The Conservative Case Against War

I am anti-war.

If you had told me a decade ago that I would ever utter those words, I would have put you on a stage and then laughed you off of it.

As most significant changes of philosophy are, my path to this point was long and winding. Starting off as a Rush Limbaugh Republican, I used to enthusiastically endorse any war that the party and talk radio told me to. But after several years of scrutiny, it is the mainstream right’s position on war that I find at once laughable and infuriating.

My drift toward the anti-war position hasn’t been because I’ve slowly progressed leftward. To the contrary, it is as my fundamental beliefs in faith, liberty and community have crystallized into a cohesive philosophy that I have come to realize that war is incompatible with everything else I hold dear. Along the way I learned that I’m not alone. I have learned that, historically, conservatives have opposed warfare and considered it the natural enemy of freedom.

My intent here is to show why this is the case and why it is well past time for modern conservatives to seriously reappraise their support for war. In short, what follows is why I am anti-war – and why you should be too.

War is Not Necessarily Defense

Although I am anti-war, I am not a pacifist. People too often assume that we must either fully support conflict as it is currently carried out or not believe in conflict at all. This oversimplification of choices is a false dichotomy. I fully believe in the right of a country to defend itself, just as I believe in the right of individuals to defend themselves.

But not all wars are defensive, just as not all individual violence is self-defense. It cannot be considered self-defense, for instance, for me to break into your house, beat you to a pulp and then proceed to tell you how I want you to behave. It is likewise not defense for a country to go around the world meddling in other nations’ affairs, propping up dictators, undermining regimes and attempting to secure self-serving outcomes. And yet, this is exactly the current state of American foreign policy – all undertaken in the name of “defense.”

Most Americans happily cheer on our meddling as “world leadership” or as the fulfillment of a supposed God-given responsibility to police the world. As seductive as these ideas may be, they are entirely antithetical to traditional American values.

Unfortunately, most Americans are unwilling to question the politicians who tell them that these aspects of foreign policy are undertaken solely in the interest of national defense.

Defense or Empire?

But, if our country’s foreign policy is not for defense, then what is it? The answer: empire.

While most Americans wouldn’t think of the United States as an empire, the evidence is hard to dispute. In 2012, the U.S. spent $646 billion on “defense,” 41% of  the combined defense spending of every country in the entire world. What’s more, the U.S. spent nearly seven times as much on its military as the next closest country, China.

What does the U.S. get for its money? We get decade-long ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We get constant military intervention and preparation for intervention in countries like Libya, Syria and Iran. We get a drone program that indiscriminately bombs civilians and terrorists alike and spies on its own citizens at home. We get a heightened surveillance state. We get incessant meddling in revolutions and counterrevolutions across the globe.

Are we to believe that all of this is in the interest of defense? Or does it seem possible that the giant political apparatus that has grown up around the defense industry is primarily interested in its own survival and propagation? Are we to believe that the politicians who we consider to be so mad with power when it comes to domestic policy are interested only in the security of Americans when it comes to foreign policy?

Maybe a better question is what would we call it America’s foreign policy were employed by another nation. What if Russia decided that it was in their national security interests to invade Texas or California or New York? What if China decided that it needed to install a pro-Chinese government in the United States to protect its interests? What if Iranian drones were bombing U.S. targets? What if Saudi secret agents were propping up American politicians to serve their own interests? Would we hesitate to label these the actions of an empire? Of course not

It must be admitted, then, that if this kind of foreign policy is imperial for other countries, it doesn’t magically transform into benevolent leadership just because the U.S. does it.

Imperialism is Un-American

Realizing that the U.S. is an empire does not answer the question about the desirability of empire. There are, in fact, many on the right who not only defend empire, but vehemently attack anti-imperialism an un-American.

These defenses notwithstanding, there is little that is more antithetical to the principles of the American Revolution than empire. The reason for this is that, as 19th century Republican congressman George Boutwell said, “Empire means vast armies employed in ignominious service…(and) burdensome taxation at home.”

