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american militaryOnce upon a time, it was the Left that conflated support for the military with support for war itself. Infamously, in the 1960s and 1970s, many American combat veterans returning home from the controversial Vietnam War were spat upon by antiwar activists. These soldiers were derided as murderers, even baby-killers, by the likes of Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and John Kerry.

Now it is the Right that suffers from this confusion. Indeed, it has become fashionable these days among “boutique conservatives”–localists, ultra-traditionalists, right-wing libertarians, and the fringe conspiracy-theorists–to bash the military and its values. Also coming under their indictment is anyone on the Right who celebrates military service or holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day; the boutique conservatives, many of them snooty intellectuals, tend to lump these conservatives in with–as they see it–those simple-minded, blue-collar devotees of Fox News.

Thus we have not only liberals but conservatives chafing at the idea that American soldiers “defend freedom.” The objection seems to be that because some wars that the United States has fought have been unnecessary, or because many of these wars did not advance liberty, ergo our modern soldiers cannot be deemed protectors of freedom. Yet presumably the American way of life includes the ideas of political, economic, religious, and cultural freedom among its main tenets. And to this conservative, there are at least two wars since 1865 that might very well have ended the American way of life if the United States had lost them: World War II and the Cold War. Prior to 1865, the American Revolution and the War of 1812 might also fit into this category.

And in defending the military one does not simply have to point to justifiable wars. Let’s try to imagine what American history would have been like had the United States dismantled its military entirely, say, after the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and adopted the stance of a pacifist nation. What foreign imperialists might have been emboldened to conquer us, sans a standing army of any size? Napoleon? Hitler? Stalin?

I recall hearing a talk several years ago by author Bill Kauffman, one of the leading lights of localism, in which he proclaimed that he loved his town more than his state, and his state more than his country, but not his country more than the world. If the United States were invaded by a foreign power, Mr. Kauffman said, he would not fight to defend his state per se and certainly not the other states of the Union,  but only his own town… and perhaps simply his own neighborhood. This extreme statement shows just how far some of the “boutiquers” have gone.

For this group in particular, place–defined as small area of territory, something the size of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire or the state of Rhode Island–has become something of a creed, a panacea for solving all the problems of our modern society. How does one help to rebuild our communities and restore a face-to-face society? The general prescription is to move to a small town, become intimately involved in the lives of your neighbors–and get them intimately involved in yours–and the rest of the world be darned. But as scholar Bradley Birzer has pointed out, in an era in which one’s neighbors do not share one’s religious background and morality, it may be impossible to forge true communities with those who are merely physically proximate; in fact, if one has children, it may be downright irresponsible to do so. As Dr. Birzer suggested, the better option in the modern world for the conservative may be to build a wall between one’s family and one’s neighbors. Good fences can indeed make good neighbors.

Writer Rod Dreher, the author of Crunchy Cons and a onetime bedfellow of the localist crowd, several years ago in a talk urged his listeners to adopt a small town, make it their own, and never move again. But Mr. Dreher has come to recognize the limits of the localist ideology–for an ideology is indeed what it has become. In a recent lecture given on his new book on Dante, Mr. Dreher admitted that moving back home to his small town did not produce in him true happiness–in fact quite the opposite. Mr. Dreher now admits that in his pursuit of inner peace he once wrongly made place “a false idol.” Yes, at its extreme, the ideology of localism becomes little more than rock worship.

Much of the anti-military spirit of the boutique conservatives is clearly a reaction to the rise of neoconservatism and its Wilsonian readiness, nay, eagerness, to use the military to make the world safe for democracy through invasion, occupation, nation-building, and humanitarian interventions. The likes of Bill Kristol and John McCain, who never saw a war they didn’t like, are, with some justification, deemed warmongers. Interestingly, however, as eager as the boutiquers are to deride the alleged hypocrisy of the pro-war neo-cons who lack miltary service (calling them “chickenhawks”), they themselves tend to be effete intellectuals who also have never worn the uniform. One wonders whether the boutiquers’ antipathy towards all things military stems from an innate aversion to such masculine endeavors. One must also ask whether many of them would shy from physically defending their country not out of principle, but out of pusillanimity.

