This is part 2 of this essay, for part 1 click here.

effects of war

Glenn Davis

According to Nisbet, warfare seduces largely because acts of war demand certain qualities of character from its participants which the community values: valor, heroism, courage, and sacrifice. Individuals who are given the opportunity to manifest these moral qualities, often rise to levels of leadership in their communities; conflict, therefore, precipitates social mobility. Furthermore, warfare often relieves the community of the boredom and monotony of everyday living. But even more important for Nisbet is the knowledge that warfare, notwithstanding its inevitable and obvious negative consequences like death and mass physical destruction, creates a certain kind of desirable community. By means of warfare, communities, small and large, are able to mobilize their social energy, gain purpose and unity. It is for the purpose of creating a more powerful and binding sense of community that governments utilize military metaphors when tackling non-military social and political issues (e.g., “the war on poverty,” “the war on drugs,” et al.). In the Western mind, progress is often tied directly to policies of warfare. Reforming and overcoming perceived social and political evils have been successfully addressed as crusades, as battles between moral good and evil, or in modern times, between forces of “progress” and forces of “reaction”. As Nisbet argued, “it is probable that far more of the social gains prized today in Western populations have been the direct result in the first instance of the needs of war than of the ideology of socialism or social democracy….”[3] To put it simply, war is an enormously appealing enterprise.

As I noted in Part I of this essay, the two World Wars greatly influenced the direction of the nascent conservative movement in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Two of the founding fathers of this political and social movement, Robert Nisbet, and Russell Kirk, clearly dealt with the effects of war and militarization as they culled from their personal experiences thoughts that jelled into general beliefs. In the immediate post-World War II years, Kirk directly assailed the effects of militarization on educational institutions and curricula as he noted the general unpreparedness of students, the deleterious effects of innovations like objective testing, and the smattering of real learning that was offered. Instead of bowing to the technical and economic forces of innovation birthed by the wars, educational leaders should have resisted the powerful forces of standardization, homogenization, and efficiency. Throughout his life, Kirk emphasized the lessons of the ancients, that the ends of education are wisdom and virtue, and knowledge of a body of truth. The aims of the new curriculum, the aims of progressivism (personal advancement, technical training, social mobility, certification, et al.), were not the means of ordering the soul or the commonwealth, and in fact, were rather the means of confusion. But where Kirk as a humanist addressed the curricular and philosophical changes in education in the post-war years, Robert Nisbet, as a social scientist, addressed the institutional degradation of our schools and universities and the dynamic roots of social change precipitated by closer ties between the universities and the American military.

Probably no social philosopher has written more on the effects of warfare and community than Robert Nisbet, who boldly asserted that “whether we like it or not, the evidence is clear that for close to three thousand years, down to this very moment, Western civilization has been the single most war-ridden, war-dominated, and militaristic civilization in all human history….Western social philosophy begins in circumstances of war.”[1] Nisbet was not asserting that our civilization is essentially militaristic; rather, he was suggesting that warfare had created a certain dynamic in our understanding of social and political development: “The priority of the political state in Western society, and the profound tendency toward politicization of life that has been a recurrent phenomenon in the West, especially during the last three centuries, come from one overall fact alone: the persisting influence of war and its values.”[2]

Writing in The Twilight of Authority, one of his most compelling and substantive studies of the effects of war on modern society, Nisbet argued that what makes warfare profoundly attractive are the elements of change, progress, community, and revolution. By breaking things, wars produce the need for social, political, and economic reforms, and radical reforms create new communities:

One of war’s greatest functions is giving a sense of community to those on each side.… At a stroke, the ordinary factionalisms, the gnawing conflicts and competitions of the marketplace, and the ideological divisions of politics become muted, even dissolved. In their place is the kind of moral and social and political community that war can bring to a population which feels it is engaged upon some kind of mission or crusade. Millions of Americans and Europeans learned of this kind of community during the two world wars of this century. The effect of war can be, and has been, to endow with welcome meaning or purpose activities that all too easily come in ordinary times to seem lacking in either.[4]

