There is no quicker way to get the blood up than to question the integrity of our nation’s war policies. Yet, on the political right, it used to be respectable, without being narrowly isolationist or pacifist, to examine and challenge the wisdom of military engagement, especially abroad. We need mention just a few names to remember that we have a wealth of tradition of healthy skepticism. Babbitt, More, Nock, Kirk, Weaver, Taft were quite eloquent with their positions, and, as Professor Carey mentioned in his post, Robert Nisbet was one of the most important voices to proffer a “scathing indictment of our interventionist policies.” His criticism of warfare is of consequence largely because he foresaw as a sociologist the domestic pressures that foreign wars excite.
An active soldier in World War II, Nisbet openly recognized that warfare was an exceptionally appealing enterprise, that it was an intense force for the manifestation of those very qualities that we expect in our leadership class (valor, heroism, courage, and sacrifice), and that through shared purpose, our nation could meet one of the most basic needs of all, the need of people to come together to ensure survival. Warfare is community-building, it creates opportunity, and stimulates social, political, and economic fluidity. As he wrote in The Twilight of Authority:
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…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.
But while recognizing the positive, community-building aspects of war, Nisbet increasingly feared the powerful wartime forces that would guarantee to “break the cake of custom, the net of tradition,” rend the great work of time (in our case, the Republic), in favor of mass centralization of power and lead directly to the weakening of those little platoons that nurture and sustain the human spirit. As he argued in The Present Age, “Military, or at lease war-born, relationships among individuals tend to supersede relationships of family, parish, and ordinary walks of life.” So omnipotent can these relationships be that Nisbet declared that our first experience with totalitarianism came during World War I under President Wilson. “The tragedy of contemporary warfare,” he wrote in The Quest for Community, “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.“So the question is not whether or not we are to engage an enemy when attacked (which seems to be clear among our readers), but, as Winston has pointed out, are we going to transform the battle of survival into a moral and political crusade, into “nation-building”? And what effect will perpetual war have on American political society? Historians, like Nisbet, have clearly pointed out the revolutionary effects WWI and WWII had on the growth of the executive branch of government, but what can we say about the effects that more recent wars, e.g., the Cold War, the wars in Korea, Vietnam , Iraq, and Afghanistan, have had on our social institutions as well? Think of the vast changes in our thinking about the kinship society, the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights, the growth in instruments of national security, and our educational institutions, curricula, and policies. Some change has been for the good, some not so good. But for those of us who call ourselves conservative, it is imperative that we continue to examine and question the actions of Leviathan.