Even Ronald Reagan, the political patriarch of modern conservatism, has come under criticism by the boutiquers for preparing the ground for the rise of the neoconservatism, through his focus on the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. The argument is that Reagan exaggerated the threat posed by Moscow, dangerously building up the American military and engaging in proxy wars in Latin America and Africa as a response to supposed Soviet aggression. In so doing, he set the precedent for his successor’s invasion of Iraq in 1991 and for the military operations and nation-building efforts of “The War on Terror.”

But as I have argued elsewhere in these pages, in defending both the greatness and the innate conservatism of Reagan: “Like it or not, there are ideologies, religions, and countries that seek to destroy the West, and to acknowledge such realities does not entail embracing schemes to make the world safe for democracy. Nor does it make one a ‘neo-con,’ but in fact it makes one a conservative, who in the spirit of Tolkien, recognizes that ‘there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.'”

C22120-27Some boutiquers have even questioned a seemingly innocuous practice engaged in by Ronald Reagan: the returning of the salute of soldiers.* Reagan felt awkward not returning such salutes, primarily from the Marine guards of Air Force One and the presidential helicopter, and consulted with the commandant of the Marines about the propriety of returning salutes. Reagan recalled the conversation this way:

“I know it’s customary for the president to receive these salutes, but I was once an officer and realize that you’re not supposed to salute when you’re in civilian clothes. I think there ought to be a regulation that the president could return a salute inasmuch as he is commander in chief and civilian clothes are his uniform.” ‘Well, if you did return a salute,’ the general said, ‘I don’t think anyone would say anything to you about it.'”

The boutiquers pointed to this practice, which Reagan’s successors have followed, as an example of the militarization of the presidency. But could it not also be viewed as a republican practice–the civilian commander-in-chief displaying his superiority to the uniformed military?

The sublime symbol of the salute is indicative of several cardinal  virtues that the military instills in the members of its ranks: order, discipline, hierarchy, deference. These are virtues that every true conservative should respect. Indeed, the military, in its adherence to precise ritual, is perhaps the last refuge of manners in an increasingly coarse and rude society. (Yes, I realize that soldiers in private discourse are surely unrivaled in their creative use of vulgar language; but this practice has its origins in what was once properly an exclusively male world, and was reserved for this private, masculine domain.) In addition, the military promotes love of country, self-sacrifice, and courage. These latter two virtues, especially, are honed in wartime, and though war is always to be avoided due to its many attendant evils, there is no denying that it is a singular stage upon which great acts of sacrifice and stunning displays of courage are exhibited.

It is true that excessive celebration of the military, as the boutiquers worry, can promote militarism. Yet to this observer it seems that, despite the professionalization of the American military and the establishment of the long-dreaded standing army, we tend very much to think of our servicemen as civilians first, soldiers second. For its survival, a republic may need–every bit as much as a Sparta–pure soldiers: men like Stonewall Jackson or George S. Patton who are uneasy in civilian life. Yet it is telling that some of America’s greatest military leaders–George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, for example–were able to put down their swords a la Cincinnatus and serve their country as the civilian commander-in-chief, with never a feint toward military dictatorship. Recall that it was Ike who warned his fellow citizens of the dangers of the militarization of society, when he cautioned against the rise of “the military-industrial complex.”

There is also the supreme example in American history of the great Robert E. Lee–the epitome of the dutiful, professional soldier–who perhaps best embodied the ideal of the republican commander: fierce and determined when forced to fight to defend hearth and home, but desiring above all else peace and the chance to return to civilian life. While watching his Army of Northern Virginia slaughter wave after wave of charging Union troops at Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lee uttered a statement that embodies perfectly this noble, republican spirit: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” As Richard M. Weaver observed in analyzing the philosophical nature of this statement, Lee’s words are indicative both of his personal ambivalence towards human conflict and of his civilized attitude towards war:

Lee seems to have felt that it is possible for civilization to contain war, or to go on existing in the presence of war if self-control is not entirely lost. To many persons “civilized warfare” is anomalous, but it is not truly so except for the war of unlimited objectives. The deeper foundations of a civilization, the more war seems to be formalized or even ritualized, and the failure to hold it within bounds is a sign of some antecedent weakening on the part of that civilization.

All this is not to say that the American military has not produced its share of martinets, has not cultivated the darker aspects of personality of those whose meanness might otherwise have gone unnoticed in civilian life: Andrew Jackson, who enthusiastically slaughtered Native Americans; William T. Sherman, who gleefully destroyed the homes and livelihoods of fellow Americans; Lt. William Calley, who participated in the  My Lai massacre. But I would wager that among its leadership, the American military has produced far more Washingtons, Lees, and Eisenhowers than it has Jacksons, Shermans, and Calleys.