America’s founders extremely critical of empire and its concomitant institutions, continual war and standing armies. James Madison made the marquee argument against empire when he said,

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too…all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced…(to) the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both.”

He concluded, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Madison was also under no delusions about the root of politicians’ desires for war. He observed, “The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

Historian Kevin Gutzman, a prominent Madison biographer has stated that Madison and many of his contemporaries

“…warned that standing armies led to endless wars, and that endless war meant more authority in the central government, more power in the Executive Branch, more government secrecy, more government borrowing, higher taxes, more concentration of wealth, dead soldiers, and, in short, the distortion of republican government into something very different.”

America’s founders had a markedly different vision for the country’s foreign relations. George Washington, in his farewell address, advised his countrymen that a truly American foreign policy should be to,

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and…great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”

In other words, eschew empire, mind our own business and display an example of peace and freedom to the rest of the world. The failure of nations to do this has borne dire consequences throughout history. As Patrick Henry cautioned, “Those nations who have gone in search of grandeur, power and splendor, have…been the victims of their own folly. While they acquired those visionary blessings, they lost their freedom.”

Spreading Freedom & Liberating the Oppressed

In the minds of some Americans, a strong, militarily active United States is needed by the world to, as Woodrow Wilson put it, “make it safe for democracy.” But traditional conservatives have strongly opposed this idea throughout American history.

Old Right conservative Howard Buffett criticized this mentality. Speaking against the Korean War in the early 1950s, Buffett said,

“Even if it were desirable, America is not strong enough to police the world by military force.  If that attempt is made, the blessings of liberty will be replaced by tyranny and coercion at home.  Our Christian ideals cannot be exported to other lands by dollars and guns. We cannot practice might and force abroad and retain freedom at home.  We cannot talk world cooperation and practice power politics.”

Writing around the same time, Senator Robert Taft, the leader of the Old Right Republicans, wrote that “the forcing of any special brand of freedom and democracy on a people, whether they want it or not, by the brute force of war will be a denial of those very democratic principles which we are striving to advance.”

Some will say that the United States has a humanitarian duty to save people in foreign lands from oppression. That bad guy over there is harming people, the argument goes, so we must go save them. Of course, to save them we must drop bombs on them, invade their countries, and do battle with the tyrant’s soldiers who are often unwilling conscripts themselves. In other words, we must often accelerate the suffering and death of these huddled masses in order to stop their suffering and death.

Even if the U.S. can overthrow tyrants, there is no guarantee that the political situation will be any less volatile after an intervention than it was before. The record of recent U.S. interventions certainly don’t leave us with a high degree of confidence in the ability of war to create political stability or end human suffering. Many people who call the Iraq War a humanitarian war may be surprised to learn that the United States’ intervention in that country led to the rapidly accelerating persecution of hundreds of thousands Iraqi Christians who had been tolerated by the former government.

The truth is that humanitarian interventions end up harming just as many innocent people as the regimes they overthrow. Countering notions that have since become fashionable, John Quincy Adams articulated a the role that America should play in bringing freedom to the world. Speaking in 1821 Adams said,

(America) has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings…. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Adams noted that, in attempting to militarily bring freedom to the world, America would risk its own. He believed that if the United States were to become embroiled in international battles for freedom, “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….”

Tennessee congressman Jimmy Duncan has rediscovered this spirit of America’s past and, in the process, become a lonely voice of reason among conservatives. Duncan, in response to all of the calls for military intervention, has simply stated, “I believe very strongly in national defense, I just don’t believe in international defense. I don’t believe we can take on the defense problems of the whole world.”

Unintended Consequences

Regardless of the rationale for military intervention, whether spreading democracy or freeing the oppressed, it is always based on one assumption: that the United States government and military have the ability and knowledge to bring large-scale social and political change to foreign countries. This assumption implies that foreign interventions will be wisely planned and implemented and that the unintended consequences will be negligible or non-existent.

