Conservatives Must Oppose Militarism and War

The fetishization of all things martial by the bulk of 21st-century conservatives is inescapable and worrisome. Whether it’s rapturous warmongering in the pages of The Weekly Standard or embarrassing displays of machismo on the part of our president-cum-fighter pilot, the sentiment is difficult to evade, yet impossible to understand. It is a thoughtless and superficial obsession, and thoroughly unnatural, for militarism is at odds with everything for which the Right supposedly stands.

Until quite recently, conservatives – that is, people who support limited government, controlled spending, low taxes, individual liberty, rule of law, decentralization, restrained executive authority, and cautious foreign interaction – were skeptics of the military. They regarded it carefully and from a distance, knowing full well its shameful influence on past republics. There was, of course, full recognition of the importance of maintaining a force both dexterous and disciplined, but that reasonable concession was coupled with suspicion and vigilance.

This impulse was long crucial to Anglo-American conservatism, manifesting itself in numerous ways, from opposition to standing armies to advocacy of noninterventionism abroad. English conservative Edmund Burke passionately asserted that even the finest armies are "dangerous to liberty" and can subvert a free society. In the United States, the founders, whose classical liberalism constitutes the core of modern conservatism, enshrined gun rights and local militias in the Constitution because of their hesitation to establish a national military command. Looking backward, they admired not the imperious and pugnacious Caesar but the reluctant soldier Cincinnatus.

Their wariness was good and sensible. Robust, readily exercised armed forces are the antithesis of the conservative program. The military devours tax dollars, thus eliminating any possibility of genuine fiscal discipline. Quick, brutal strength is a tempting substitute for diplomacy, an invitation to war at each and every impasse. And, with a brooding eye toward the PATRIOT Act, it is evident that war triggers a rollback of personal liberty and a deterioration of the rule of law. For some time, these notions were conservative staples; a prime example of their old potency was the fierceness of Sen. Eugene Hale’s opposition to President Theodore Roosevelt’s "Great White Fleet," that early spearhead of America’s global designs. Now only one Republican senator, the indomitable Chuck Hagel of Nebraska , possesses (and exhibits!) such moral tenacity.

The military is the most bloated and opaque organization in the United States, perhaps in the world. Yet few conservatives criticize this shadowy arm of the state. Are these really the same people who would have us believe that they champion good, clean, simple government? The military is constantly excused, with accusations of treachery and disloyalty hurled at anyone who dares bring reproach. Exceptionalism is the name of the game: every other government agency is suspect, but the most reckless, dangerous, and expensive of them all is coddled and protected. This is the most juvenile and grotesque sort of patriotism.

Let me be clear: I respect the men and women who serve our country. They are devoted servants of the Republic. The current conflict has entered my life in many ways, and it has proven the utter cruelty of war, as well as the impressive will and courage of those who suffer it in the trenches. American forces are indeed responsible for positive change throughout history (though not always). These facts stand without question.

That said, the military cannot rightfully be considered a proper tool for forging a world where liberty and democracy may flourish. Such notions are hideously liberal, for they are based on the most dangerous of utopian delusions: that men can be made at gunpoint to change; that nations can be built as easily as destroyed; that societies are artificial rather than organic and can be made to order. These ideas have none of the realism that distinguishes conservatism from dreamy liberal mush.

Furthermore, not merely militarism but war itself is repellent to any orthodox conservative. It is a great uprooter of men and material and a fine destroyer of tradition. The costs of conflict are monumental, the rewards too often minimal. With each falling bomb, international order is torn asunder – contrary to hawkish bombast, war is never fought to maintain or advance an existing order, but always to institute a new one. Bellicosity prompts a disregard for national and popular sovereignty, two important items on the conservative agenda. Randolph Bourne was correct: war is the health of the state, and true conservatism pictures the state as a necessary but terribly sour pill.

At the risk of fomenting internecine squabbling at a time when there should be unity, I urge neoconservative elements of the Right – especially those within the Republican Party – to reconsider their crush on military power and their infatuation with crusades based on Big Ideas. We should be proud of our military, yes, but not smitten by it. Forget petty chauvinism and imperial aggression – let there be real patriotism.

Fellow conservatives: about face?