The American republic is safe with its professional military… and in fact safe because of it. On this Memorial Day and every day, all Americans–certainly all true conservatives–should honor those who fought and died for this country. We should also be grateful to those who continue to guard its liberties.


*Leftist talk-show host Rachel Maddow and Leftist author Gary Wills criticized Reagan for this practice, both pointing out, in Maddow’s words, that “not even old General Eisenhower saluted military personnel.” But Maddow and Wills are wrong, as this video shows. Franklin Roosevelt also apparently engaged in the practice of rendering salutes to American soldiers.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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14 replies to this post
  1. One principle vice of boutiquers, left and right, is their view that IF we “must” have an army, it “should” be humanitarian and democratic.

    This is symptomatic of a broader Western malaise. We refuse to see things as they are.

    Soldiers exist to kill the enemy. The army exists to provide a special reason to take into account a nation’s foreign policy interests when Reason is not enough. The armed forces are an important foreign policy tool. Not humanitarian and not economic .

    But our contemporaries do not like to think that a military may be necessary in a fallen world. They try to justify the Military by turning it into something it is not – a humanitarian charity drive,a business – anything but a weapon of war and politics.

    This may be one source of America’s woes .

  2. That said, to what ’boutique’ did conservative Russell Kirk belong? From his first diaries during WW2, to his earliest short stories, to his last statements on neo-con war-mongering, he remained patriotically suspicious of American militarism.

  3. I am not aware of any ultra traditionalist that dislikes the military like you say. I am sort of in that camp myself. I would die under that flag for certain but what America represents today, is something evil, the right to choose what ever you want even if it violates natural law and The one true religion.

  4. The American public is safe from whom because of our military? Of course, the question invites all-or-nothing thinking. And that type of thinking calls for either ‘total war’ or the complete dismantling of the military. And should we remember that 9-11 was partially motivated by the reactions some had to our past military interventions?

    We should note here that the real problem with the military was not adequately dealt with: it is US foreign policy. That is because if we really looked at our conflicts since and before WW II, could we honestly say that the majority of times our leaders ordered our military to stand in harms way was it to defend our freedoms? Think of the Indian wars or the Spanish American War and the invasions that followed. Think of the conflicts mentioned by former Marine Corp Major General Smedley Butler or WW I for that matter. We always like to use WW II as the justification for all conflicts that followed but was it for our freedoms that caused us to invade North Korea so that China would enter the war? Or what about Vietnam? Or what about the smaller interventions like the coups in Iran (’53), Guatemala (’54), and Chile (’73)? Or what about Reagan’s hysterical, not in the funny sense, response to Central America? Suppose the ideology that grabbed hold of Nicaragua opposed the West. Could we honestly say that Nicaragua’s Sandinista government posed a threat to the West (a.k.a. America)? To some, the threat posed by Nicaragua was the same that was posed by Cuba: for both provided an alternative system that worked and was not under America’s control. And so we also trained and supported paramilitary forces in El Salvador which helped give birth to the gang MS-13.

    Basically, our foreign policy has been based on two tenets: economic windfall or strategic advantage. In either case, weren’t the rights of many innocent people trampled on to preserve America’s way of life? Here we could think of how we supported Saddam Hussein up until he invaded a rich ally. We supported the Shah along with Mubarak and we presently support the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia. And we supported so many terrorist groups in Afghanistan that when it came time to overthrow the Taliban, we had to rely on its rival groups and they were terrorists.

    Besides the fact that more of our troops committed atrocities than was reported above, we need to ask about the military in a self-critical manner. We can’t assume that because our troops saw action that they were defending our freedoms. And that is probably the bitterest pill to swallow since the sacrifices our troops make for going into harms way cry out for legitimate justification and all too often, there is none. But as long as we follow orders to focus on the valor of our troops as they risk life and limb when sent to fight in other countries, we will have no stomach for holding accountable the foreign policies and their architects which sent our troops into danger in the first place.