When these assumptions are applied to domestic policy, conservatives flip out. “Of course the government doesn’t know the best way for me to spend my money, plan my retirement or take care of my health,” they say. Why then do they accept the assumption that a government that is so incompetent domestically is nearly omniscient when it interferes in dozens of countries all around the world?

If conservatives were consistent, they wouldn’t. In his 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, historian Tom Woods notes that “The same conservative philosophy that looks with skepticism on what government can accomplish at home has traditionally rejected utopian visions of what that same government can accomplish abroad.” In The Politics of Prudence, Russell Kirk, one of the most influential post-World War II conservatives, affirmed that “the exercise of foreign politics, as of domestic politics, is the art of the possible.”

In his book Wilson’s War, which details the faulty assumptions and unintended consequences of the United States’ entry into World War I, historian Jim Powell notes that no politician or group of politicians has historically been able to predict the consequences of foreign intervention. Powell writes,

“One never knows how different people might react to intervention, so there are more likely to be unintended consequences. Such a policy requires people with considerable knowledge and the ability to anticipate developments and make sound judgments. Nobody has figured out a way to assure that an interventionist foreign policy will always be managed by such people.”

Powell is being polite. The reality is that no interventionist foreign policy has ever been managed by such people. But despite this truth, conservatives now follow the liberals of the 20th century in labeling a non-interventionist foreign policy as isolationist. No proof is ever given for why it should be considered isolationist to show military restraint and focus on our own communities and nation.

Conservative journalist Felix Morley answered the charge of isolationism by saying,

“As problems of every sort increase at home we realize that what happens to Israel or Ethiopia is not our first concern. And this is not to be called a rebirth of ‘isolationism,’ but rather a recognition that federalism, even if we misname it democracy, is not adapted or adaptable to the path of empire.”

Killing Intelligent Debate

None of these arguments against war are new, and yet most modern conservatives consider the purveyors of them to be leftist hippies. There’s not much interest among conservatives in hearing the rationale for why someone doesn’t like war. There’s even less willingness to carefully consider anti-war arguments.

Robert Taft observed this behavior in post-World War II Democrats when he said that “Criticisms (of war) are met by the calling of names rather than by intelligent debate.”  Of course, Taft was speaking in the early 1950s, a time when the American right was still able to consider the pros and cons of war, or even that cons might exist. That ability has since atrophied away.

Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate, retired Army colonel and conservative historian affirms this in his intriguing book Washington Rules. Bacevich writes,

“…the citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy. To cast doubts on the principles of global presence, power projection, and interventionism…is to mark oneself as an oddball or eccentric, either badly informed or less than fully reliable; certainly not someone suitable for holding national office.”

Examples of this are not hard to find. When Ron Paul suggested during a debate in 2012 that the United States should use the Golden Rule as a guide for its foreign policy, he was mercilessly booed by the crowd. This happened in South Carolina, a state where 93% of the population considers themselves to be Christians, a percentage that is likely to be even higher in a conservative Republican crowd.

That such a crowd would find the idea of “doing unto others” so inflammatory is a sad commentary on the exemption from scrutiny that many Americans give to the warfare state. Rather than consider the message of peace, they yell frenzied denunciations at the messenger.

In his classic treatise The Quest for Community, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet posited an explanation for this behavior. Nisbet wrote:

“It is hard not to conclude that modern populations depend increasingly on the symbolism of war for relief from civil conflicts and frustrations. The power of war to create a sense of moral meaning is one of the most frightening aspects of the twentieth century.”

Whatever the cause, the reality is that the best reasons to oppose war, or to at least consider opposing it, are given no credence by the people who most desperately need to consider them. Because it’s a question of war, it’s exempt from debate. And while it is conservatives who constantly chide liberals for being impervious to logic and data, they are the worst offenders of this exact tendency when it comes to foreign policy.