A nation’s experience with warfare can produce innumerable opportunities for social and economic improvement. “The unassailable truth is that, apart from war, there would be a great deal less of what is known as progress in the West, social as well as technological.”[5] The integration of peoples, the breakdown of barriers, and the cross-fertilization of ideas that stimulate creativity are some of the great gifts of warfare.[6]

As he studied American history, Nisbet found that one of the great periods of warfare-inspired reform came during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Nisbet expounded upon this in his 1988 Jefferson Lectures to the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of his most complete statements on the social effects of war on American civilization:

Possibly the passage of American values, ideas, and styles from “closed” to “open,” from the isolated to the cosmopolitan society, would have taken place, albeit more slowly, had there been no transatlantic war of 1914-1918. We can’t be sure. What we do know is that the war, and America’s entrance into it, gave dynamic impact to the processes of secularization, individualization, and other kinds of social-psychological changes which so drastically changed this country from the America of the turn of the century to the America of the 1920s.[7]

Given the scope of the great crises that engulfed the world in the first half of the twentieth century, it would be remiss to think that military society would not exercise a great deal of influence on civil society. As Nisbet demonstrated, the great wars of the past century, while initiating tremendous political reforms, stimulating great cultural creativity, and constructing new relationships between government and the governed, nevertheless did what wars tend to do, “break up the cake of custom, the net of tradition,” rend the great social bonds of time, all to the favor of a tightening bureaucratic, military ethic. “Military, or at least war-born, relationships among individuals tend to supersede relationships of family, parish, and ordinary walks of life.”[8] It is this displacement of strong, local relationships that most worries Nisbet, as he assesses the reforms of the wartime presidency:

I believe it no exaggeration to say that the West’s first real experience with totalitarianism–political absolutism extended into every possible area of culture and society, education, religion, industry, the arts, local community and family included, with a kind of terror always waiting in the wings–came with the American war state under Woodrow Wilson….[H]e succeeded in infecting a whole generation of intellectuals with the sense of cause, of mission, in the moral sphere, to be accomplished only through the power of the national state he came close to worshiping. His hatred of those who opposed him in however small a degree was religious in intensity.[9]

More than any other figure in the American twentieth century, it was President Wilson who most recognized and utilized those powerful positive and negative wartime forces as tools for political and social modernization. These tools were revived and imitated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his lengthy presidency, during peacetime and wartime:

There is…little wonder that when the New Deal began to take shape so much of its administrative shape resembled that which American society had known between 1916 and 1920. So many of the New Deal’s boards and agencies were designed in the image of those which earlier had been part of the war effort….To a large degree the so-called New Deal was no more than an assemblage of governmental structures modeled on those which had existed in 1917.[10]

The significance of these administrative war-time reforms was that they created a militarized mindset that carried over into peacetime governance: “We planned in war, why not in peace?” Writing immediately after the war in his most important work, The Quest for Community, Nisbet declared that “the tragedy of contemporary war…is not that its efficiency has become progressively destructive, but rather that the stifling regimentation and bureaucratic centralization of military organization is becoming more and more the model of associative and leadership relationships in time of peace and in nonmilitary organizations.”[11] With the culmination of overt fighting in 1945, the United States were faced with the opportunity to scale back their military programs and expenditures. Rather, as events show, given the threat of an aggressive, expansive, and ideologically driven Soviet Union, American political leadership chose to broaden its military and political reach and to continue to mobilize for potential war. From 1948-1958, the U.S. military budget increased from $14 billion to $45 billion, the federal bureaucracy doubled, and the State Department increased at least fivefold.[12] With Nisbet, the historian John Lukacs maintains that the most complete transformation of the United States from a democracy to a centralized, bureaucratic state occurred during the post-World War II years through the 1950’s.[13]

It was under these historical circumstances of continuous war, the accompanying centralization of power and mass increase in bureaucratization that the modern American conservative movement was born. The United States, indeed, the entire Western world, had survived two lengthy nightmares, but the celebration of victory was met by many with a profound sense of loss, a sense that the sickening events of the near past could have been better contained, if not prevented, had the leadership class not been ethically inept, intellectually lazy, and lacking in imagination.[14] And now it seemed that this same class of administrators and managers that had failed the mission of civilization in the 1910’s and the 1930’s was strengthening its position in the immediate post-World War II years:

