly” war to civilize the Filipinos (his predecessor, the imperialist William McKinley, said they needed to be Christianized because they were Catholic) killed 4,000 American soldiers and over 200,000 Filipinos. However, he always defended war, writing that:

“It is a base untruth to say that happy is the nation that has no history. Thrice happy is the nation that has a glorious history. Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

In other words, America should abandon the principles of the Founding Fathers, who called for a non-interventionist foreign policy, and become a nation that goes “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The Founders, in fact, wanted America to be a nation “that knows not victory or defeat,” because they knew that wars endanger the liberties they fought to protect. This was apparently lost on TR.

TR was one of the first American presidents to openly promote the pursuit of empire. For example, in his essay “Expansion and Peace,” he praises the Roman Empire, saying:

“The Roman expanded, and he has left a memory which has profoundly influenced the history of mankind, and he has further left as the heirs of his body, and, above all, of his tongue and culture, the so-called Latin peoples of Europe and America.”

TR conveniently omits the Roman Empire’s fate (the eventual fate of all empires): economic and military collapse. He has similar praise for the British Empire:

“All civilization…has been the gainer by the advance of England in both Asia and Africa, both Canada and Australia.”

The victims of the Boer War (one of the first – and bloodiest – guerrilla wars), Britain’s war for gold against Dutch descendants in South Africa, would probably not consider themselves “gainers.”

It should come as no surprise that the neocons love TR. They, like TR, believe that the only healthy state is one that is perpetually on a military footing. For example, in 1996, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote an article in Foreign Affairs that called for America to pursue a policy of “benevolent global hegemony,” in which most Americans should participate. They lamented the fact that most Americans, who care little about empire and war, “have come to take the fruits of their hegemonic power for granted.” To solve this problem, they suggest that the president “take steps to close the growing separation of civilian and military cultures in our society.” They sadly concede that a military draft may not be “feasible,” but suggest expanding the military reserves to create a more militaristic culture. The neocons, then, like TR, believe peace is “unmanly,” and want America’s youth to undertake the “manly” mission of global military hegemony.

Also like TR, the neocons show little respect for America’s Founding principles. Utilizing the American military to attain global hegemony certainly violates John Quincy Adams’ admonition against going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” For years, they advocated a monster hunt for Saddam Hussein. Even before 9/11, they wanted to topple Saddam and, by controlling Iraq’s oil supplies, usher in a “Pax Americana” of global military dominance. In 2003, their wish was finally granted, and disaster has followed, just as it did when TR went to war in the Philippines.

Some neocons completely contradict the principles of America’s founding by advocating renewed conscription, the state’s most heinous attack on liberty. To justify their proposal, they claim that America cannot maintain its superpower status without a draft. Anyone who understands the original intent of the Founders knows that, when a government cannot raise enough volunteers to fight a war, the war is not worth fighting. Neocons, of course, say that, since the Constitution gives Congress the right to raise an army, the draft is constitutional. This argument, however, conveniently ignores the motives of the Founders. They had just fought a war to secede from a tyrannical central government; it would make no sense for them to give the new federal government the power to force people into the military.

Interestingly, most neocons support Lincoln’s war to “liberate” the Southern slaves (though the war was not about slavery) and the constitutional amendments that followed, one of which – the thirteenth – forbids involuntary servitude. Forcing citizens into the military obviously constitutes involuntary servitude. They dance around this contradiction in their thinking by citing the Supreme Court’s rulings that uphold the draft because of Congress’ power to raise an army. Anyone who has spent the least amount of time studying government, however (and the neocons obviously have), knows that all branches of government yield to the executive branch during wartime (when those decisions were rendered). After (and, in the Ex parte Merryman opinion, even during) the Civil War, for example, the Supreme Court condemned many of the Lincoln administration’s actions. The contradictory neoconservative stance on conscription, then, shows that they view the Founding principles as a nuisance to dance around, not a framework for government.

The neocons share TR’s lust for empire; they are sympathetic to the Roman and British Empires. The aforementioned term “Pax Americana,” for example, is borrowed from the Roman term “Pax Romana,” which refers to a period of “peace” under Roman dominance. The neoconservatives – like Roman and British imperialists before them – have an exceptional view of their country’s motives and designs, which explains their belief that an American Empire will be more “benevolent” than the Roman and British Empires. And their belief in American Exceptionalism has – like the exceptionalism of Roman and British imperialists – led to atrocities like those at Abu Ghraib, not peace.

TR and the neocons differ in one key respect. TR, unlike the neocons, practiced what he preached. When the war with Spain he wanted finally arrived, he joined a regiment of “Rough Riders” as a lieutenant-colonel. Later, when America entered World War I (which he also supported), he asked President Wilson to allow him to reprise his role, but Wilson refused. TR’s son, Quentin, was killed in World War I. TR, grief-stricken, died six months later, questioning his stance on war. Apparently, losing a child taught him that war is not such a “healthy” activity for those who die. In contrast, few, if any, of the neocons have served in uniform, nor have their children. They prefer to be armchair generals, letting others fight and die. They would rather let other people’s children experience the healthy benefits of war.