Socialism’s Breeding Ground

Conservative godfather Russell Kirk noted in the early 1990s that,

“Since (the Spanish-American War), until 1991, it was Democratic governments of the United States that propelled the United States to war, if sometimes through the back door: the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, (and) the Indo-Chinese wars.”

Kirk’s point has merit. Woodrow Wilson got the U.S. into World War I, FDR fought to get involved in World War II before the Day of Infamy, Harry Truman launched his “police action” in Korea and JFK and LBJ ramped up hostilities in Vietnam.

For most of the twentieth century it was the American left that pushed for war and the American right that sought to avoid it. Although this goes against all of our modern assumptions about war and political affiliations, there have historically been strong incentives for the left to support war because the demands of war closely mirror the desires of socialists.

There are many examples of this, but perhaps the best case study is World War I. Historian Ralph Raico notes,

“By the time of the armistice, the (U.S.) government had taken over the ocean-shipping, railroad, telephone, and telegraph industries; commandeered hundreds of manufacturing plants; entered into massive enterprises on its own account in such varied departments as shipbuilding, wheat trading, and building construction; undertaken to lend huge sums to business directly or indirectly and to regulate the private issuance of securities; established official priorities for the use of transportation facilities, food, fuel, and many raw materials; fixed the prices of dozens of important commodities; intervened in hundreds of labor disputes; and conscripted millions of men for service in the armed forces.

“Fatuously, Wilson conceded that the powers granted him ‘are very great, indeed, but they are no greater than it has proved necessary to lodge in the other Governments which are conducting this momentous war.’  So, according to the president, the United States was simply following the lead of the Old World nations in leaping into war socialism.”

That this war socialism was implemented by a president with socialist sympathies was no accident. Robert Nisbet observed that “it is in time of war that many of the reforms, first advocated by socialists, have been accepted by capitalist governments and made parts of the structures of their societies.”

Nisbet also wrote about the relationship of war with two other unconservative phenomena, nationalism and revolution. Of nationalism he observed that it “is nourished by the emotions of organized war” and that, far from it being an American idea, “All serious students of nationalism are agreed that, in its contemporary form, (it) is the child of the French Revolution.”

Ironically, by observing the dangers of nationalism Nisbet was making the same point as Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who a century earlier wrote that “all men of centralizing genius are fond of war which compels nations to combine all their powers in the hands of the government.” Nisbet and Tocqueville both understood what traditionalist conservatives always have – that war necessarily results in nationalism and that nationalism necessarily results in the growth of government.

Of war and revolution, Nisbet reported that the founding fathers of communism understood the revolutionary power of war, writing,

“(Karl) Marx and (Friedrich) Engels were both keen students of war, profoundly appreciative of its properties with respect to large-scale institutional change. From Trotsky and his Red Army down to Mao and Chou En-lai in China today, the uniform of the soldier has been the uniform of the revolutionist.”

In their understanding of the relationship between war and big government, Kirk and Nisbet were simply following the conservative tradition. Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America earned him a place in the genealogy of conservatism, wrote that “All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it.”

While modern conservatives have largely ignored this part of their tradition, the harsh reality is that war has done more to entrench big government than any other single factor.

Pro-Life, Pro-War?

One of the tenets of modern conservatism is the pro-life, anti-abortion movement. Conservatives point out, correctly, that every human life has inherent dignity from conception on. Every life, being created in the image of God, is precious in his sight.

The curious part of this belief, however, is that for many conservatives it doesn’t apply evenly to all human beings. People who decry the horrors of abortion are often unmoved by the loss of innocent life that results from our country’s foreign policy. The reasons for this are unclear. Does God view the lives of unborn Americans more highly than those of birthed middle-easterners? Clearly not, but this seems to be the practical application of the diluted pro-life message espoused by many modern conservatives.

In a nationally televised 1996 interview, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked whether or not the intended effects of economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein were worth the lives of the 500,000 Iraqi children who had reportedly died as a result of those sanctions. Albright responded, “We think the price is worth it.” One might have expected the American pro-life movement to have been incensed at this degree of lost innocent life, but anyone expecting such outrage was disappointed.