The novel effect of World War II was the creation of formal, official – and lasting! – union between the intellectual and the national government….The liaison between the intellectual class and the national government to which we have by now become accustomed in this country had its major impetus from the experience that tens of thousands of academics and other intellectuals came to know and to cherish between 1941 and 1945. The marriage of university and government took place then….The Cold War followed World War II, and the marriage between intellectuals and national government became a firm tie.[15]

In the immediate decades following World War II, Nisbet began to address the social change fostered by this union between the intellectual class and the national government. He very directly addressed the effect of this union on the higher learning in two significant works, Tradition and Revolt (1968) and The Degradation of the Academic Dogma (1971). Nisbet was especially concerned about the deleterious effects that “external sponsorships” would have on the function and autonomy of educational institutions.

As seminal founders of the post-war conservative movement, as war veterans, and as newly minted PhD’s, both Kirk and Nisbet were very sensitive to the demonstrations of militarized power in the American academy in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Both lamented the decline in respect for the disciplined mind on the college campus, both argued for the traditional function of the university to impart a body of knowledge and a sense of order in the individual student’s mind that post-war educational reforms were undermining. But while Kirk in disgust soon left the university to concentrate on writing and lecturing, Nisbet continued the fight for the academic dogma inside the university, while analyzing the institutional changes precipitated by war policies. He clearly delineated the conflicting loyalties that were battling for the soul of higher education, the conflict between support for institutional autonomy and the need for the best and brightest to address the practical concerns of society-at-large. Both Kirk and Nisbet recognized the traditional role of the institution to affect the polis indirectly, but with the claims of the post-war world, the demands for more direct involvement were increasing. Nisbet explicitly addressed these demands and the tensions which arose within the academy in his case study on “Project Camelot.”

Project Camelot[16] was a social science research endeavor sponsored by the Army’s Office of Research and Development in conjunction with American University’s Special Operations Research Office during the early 1960’s. The purpose of the project was to identify symptoms of social breakdown and then identify actions that might prevent that breakdown. Unfortunately, it became known that the societies targeted for this research were independent and sovereign nations who were not notified of the U.S. Army’s involvement in this research. Nisbet’s critique of the project centered on the following points: 1) Social science was being corrupted by the U.S. military in that scientists were in effect being asked to act as agents of the army on foreign soil; 2) Social scientists, “acting as social scientists, allowed the military to believe there was nothing scientifically wrong” with this approach[17]; and 3) Projects like these with strong ties to external sponsorships inherently promoted disaffection within the universities themselves. As Nisbet put it, “when a major Federal department–be it Defense, State, or Commerce–sponsors a scientific project, even one composed of dues-paying psychologists and sociologists, it is elementary that not even the elixir of scientific method is sufficient to wipe away the fact of sponsorship.”[18] Federal sponsorship and heavy doses of bureaucracy clearly were threatening the equanimity required of the scientific method. (In his longer work on higher education, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma, Nisbet even more definitively laid out his critique of educational reform by addressing the rise of the new “academic bourgeoisie,” the professional hustlers who were more at home in business and government than at the traditional university as residential scholars and teachers.)

By 1971 Nisbet had concluded that general support for the academic dogma, the belief that the university existed for one primary purpose, to pursue and impart knowledge as a sacred calling, was being destroyed largely from within the institution. The quest for external sponsorship and funding had precipitated the rise of the academic entrepreneur who searched for funding that bypassed the traditional hierarchies of the educational institutions. Nisbet asserted that new money was the single-most powerful agent for change in the university, that this new money, much of it coming from the “military-industrial complex,” was incompatible with the traditional structures of educational authority. As a community, the university was rapidly losing the fundamental elements, such as status, hierarchy, dogma, and authority, which had provided the glue to hold the institution together. Nisbet was certain that the new professionals, intent on reducing educational relationships to contractual relationships, were weakening the element of honor which had bound teaching and research, professor with student. The new reforms degraded the honor of the institution by redefining the relationship of teacher and scholar to university as employee or consultant.

