War & Empire are NOT Conservative

Conservatives used to care about a great many things. Building and preserving voluntary communities, institutions, and traditions that were faithful to their heritage, character, and locale. Adhering to and Reaching for a natural and harmonious moral and social order that allows all to fully flourish as humans, or as much as they can in their state of imperfectability to borrow Russell Kirk’s phrase. With Rand Paul’s toned down message and in-and-out appearances on the debate main stages it appears that all will be left with the impression that conservatism and war are, if not hand-in-hand, then kissing cousins.

It is very likely that throughout this campaign season the overwhelming majority of the 15+ million people who have been watching the GOP debates have not perceived the radical repudiations of conservative principles of a bygone era. So far, most on the left and the right have had their suspicions (or hopes) confirmed that conservative has become synonymous with war and empire. It should be fairly clear from the past debates that war and empire is fundamentally damaging to civil liberties and devastating to the debt and economy. But it isn’t clear today that war and empire is not compatible with conservative philosophy as a whole.

First, it should be clear despite intense denialism that America is in fact an empire. America currently maintains over 800 military bases (not including “base sites”) in over 70 countries. By comparison Britain, France and Russia have a combined total of 30 foreign bases. By almost any measure the U.S. has more foreign military bases than any other nation or empire in history. There is no doubt that it is different, it is a 21rst century empire with rhetoric and political structures to match it. We use words like global hegemony and spreading liberal-democracy and human rights. Garret Garrett (no I don’t have a stutter), a journalist of the old-right, wrote this off as the recycled rhetoric of empire:

“This is the language of empire. The Roman Empire never doubted that it was the defender of civilization. Its good intentions were peace, law and order. The Spanish Empire added salvation. The British Empire added the noble myth of the white man’s burden. We have added freedom and democracy. Yet the more that may be added to it the more it is the same language still. A language of power.”

The U.S. has succeeded Rome and  established a Pax Americana, of the perpetual war for perpetual peace variety.

War and empire is truly destructive to everything conservatives stand for. In conservative thought, of the likes of Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, Richard Weaver, or Robert Nisbet, if social change is to take place it should be slow and gradual with respect for tradition.  It is to take place at the lowest and most basic social unit of the family and move upward. It will look different for each region and arise in a sort of natural order. As Kirk said of the enduring natural moral “that order is made for man and man is made for it.” Continuity and commonality with one’s roots is admirable. Gleaming from tradition and voices past meant wisdom, a sort of democracy of the dead against the tyranny of those who just so happen to be alive as G.K. Chesterton said it. Yet Kirk adds “man being imperfect, no perfect social order can ever be created.” Conservative thinking on social matters was always to be modest, to understand that men are fallen, and the evil even in the better men can only be restrained but never totally eradicated. Conservative philosophy is based on creating institutions and structures (checks and balances) that restrain the darker aspects in each man, preserve conventions and customs, and conserve society and tradition. 

Of course, war is fundamentally opposed to these things. War is revolutionary, rapid, imposing, and disruptive to local, cultural, economic, and family life. War separates husbands from wives, fathers from children, and parishioners from churches. War is a complete disruption of the natural order, as Heroditus said “In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.” There is aggrandizement of state power. The argument of “wartime necessity” runs roughshod over all checks and balances, civil liberties, and traditional constraints on government. War makes us forget our most basic moral sensibilities. It engenders total callousness to human life and collateral damage. As Wendell Berry wrote in one of his Cold-War era poems:

Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
that I should desire the burning of your house or the
destruction of your children?
Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose
the thought that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
rivers, and the silence of the birds?
Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?

In opposition to conservative political principles, which believe in delegating political power and social influence to the lowest and most local levels: to the region, town, local church, family, and to the individual, war and empire instead speak of American “leadership” in the world and global hegemony. Instead of locally loyal townsfolk proud of their meager heritage and an “it’s not much but it’s mine,” attitude the imperialist conservative boasts of his country’s exceptionalism, its power abroad, its death-dealing reach, and constant meddling in global affairs. It is the antithesis of what G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Napoleon of Notting Hill that “the patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it,” and elsewhere wrote “I think the first thing that made me dislike imperialism was the statement that the sun never sets on the British Empire. What good is a country with no sunset?”