The United States’ current ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have likewise resulted in civilian deaths. While accurate statistics are hard to come by, the best estimate is that over 110,000 innocent Iraqis have died as a result of the war with at least another 15,000 non-combatants killed in Afghanistan.

The U.S. government’s use of drones has resulted in even more civilian deaths. A drone that mistakenly identified a wedding party as a collection of terrorists killed between 12 and 17 innocent civilians and, as one observer noted, “turned a wedding into a funeral.” Far from this being an isolated incident, the death of innocent people in drone strikes is an all-too-common experience.

Back in America, however, these deaths go unmourned, even in pro-life circles. Rather, they are explained away with glib argumentation that we would find repulsive were it Americans who were being attacked. What is rarely argued is that we have a moral duty reconsider our policies based on what happens to innocent people in foreign lands.

Can conservatives call themselves pro-life and still ignore the consequences of our foreign military adventures?

Senator Rand Paul says no. Paul has made the case that the disregard for the lives of unborn children is tied to our disregard for the lives of people in foreign countries. Paul said,

“The coarsening of our culture toward violent death has more consequences than even war. Tragically this same culture has led to the death of 50 million unborn children in the last 40 years. I don’t think a civilization can long endure that does not have respect for all human life born and not yet born. We have a great many problems in this country to solve, but I believe there will come a time when we are all judged on whether or not we took a stand in defense of all life from the moment of conception until our last natural breath.”

Assaulting our Humanity

A few years ago a video was leaked which showed an Apache helicopter airstrike in Baghdad that claimed the lives of at least 12 people. These people were thought to be insurgents by the U.S. military but turned out to be mostly reporters and innocent civilians, including a father who was driving his two children to school. The children, in addition of losing their father, were also wounded.

In the leaked video the soldiers in the Apache were heard discussing the attack. Looking down at the bodies on the ground, one member of the crew unemotionally stated, “Look at those dead bastards.” When informed that there were children in a van that was fired upon, a soldier remarks, “Ah, damn. Oh, well. Well, it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle.”

A couple of years later a video surfaced of U.S. Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the bodies of three dead Taliban soldiers. Officially, U.S. politicians condemned the behavior, but unofficially there was tacit acceptance of the act, particularly in conservative circles, as merely a consequence of being at war.

When these things happen during war, as they always do, outrage is appropriately focused on the violated rights of the victims. But focusing solely on this misses an important point. The truth is that our own humanity and sense of morality are compromised when these actions aren’t fully condemned by society.

Some believe that incidents like these can be explained away with statements about the nature of war. Whatever the validity of these arguments, they are not cause enough for us to accept such behavior. We certainly wouldn’t excuse this in other cases.

The simple fact of being at war shouldn’t lead us to hold any less outrage when soldiers do these things. We should realize the danger that being at war poses to our humanity. It’s impact to society is clearly and unavoidably negative as we are told to view “the enemy” as less human or as having less inherent dignity than other human beings.

Understanding these baneful effects on our own sense of humanity, we should desire to avoid war and its consequences.

Making New Enemies

I recently heard an interview in which a journalist made the point that history didn’t begin on September 11, 2001. But many Americans have looked at the terrible events of that day as though they were an effect without a cause. The inevitable question arose, “Why do they hate us?”

The answers to that question were varied, usually ranging from “they’re incorrigibly evil” to “they hate us for our freedom.” The one answer that was completely off the table was that our government’s foreign policy had created dangerous enemies. Rather than being a hypothesis that warranted consideration, this explanation was shouted down as “blaming America,” and conservatives were the loudest shouters.

