There will be ample disputation at this week’s and next’s presidential nominating conventions, but one point is virtually sure to unite them: a rhetorical commitment to the “War on Terror” and, particularly, to the troops fighting it. Already, Paul Ryan has offered up the obligatory salute to the troops who have “defended our freedom”—which is, at least in its intent, as it should be: soldiering is an honorable profession, and those who profess it ought not to be caught up in political disputes over how they are deployed.
But while the lionization of troops “fighting for our freedom” is a largely noncontroversial refrain, especially on the right, it bears close analysis, especially from the right. It takes no particular insight to realize that, whatever his sins, Saddam Hussein at no point risked enslaving the American people, nor, for that matter do the scattered remnants of al-Qaeda today. “Fighting honorably,” by all means. “Doing a noble duty,” absolutely. But fighting for “our freedom”? That meaning is far less clear. Its effect, among others, is to link citizen and soldier in a largely pretended sense of common endeavor.
One of the most consequential conservative thinkers of the late 20th century—the sociologist Robert Nisbet—would recognize these honorifics, rendered by people almost wholly disconnected from the actual experience of war, as what they are: the contemporary right’s counterpart to what it calls the left’s assault on the subsidiary relationships that are the stuff of meaningful political life. The difference is merely that the left’s “quest for community,” in Nisbet’s phrase, takes place on economic grounds. The right has been eager to form the same distant and therefore ephemeral relationships on matters of military or foreign policy instead.
Drawing on the Obama campaign’s famous/infamous “Life of Julia” video, as well as the President’s famous/infamous “you didn’t build that” remark, Yuval Levin penned an incisive essay charging the President with an indifference—or worse—to subsidiary relationships. “The President,” he accused, “simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between …”
Yet Nisbet warns of precisely that danger with respect to military affairs: the replacement of meaningful, local relationships with distant and diffuse ones. Nisbet argues that man is inherently drawn toward a need for community. When he cannot find it in the debilitated relationships of local institutions, he will search for it in distant ones. These distant relationships are prone to becoming power relationships. That is true of economic matters, but of military ones as well.
“It is hard,” Nisbet writes in Quest for Community, “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.” Moral war, he argues, is uniquely apt to become total war. He continues:
One of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade. … The clear tendency of modern wars is to become ever more closely identified with broad, popular, moral aspirations: freedom, self-determination of peoples, democracy, rights, and justice. Because war, in the twentieth century, has become rooted to such an extent in the aspirations of peoples and in broad moral convictions, its intensity and range have vastly increased. … The enemy becomes not only a ready scapegoat for all ordinary dislikes and frustrations; he becomes the symbol of total evil against which the forces of good may mobilize themselves into a militant community.
Yet this “community,” Nisbet warns, is hollow. The sense of participation it generates is ephemeral compared to the richer and more rooted relationships of subsidiarity. Nisbet is not, to be sure, hostile to affiliation with a cause larger than oneself. His point is that contemporary man gravitates toward vast, diffuse and impersonal causes that open vacuums filled by power rather than traditional forms of authority and meaning.
This moral element of war drives the false sense of meaning and participation in a cause in which, let us be serious, the vast majority of people waving flags and lionizing troops are not participating at all. Hence the decision to invade Iraq, whose most ardent backers never contended that Hussein threatened American “freedom,” became a moral crusade to free the Iraqi people from their chains and, in our own rhetoric, to protect ourselves from the apparent danger of tyranny imposed by—whom?—the onward-marching troops of the Iraqi Republican Guard? The result is a sense of community and common endeavor that is, on Nisbet’s reading, precisely and only that: a sense.
This empty but intense experience of community is the contemporary right’s counterpart to those who believe the moral obligation and meaningful experience of charity is discharged by casting votes for a national government that will do it for them. More troubling, it also makes it virtually impossible to disengage from misguided wars once they have begun without enormous political upheaval such as that which attended the end of the war in Vietnam. Unlike war undertaken in the old way—that is, for raw strategic or geopolitical purposes—the crusade of principle is not amenable to prudential termination without a vast sense of moral abandonment and a concomitant loss of the inauthentic yet, again, intense experience of community.
That may help explain the ongoing and full-throated prosecution of the “Global War on Terror” well after the evident dismemberment of al-Qaeda, whose own leadership we now know regarded itself as emasculated and unable to project force in any serious way. That is not to say terrorism does not remain a danger or merit a forward-leaning response; only that a war that began with al-Qaeda as an enemy has morphed into something more persistent and diffuse, one that necessitated emergency powers that are swiftly and unsurprisingly becoming permanent. Governor Romney thus says we should not negotiate with the Taliban, we should “defeat” the Taliban: precisely the kind of absolutist language that results from war as an exercise in moral crusading rather than prudential calculation.
Kant’s famous insight was that democracies do not start wars against each other. Nisbet helps illustrate what may be a troubling corollary to the democratic peace. Democracies may face immense—nearly insuperable—difficulty in stopping wars once they have begun: another reason for prudence, which is—or was—to say “conservatism,” in starting them.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.