  5. Mr. Day’s comment appears exactly correct.
    I believe WWII was a turning point in our Nation. We entered the war to help Britain, and replaced them in, what I call, the Military pole position. By helping to rebuild Europe, America made promises, and has done much to keep them. Promises made by what was then deemed a Christian Nation, and were considered our word of honor. This then begs the question: What was at stake in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador and Iraq that would make this country to go war again?
    Am I correct in thinking that Mr. Day would classify the attack by Muslims, a foreign enemy, the only time we should have used our Military since WWII? How would he have handled our Foreign Policy after this attack? What does Mr. Day feel was the reason for the attack? How would he handle our Foreign Policy right now?
    Mr. Obama calls the world a messy place. It is not. I believe it is exactly what it is – a very unique expression of peoples on this planet, reacting to their Geography and how their world and culture is colliding with the U.S. For the most part, we are the travelers, not they. Does Mr. Day want us to stay home?
    The world, according to Mr. Obama, is no longer beholden to America for help, because we are no longer a Christian nation, and promises are not what they were. Nations will be responsible for their own welfare, no matter the imminent threat, and America will shut down its Military.
    At what point would Mr. Day approve the use of our Military, how far from home would he be willing to send them and for what reason?
    Diplomacy and a good Foreign Policy are the political twins that keep the peace.
    My final question is: Does Mr. Day favor any form of Military for the United States?

    • Trailbee,
      When America’s use of its military is in accord with international and our leaders are accountable to the international community for how they direct our military.

      BTW, when was America a Christian nation? Was it during slavery or the subsequent Jim Crow? And if we were so honorable during WW II, how is it that we committed ourselves to help the French to recolonize Vietnam after the War? Or how was it we were so honorable when we firebombed foreign cities or used nuclear weapons? Remember that Eisenhower thought that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be unnecessary.

      And can you be more clear about your reference to the attack by Muslims? What do you mean by that?

      Back to the beginning. When we submit to international law for how we use force, we are following the rule of law. Otherwise, we are following the rule of force. And here we should note the examples we have set for those nations that will eventually surpass us militarily.

      • I’m sorry to make this so long:
        The countries you mention above, with the exception of three, Iran and Chile, I include a third, Cuba, which you didn’t mention, but is our neighbor; Vietnam, during the French period, Guatemala, El Salvador, No. Korea were all issues connected with the Cold War/Communism and Russia and China. I’m not positive, but with the exception of N Korea, for a minuscule amount of time, we had no boots on the ground. Counter-insurgency was the field of the CIA.
        Iran was a nationalist issue, also Cuba and Chile. Chile was a CIA operation also orchestrated by several American multinationals who were trying to influence politics to their benefit. After Castro won in Cuba, America was ejected. There were no boots on the ground. Close, but not there.
        Americans are still in Korea, in the DMZ. I do believe that our Military was inside N Korea for a very short time, but were defeated by hordes of Chinese, and hied it back to So Korea. You are correct. We are there.
        Vietnam eventually became a policing action, instead of a real war, which had it been called what it was, would have been over a lot sooner and fewer people would have died.
        Yes, I wrote Muslims, a foreign enemy. I consider anyone who attacks America for whatever reason, a foreign enemy. It was not a Civil War. You are welcome to quibble over words.
        President Eisenhower’s comment regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki is totally understandable. He was at war, in Europe, and had to deal in detail with Holocaust victims. He saw first hand what Hitler’s Wehrmacht was able to accomplish with only unscented gas, bullets and whips.
        President Truman, following FDR, made the decision to drop those bombs on Japan for two reasons, the reticence of the Japanese to halt the war, and the future Russian threat to America. It was FDR who knew about New Mexico and the bomb, but, yes, he did die, and President Truman said to go ahead and drop them.
        I’m sorry Jim Crow happened. I’m sorry that Sunnis and Shia are killing each other. I’m sorry ISIS is beheading and raping and pillaging and setting people on fire. Religion does that sometimes. There is nothing I can personally do about it.
        Our United States of America are ruled by Judeo-Christian principles. Are you advocating we capitulate and give away our freedom to people who are financially and morally bankrupt?
        I’m not going to ask you about the questions you did not answer.
        With all that said, and all the problems we have at home and abroad, I appreciate our Military.

        • trailbee,
          But you exhibit the problem: Fighting Communism gives us a moral carte blanche. As long as we are fighting Communism, then our ends justify our means. And one of the problems here besides the utter failure that the ends justifies the means means ethic is, is that we have used a monolithic view of what Communism is. Many Socialist contemporaries of Lenin strongly opposed his hijacking of the revolution and the resulting totalitarian government he established. So what is Communism?