Why this explanation should have been answered with emotion instead of investigation is unclear. Is foreign policy the one area of life that is immune from the laws of cause and effect? Russell Kirk clearly didn’t think so. In his prophetic criticism of George H. W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Kirk predicted,

“…Mr. Bush’s ‘New World Order’ may make the United States detested – beginning with the Arab peoples – more than even the Soviet empire was. Mr. Bush’s people hinted at their intention of stationing an American military ‘presence’ permanently on the Persian Gulf…. Increasingly, the states of Europe and the Levant may suspect that in rejecting Russian domination, they exchanged King Log for King Stork.”

Republican congressman, Jimmy Duncan, offered a piercing explanation for why some people in other countries may not like us today, saying,
“It’s ridiculous to say they’re a threat to us because they ‘hate our freedom.’ They don’t hate our freedom. They hate our policies in the Middle East. They hate our foreign policy.”

Ron Paul, a lightning rod for the hate of neoconservatives everywhere, has made this point many times. In Liberty Defined Paul writes,

“There are lots of people who hate us for invading their countries, supporting dictatorships, starving people through sanctions, and maintaining an unprecedented military empire of global reach. Do we really find it shocking that some people in the world don’t like this? Would we, as American citizens, like it if some superpower were doing this to us.”

Of course we wouldn’t. Yet most conservatives seem genuinely befuddled at the suggestion that the inherent goodness of the United States isn’t apparent to the ungrateful recipients of our country’s interventions. It is simply easier for many Americans to believe in the unrestrained wickedness of entire groups of people than it is to recognize causes and effects.

Tom Woods has mocked this mentality, saying,

“Now I understand, (people say that) Muslims are irrational and they don’t use their brains, and they don’t use reason and so they’re just going to bomb and kill and slaughter no matter what happens so none of this analysis applies.

“But I don’t think that’s safe to say of all billion Muslims, that every single one of them is unmoved when his kid is killed in a pile of rubble, (responding), ‘Well, I am in no way angrier than I was before because of this.'”

None of this excuses terrorism or attempts to place the moral blame for attacks on anyone but the attacker. But attempting to understand how our actions create enemies isn’t tantamount to excusing violence. Ff the goal of our country’s foreign policy is to make Americans safer, then shouldn’t we consider whether or not it is accomplishing that goal or its exact opposite?

Honoring the Troops

The most consistent trick in the American politician’s bag is to talk about the troops. There’s so much emotional support for the troops that it’s not surprising that politicians have discovered referencing them to be a very effective lever they can pull, an overriding emotion they can manipulate.

While it is apparent that the American population adores its military personnel, the manifestation of this adoration is odd. People seem genuinely touched when they see a coffin draped in an American flag, a member of the military maimed by war, a young widow at the grave of her husband or a child crying as she runs into the arms of a father she hasn’t seen for months. These are the images that generate emotion and support for the troops.

And yet the same people who seem the most touched by these images are the most hostile to the argument that America should not wrest its young men and women from their families and send them into battle to be killed and maimed except under the strictest of criteria. To claim that we ought to lessen our military footprint around the world incites all kinds of animosity, even though doing this would greatly reduce the number of wounded or killed, the number of widows and the number of children growing up without fathers.

It’s almost as if the people of America only want to honor their troops after they’re gone.

Now, I know that the response to this will be, “Yes, but sacrifices must be made for our freedom and it is those sacrifices that we are honoring.” Fair enough, but shouldn’t we at least be sure that our freedom is truly at risk before we send our young men and women to some foreign land to be shot at? The assurance of politicians, which on all other counts is scorned, is oddly reason enough when it comes to risking the lives of the troops.

Some will say, after employing a dizzying array of logical fallacies, that discussions like this are criticisms of the troops, but this is clearly not true. In defending his reassessment of the Iraq War, Republican Jimmy Duncan stated in 2007, “It certainly is no criticism of our troops to say that this was a very unnecessary war. This war went against every conservative position I have ever known.”

I am as thankful as anyone for the willingness of people to make sacrifices. But it’s hard for me to escape the reality that when America’s politicians engage the country in foreign conflicts, they are not calling upon some faceless mass called “the troops” to make these sacrifices. They’re playing with the lives of flesh and blood human beings, with families and futures on the line. These people, the troops, are individuals who deserve to be respected before they go off to war as much as we claim to respect them when they come back.