The conservatives country, as Bill Kauffman echoing Berry argues, is that which is in reach of his love, not the philosophical abstraction on the other end of a TV tube but the dirt in his backyard.This he says, is derided as selfish isolationism to care more for your own backyard than for Baghdad by those who have no backyard. Those who maraud and come to live there long enough to be elected so they can micromanage your life from halfway across the country in a different time-zone, who pretend to live on the Mississippi so they can actually live on the Potomac. These remote, unfamiliar, and impersonal institutions are undeserving of your affection and allegiance. It is simply impossible in any meaningful way to pledge your allegiance, or fulfill any duty, to something so large and abstract as an empire.

Conservatives like Russell Kirk and others stood out in their to commitment to the “near things” of life, that is, your responsibility to those institutions and persons within your immediate sphere of influence: to family, Church, neighbors, and town. As Wendell Berry argued (rightly) your love, like a river, must shallow as it widens. Your love necessarily must be in proportion to proximity. You love your wife more than your children, your children more than your neighbor’s, your neighbor more than a far away stranger. Love must be discriminate or it cannot bear its weight. He who loves all equally loves none especially.

The family, and the love and loyalty it requires, is that innermost ring of the concentric circles of citizenship, responsibility, and blessing that one could have on earth. It is baffling that conservatives so committed to “family values” completely miss the family destroying nature of war and the upkeep of a military industrial empire. Instead conservatives have embraced something that takes mother and fathers away from children (often in their most formative ages) for months or years at a time (if they come back!) defending outposts in strange lands that have nothing to do with defending their loved ones or freedom. It was precisely his love for these things and for his family that led Wendell Berry to speak out against the vietnam war. The same could be said of any of the wars since even as they are propagated forth for the “protection” of soldier’s families. Berry found it a strange Orwellian idea to save or protect one’s family by destroying it:

“I am a Kentuckian by birth, by predilection, and by choice. There are a good many people in this state whom I love deeply, and of all those perhaps only four believe that I should be speaking here today, and one of them is me….as a father I must look at my son, and I must ask if there is anything I possess, any right, any piece of property, any comfort or joy, that I would ask him to die to permit me to keep. I must ask if I believe it would be meaningful if after his mother and I have loved each other and begotten him and loved him, for him to die in a lump with a number hanging around his neck. I must ask if his life would come to any meaning, or nobility, or any usefulness if he should sit with his human hands, and head, and eyes, in the cockpit of a bomber dealing out pain and grief and death to people unknown to him. And my answer to all these questions is one that I must attempt to live by. No.”

What mother or father of a son or daughter who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, could look at it now, or even then, and not agree with Berry’s poem To A Siberian Woodsmen:

There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence besides the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.

It wasn’t a lack of love or patriotism that led Berry to be against the war. It was his love, properly ordered, and flowing over. It was the value Berry placed on that most inner-ring of citizenship that disallowed him–his family.

As Bill Kauffman argues “there is no more anti-family policy than a large military that promiscuously intervenes everywhere.” It is a given fact that in times of war and deployment divorce rates spike, and this is not to mention the disruption to family life that war brings when a soldier returns with his mental and physical scars. In what conservative philosophy is the sacrifice of family and one’s most natural obligations an acceptable casualty for spreading democracy or regime change in a place you’ve have never, will never go, and has never till now affected you? How do you come to owe more loyalty and sacrifice to Washington and Iraqi politicians than your family? The idea that the spread of liberal-democracy and hegemony in the middle east is more important than your own family is absolutely ludicrous and anti-conservative. It is seems the poet Lowell was right of conservative global commitment, “having made a ‘universal soul’ forgot their own in thinking of the whole”.

Conservatives ought to contest the idea that one serves his country best by serving in the army. Instead it ought to be argued that one serves his country best precisely by not going to the Middle East but staying in the Midwest, to raise his children, to love his wife, to work and to be productive, to build up those at his church, and to serve his neighbor.

Next piece will look at how war changes culture from a paleo-conservative perspective…