          In addition, despite the Communist label, we need to remember that the system of gov’t established by our WW II ally, Ho Chi Menh, was not the same as the system of gov’t established by Lenin. So what is Communism?

          And we forget that the Geneva Accords called for the people of South Vietnam to democratically decide for themselves whether they were to be reunited with the North. So what is Democracy?

          And some of these questions could be asked regarding Chile. Allende was elected by the people because of his platform. So what is Communism? His successor became a tyrant in order to install neoliberal capitalism? So what is democracy? And we played a role not just in the military overthrow of Allende, but in the fomenting of dissent prior to the overthrow because of potential financial losses that American corporations, like ITT, would suffer. In fact, ITT contributed quite a bit of money to the overthrow of the Allende gov’t. So what is democracy?

          And why does having a Communist gov’t justify our terrorist attacks against Cuban civilians? Certainly, Castro was a tyrant. But he replaced an American supported tyrant who happened to be more friendly to American business interests. So how were we justified in committing terrorism against Cuba and its people?

          Tell me how blaming our actions on the ‘Communist’ form of gov’t of these nations allows us to sweep our sins under the carpet of theirs? Is that what you mean by Judeo-Christan principles? Our historical treatment of people of color has been dictated by Judeo-Christian principles?

  6. “And should we remember that 9-11 was partially motivated by the reactions some had ”

    “Some” meaning bin Laden and his terrorist gang. But then I’m sure cockroaches object to the RAID company, too.

  7. It should also be noted that most of the stuff mentioned above (Korea, Vietnam, Latin America) were due to the evils of Communism. Without Communism, it’s unlikely America would have gotten seriously involved in any of them, indeed, most of those wars probably would have never happened at all.

  8. Curt, I love ya man, but one small quibble. This statement, actually a rather worn canard, (“BTW, when was America a Christian nation? Was it during slavery or the subsequent Jim Crow?”) is unworthy of a pen that’s written some really insightful stuff.

    You’re a learned scholar who understands the synthesis of the Greek-Roman-Christian political, legal, and moral worldviews that make up the rather unique American construct. Further, I believe you understand the idea of the tension, the movement, historically explicit that defines the continuing search for the moral/ethical ‘good’ that also defines this nation.

    Do we, as a nation, always succeed? Absolutely not. We’re continuously challenged by those who embrace the ‘libido dominandi’, perverse ideologies, de-constructionists, Democrats, secularists, and even the derailed ‘Christian’ espousing a worn and tired dogmatism. But we also enjoy the occasional restoration of truth and order, we (sometimes) see the general gov’t acting in accordance with federalist principles or under the guidance of Constitutional dictums, and we join together in cheering on those Americans that stand their ground in defense of the Bill of Rights, or their religious or historical heritage.

    I’m not asking you to take an “America, right or wrong” position, rather to appreciate the fact that, in this nation-even today, we are still free to publicly critique the inchoate acts of our elected officials and point them in the right direction. And, in the act of expressing that ‘right’ lies the hope of restoring the American order.

    • Bobcheeks,
      You’re going to have to live me writing unworthy things. And there is a distinction I want make here. There is a big difference between failing to accomplish a worthy state of being from succeeding at accomplishing an unworthy one. The former is not inconsistent with being a Christian or a Christian nation–the latter’s existence is, IMO, not justified by the Scriptures. The latter is inconsistent if not contradictory.

      From the beginning, the love of money and power has ruled the direction of our nation. Such contradicts the notion of our nation being Christian. Rather, claiming to be Christian with such a direction can only be seen as a feeble attempt to flatter oneself.

  9. Here is a perspective from outside the States.

    You guys honestly try to do the best you can, wherever you go. Germany, Japan, Italy, France and South Korea and so on. Brilliant outcomes that the world takes for granted despite their history of insoluble conflict and repression. Cheers USA.

    But you must understand that it is not your responsibility to run other people’s lives.

    Show the world your economic power (conserve your wealth) and maintain your superpower status. Do not fritter yourselves away on mediocre sideshows. Reassure the world of your technological, military and economic dominance and the world will follow your lead.

    The world is counting on you.

    Sydney Australia

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