War, Family & Social Decay

Conservatives generally lament the decline of the family in our society. Broken marriages, absentee fathers and declining moral standards are seen as signs of social decay. If these are real concerns for conservatives, then their broad support for war is odd. War necessarily separates families and statistics indicate that marriages and morality are often the victims.

Some conservatives might recoil at this statement, but they’re battling history if they do. Even the founding fathers understood this aspect of war. A writer using the pen name A Federal Republican wrote in 1787, “(A standing army) will inevitably sow the seeds of corruption and depravity of manners. The springs of honesty will gradually grow lax, and chaste…manners will be succeeded by those that are dissolute and vicious.  When a standing army is kept, virtue never thrives.”

In his book, Ain’t My America, Bill Kauffman states that “Empire makes war upon the family and upon traditional marriages.” He continues, “War separates men from women, husbands from wives. Divorce flourishes in the ruins. The divorce rate more than doubled between 1940 and 1946.”

Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, has noted that this trend has continued into modern times. Carlson noted that even before the Iraq War, young military couples were “64 percent more likely to be divorced by age 24 than comparable civilian couples.”

The cause for these statistics isn’t difficult to ascertain. The long-term separation of spouses that is demanded by war creates stress on military couples, which increases the likelihood of divorce. Modern conservatives generally ignore these trends and continue to support war while bemoaning the decline of society. Kauffman, for one, is having none of it. He concludes,

“The leadership of the family-values Right is hopelessly compromised by its long-term adulterous affair with the Republican Party. As they watch this latest American diaspora, as young husbands and wives tearfully leave spouses and children and extended families to serve the empire, we should remind them that the only foreign policy compatible with healthy family life is one of peace and nonintervention.”

The Security State

One amusing recent development is the onslaught of conservative criticism of the NSA’s spying program. During the Obama administration condemning the surveillance state is suddenly fashionable, despite the fact that when George W. Bush’s administration was engaging in similar activities, the only sound coming from conservatives was a chorus of crickets.

Even today there are many on the right – and left – who defend the trade of liberties for security as necessary in an increasingly dangerous world. For this reason NSA spying is defended, along with intrusive TSA procedures, indefinite detention, warrantless drone strikes and illegal searches.

Franklin penned the classic line in response to this mentality when he famously wrote, “They who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Franklin has been joined throughout history by Americans who understood the danger.

Writing during the first decade of the Cold War, Dean Russell of the Foundation for Economic Education noted that,

“Those who advocate the ‘temporary loss’ of our freedom in order to preserve it permanently are advocating only one thing: the abolition of liberty. In order to fight a form of slavery abroad, they advocate a form of bondage at home! These sincere but highly emotional patriots are clear and present threats to freedom; the Russians are still thousands of miles away.”

True Conservatives Oppose War

Despite all of the above truths, war still enjoys the near universal, often enthusiastic support of conservatives. That war has historically brought about socialism, that war attacks not only human life but the family, traditional values, humanity, freedom and intelligent debate is apparently not worth consideration.

Even within the Tea Party movement, whose adherents consider themselves the true representatives of conservatism, the full impact of war is only infrequently questioned. Despite this, war remains at odds with the conservative tradition. In all of their reassessment of the Republican party, the Tea Party – the new conservatives – have balked at reassessing the most significant issue of our day.

In Rollback, Tom Woods writes, “‘Out with the phony conservatives,’ the Tea Party movement says.  ‘We want the real thing.’ But the real thing, far from endorsing global military intervention, recoils from it.”

The “real thing” Woods refers to is the philosophy of the founding fathers of conservatism, men like Robert Nisbet who said in the 1980s that,”…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.”

Nisbet recognized that war assaults everything that conservatives value, observing, “Nothing has proved more destructive of kinship, religion, and local patriotisms than has war and the accompanying military mind.”