It is safe to say that analysis of the changes of the university in the post-war years through the eyes of two seminal conservative thinkers suggests that a true revolution in educational institutions, largely precipitated by war and militarization, had occurred. And as after most revolutions, we need to study issues of institutional sustainability. A cursory reading through the history of educational reform in the twentieth-century suggests that Nisbet and Kirk were voices crying in the wilderness, that most scholars in the field now see the post-war years in higher education as a period of magnificent growth in enrollments, in physical plant construction, in excitement, and productivity. In the words of one historian, the post-World War II decades were higher education’s “Golden Age.”[19] This is not the conclusion of Kirk and Nisbet.

A look at education in 2012 suggests that progressive reforms have led to standardization, administrative centralization, larger schools, and more government oversight and guidance. The push to use mental testing, first utilized by the United State military, to guide and control American education and society has become almost universally accepted. For most children and young adults in elementary school through higher education, preparation for annual testing is a large part of their training. Mental testing is performed for a variety of reasons, not simply to assess a child’s level of achievement. Testing is often used to place a child in a school, testing is performed to determine which “intelligences” a child has, so that the teacher can modify his or her methodology within the classroom to better meet that child’s individual needs. In turn, students rely on tests to help them define their goals and to predict their paths to success. And yet, we read regularly in journals and magazines, like the Chronicle of Higher Education, that scholars are lamenting the decline and near death experiences of humanities departments that in previous centuries had been considered the backbone of humane education. Not unexpectedly, however, have politicians, school administrators, teachers, students, and parents accepted this world. As Burke said, whatever the path to power is, that is the path that will be taken.

Yet, like all revolutions, progressive educational reforms have led our institutions in unpredictable directions. Reforms that were enacted to serve the nation for the material benefit of all, have also led to the crassness of college rankings, the oppression and inefficiencies of large-scale administrative bureaucracies, and the manipulations of specialized testing organizations, all developed for the purpose of creating social control for the many and guided social mobility for a few.[20] In the immediate post-war years, academic and government officials took what they had learned from the military and integrated it into the university, shaking the core of the traditional humane institution. As Paul Gottfried has argued, our public institutions have largely become “instruments of equity”, providing opportunities for students and professors to join the administrative state, to shape social personality, and to further worldly gains.[21] Nisbet the social scientist foretold this in his analysis of the union between intellectual and a national government, Kirk the humanist saw this in the unfriendly smatterers of the omnicompetent state.

The conservative defense fashioned by Kirk and Nisbet during the tumultuous postwar years has largely failed. Some, like Gottfried, looking back sixty years, have concluded that Kirk’s mission was bound to fail as a result of its rootlessness, its “lack of anchor” in a particular, concrete social reality, and that shared conservative values have not been enough to forge a successful response to wealth and power promised by the administrative state.[22] While largely sympathetic to Kirk, Gottfried nevertheless, has maintained that historical circumstances since World War II have favored the managerial state, and that if conservatives wish to have any hope at all in limiting the gains of the left, it must look to the pre-war, Jeffersonian rightists, and not to Kirk’s European conservative model. If conservatives have only “values” to share, a weak social base, a shifting identity, and little concrete historical experience, then conservatives have little defense against the ideological, administrative state.[23]

But if Gottfried is lamenting the lack of social and historical roots in the contemporary conservative movement, a way to foster roots might be found in the recent growth in private and independent education, “homeschooling,” and classical academies, which show that there is still support for humane learning in little Burkean platoons.[24] It is here where Kirk’s defense of the permanent things will receive the most attention, and it is here where the attack on leviathan that so characterized the conservative movement in the 1950’s will have its best chance of being heeded. Re-assessing the conservative movement and its responses to the furtherance of powerful forces of social homogenization, Mark Henrie has suggested that “conservatives must search for creative ways to protect complex, historically-evolved structures of civil society and indeed to promote the renewed formation of a ‘thick’ associational life in all its diversity.” Central to any associational life is the educational institution:

