Once 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.'”
Some 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.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is by skeeze from Pixabay.