Modern conservatism realizes none of this. It has, in fact, accepted the liberal talking points of decades past and made them a part of the new conservatism. Bill Kauffman points out that today’s “‘Conservative’ mouthpieces parrot the foreign-policy slogans of previous generations of liberal Democrats and are either too stupid or too cynical to acknowledge the reversal.”

The conservatism of old included men like Robert Taft, known in his day as “Mr. Republican.” In his 1951 book A Foreign Policy for Americans, Taft stated, “I do not believe any policy which has behind it the threat of military force is justified as part of the basic foreign policy of the United States except to defend the liberty of our own people.”

Lest we be tempted to believe that Taft would have bought into today’s expansive definition of “defending the liberty of our own people,” we should note that he cautioned, “I do not think this moral leadership ideal justifies our engaging in any preventive war, or going to the defense of one country against another, or getting ourselves into a vulnerable fiscal and economic position at home which may invite war.”

In other words, Robert Taft and the intellectual godfathers of conservatism rejected what today’s alleged conservatives tell us is our greatest virtue.


Why have I bothered to write an article this long about a subject I know is so sensitive? I can assure you that it’s not because I expect to win adoration and accolades from my conservative friends. I am well aware of the typical conservative reaction to this message.

Ultimately, I cannot explain the reasons better than Kauffman does in Ain’t My America. He writes,

“I am going on here, piling quote upon quote, because war effaces and perverts everything that traditionalist conservatives profess. Every (single) thing, from motherhood to the country church. And yet postwar conservatives, and especially the scowling ninnies of the Bush Right, revere war above all other values. It trumps the First Amendment; it razes the home; it decks the Decalogue. And they don’t care.”

More than anything I realize that I was once myself a “scowling ninny.” Even though it undermined everything I said I believed in, I formerly supported the warfare state and incessantly made excuses for it.

I have since come to see war for the monster that it is. Because of this, I strongly believe that conservatives need to be confronted with the dissonance between their stated values and war.

The foreign policy of the United States is unsustainable, morally and financially. Conservatives, who are as much to blame as liberals, need to face this issue head-on if they truly desire the security, virtue and prosperity they claim to. The stakes, whether or not Americans realize it, are extremely high. In Washington Rules, Andrew Bacevich summarizes the current situation by writing,

“Americans today must reckon with a contradiction of gaping proportions. Promising prosperity and peace, the Washington rules are propelling the United States toward insolvency and perpetual war. Over the horizon a shipwreck of epic proportions waits. To acknowledge the danger we face is to make learning – and perhaps even a course change – possible. To willfully ignore the danger is to become complicit in the destruction of what most Americans profess to hold dear.”

Anyone who truly believes in freedom can no longer blindly support the United States’ foreign policy, past or present. Politicians who are dunces when they interfere domestically are just as foolish when they interfere abroad. They don’t get a pass just because they invoke the name of the troops or claim that our overseas adventures are for the benefit of unenlightened foreign savages.

The charges of pacifism and isolationism are commonly lobbed at the arguments that I have detailed, and yet there’s nothing passive or isolationist about them. I’ve not denied the right of individuals, or of nations, to defend themselves. I’ve not denied the desirability of the United States occupying a strong presence in the world.

What I have denied is that what the U.S. government categorizes as defense can appropriately bear that title. I have denied the idea that the United States’ presence in the world should be militaristic instead of exemplative. In short, I have denied what former Ohio governor and federal politician Thomas Corwin called “the heathen, barbarian notion, that our true national glory is to be won, or retained, by military prowess or skill in the art of destroying life.”

These points should be open to debate and serious, thoughtful consideration. If conservatives cannot bear to entertain the idea that they have been wrong for at least the last twenty years, then they fail to be the open-minded truth pursuers they claim to be.

More importantly, if the weight of tradition isn’t strong enough to break through the barrier of political slogans, then today’s conservatives are entirely undeserving of the label.