In the case of the large secular universities…which seem always to be administered by those who think it their role to advance the cause of the universal and homogeneous state, the conservative task is to work toward developing smaller bodies on campus to resist homogenization from within. In these cases, the university itself has become the agent of homogenization, and thus a resistant civitas must emerge on a smaller scale…For it has been in the large universities where the most invasive and striking efforts have been made to achieve a “total community,” a complete and homogenizing control of all spheres of student life. While much has been written about the conflict over the curriculum, the politicization of the whole of student life has received insufficient attention.[25]

Expanding on the studies of Nisbet and Kirk, Henrie has argued that the central problem in need of creative conservative attention is how to achieve universal education while avoiding the powerful and impersonal modernizing forces of homogenization, conformity, and standardization.[26] These deleterious forces that consumed the postwar world have borne fruit fifty years later in the institutionalization of a centralized, managerial state. Nisbet and Kirk presciently warned of these forces, that they would come to threaten our freedoms and would at the very least transform, if not outright destroy, those little humanizing platoons of kinship, religion, and education. In 1993 Nisbet offered that there were two tasks confronting those who wished to restore institutions of humane scale. First, “work tirelessly toward the diminution of the centralized, omnicompetent, and unitary state”; and second, protect, reinforce, and nurture “where necessary the varied groups and associations which form the true building blocks of the social order.”[27] Kirk would concur with this call for action. And for him, a line of defense was to be developed in the school house. As he would exclaim often, human beings can’t be educated in a crowd.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. Robert Nisbet, The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought (New York: Thomas Crowell Co., 1973), pp. 11-12.
2. Nisbet, Social Philosophers, p.12.
3. Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford UP, 1975), p. 160.
4. Nisbet, Twilight of Authority, pp. 160-161. As a result of his own wartime experiences, Nisbet was able to personalize the attraction of the war-induced community: “I learned this directly in World War II. No one could have disliked war, our intervention in that war, or the intrinsic character of military life more than I did. Three years as an enlisted soldier in the Pacific did not much change these sentiments. But there was hardly a moment during that period when I was not conscious of the intensity of the ties among soldiers, especially those in combat units.”
5. Robert Nisbet, Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982), p. 309.
6. Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1988), p. 5.
7. Nisbet, The Present Age, p. 6. One clear example of this is the Obama administration’s position in June 2010 to use the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from the BP oil spill to further national and international energy reform.
8. Nisbet, The Present Age, pp. 6, 11.
9. Nisbet, Twilight of Authority, p. 183.
10. Nisbet, Twilight of Authority, p. 184.
11. Reported in Brad Lowell Stone, Robert Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2000), p. 27.
12. John Lukacs, A New Republic: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004), p. 375.
13. Lukacs, A New Republic, p. 369.
14. See especially the discussion of the post-war years in Nash, Conservative Intellectual Movement, pp. 36-40.
15. Nisbet, Twilight of Authority, pp. 185-186.
16. Robert Nisbet, Tradition and Revolt (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999). See especially “Project Camelot and the Science of Man,” pp. 247-281.
17. Nisbet, Tradition and Revolt, p. 257, italics in the original.
18. Nisbet, Tradition and Revolt, p. 265.
19. John R. Thelin, A History of American Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2004), pp. 260-316.
20. See Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999) for extensive discussion of objective testing and the claims of “affirmative action”.
21. The phrase “instrument of equity,” comes from Paul E. Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), p. 55.
22. Paul E. Gottfried, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right (New York: Palgrave, 2007), p. 29.
23. In The Politics of Prudence (Bryn Mawr: ISI, 1993), pp. 248-250, Kirk strongly affirms that education is not about imparting values; rather, education is about the search for truth and the imparting of meaning, norms, and standards.
24. See Peter J. Leithart, “The New Classical Schooling,” in the special issue, “Signs of Renewal,” The Intercollegiate Review, 43, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 3-12.
25. Mark C. Henrie, “Rethinking American Conservatism in the 1990s: The Struggle Against Homogenization,” Intercollegiate Review, 28, No. 2 (Spring 1993), p. 15.
26. Henrie, “Rethinking American Conservatism,” p. 16, note 14.
27. Robert Nisbet, “Still Questing,” The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 1993), 45.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email