This essay, posted January 1, 2011, is Copyright © 2011 by Mary Meehan.
Antiwar Conservatives Make a Strong Case
The conservative case against war is as old as our memory of George Washington and as recent as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex) and his "Texas straight talk."(1) In the roughly 200 years between Washington and Paul, many other conservatives were like them in opposing war unless it involved direct defense of the United States. They were against interventionism and empire-building abroad. They opposed U.S. conquest of overseas territories, such as Hawaii and the Philippines.(2)
A substantial number of conservatives hold these views today. They oppose interventionism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. They include many "Paulistas" who were activated by Rep. Paul's 2007-08 presidential campaign. They also include the fiery Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com; columnist Patrick Buchanan; Prof. Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel and author; and others.
Many antiwar conservatives, including Paul and Raimondo, have a libertarian orientation. Bacevich is a fiscal and social conservative. So is Buchanan, who argues against war and empire on grounds of U.S. self-interest. Writer Bill Kauffman, who traced the history of antiwar conservatives in his 2008 book, Ain't My America, described his own politics as "localist, decentralist, Jeffersonian." He is also "a rural Christian pacifist," but one with "strong libertarian and traditionalist conservative streaks."(3)
Unfortunately, there are few if any antiwar conservatives in high places. Most high-level conservative leaders suggest that we should all follow the flag--no matter where it goes or how much damage is done in its name. Mike Huckabee, a Republican and former Arkansas governor, provided a striking example of this in a 2007 presidential candidates' debate. After Ron Paul argued that the Iraq war was wrong and that neoconservatives--not the American public--were responsible for that wrong, Huckabee declared, "Congressman, we are one nation. We can't be divided.... That means if we make a mistake, we make it as a single country: the United States of America, not the divided states of America."
So if the neocons decide to jump off a cliff, we're all supposed to jump with them? Paul didn't think so. He said that it's "the obligation of the people, through their representatives, to correct the mistake, not to continue the mistake."(4)
Let's go back to George Washington for a moment. He warned clearly against meddling in the affairs of other nations. Before his presidency, he told a French friend: "Separated as we are by a world of water from other nations, if we are wise we shall surely avoid being drawn into the labyrinth of their politics and involved in their destructive wars."(5) In his second term of office, he worked hard--and spent much political capital--to prevent another war with England. In his Farewell Address, he again stressed our distance from other countries and asked, "Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?"(6)
Washington's convictions were based on more than pragmatism. In a 1788 letter to another French friend, he had called it "more consonant to all the principles of reason and religion (natural and revealed) to replenish the earth with inhabitants, rather than to depopulate it by killing those already in existence." He added that "it is time for the age of knight-errantry and mad-heroism to be at an end." He hoped that work in agriculture and commerce would "supersede the waste of war and the rage of conquest."(7)
We all know, at least from a distance, the terrible waste and destruction of war. First, there are the great loss of human life and the shattering injuries--often lifelong and sometimes amounting to prolonged torture. Why, we should ask today's conservative leaders, do we keep sending our soldiers "to stand upon foreign ground" where they risk death or brain damage, blindness, and triple or even quadruple amputations?(8) Why do we put civilians of other countries in danger of the same? Our weapons kill many farmers and traders who are doing the work Washington admired--and often kill their wives, husbands, and children. Some call this "collateral damage."
Second, conserving a civilization--which is what true conservatives do--includes protecting its physical structure as well as its people. Yet war does enormous damage to entire cities, farmland, and forests. Military planners deliberately target the infrastructure of a city: roads, bridges, dams, power plants, broadcasting centers. This makes it very hard for survivors to rebuild. War often involves destruction of historic buildings, records, and other cultural treasures. It puts good farmland out of production when it poisons the soil or places farmers (and their children) at great risk from landmines or unexploded cluster bombs--a danger that lasts long after a war ends.(9)
English writer Christopher Derrick stressed that war loosens social restraints and can wreck cultures that pursue it. In a 1981 essay, he wrote that war "tends to destroy everything that conservatives would wish to 'conserve' at the social, cultural, moral, and religious levels. For the present cultural breakdown of the West, two World Wars are very considerably responsible."(10) The Vietnam War caused cultural breakdown not only in Vietnam, but also in the United States--and not just among college students. Many soldiers returned to the States with terrible mental problems, drug addictions, and despair. Many veterans and their families still pay the price of that war. So, in a sense, does our whole culture.
Bill Kauffman, in Ain't My America, notes that war destroys family ties that conservatives care about. "War separates men from women, husbands from wives. Divorce flourishes in the ruins," he says. Others have described how our military bases abroad are magnets for prostitution. War and empire are terrible for children, too. Military mothers and fathers, when posted to Iraq or Afghanistan, must leave their infants and toddlers behind in the States. If the parents survive the war and stay in the military, their children face years of putting down roots in one place and then having those roots torn up by parental reassignment. Kauffman says bluntly that empire "makes war upon the family and upon traditional marriages."(11)
In this time of great economic trouble, conservative financial arguments against interventionism and war appeal to many. Last February, columnist Patrick Buchanan estimated that the U.S. spends one trillion dollars per year "for the Pentagon, two wars, foreign aid to allies, 16 intelligence agencies, scores of thousands of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our new castle-embassies." Buchanan, who worked for Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, supported the Cold War against communism; but that war ended a long time ago. "Liquidation of this empire," he wrote, "should have begun with the end of the Cold War. Now it is being forced upon us by the deficit-debt crisis." He added that "we can't kick this can up the road anymore, because we have come to the end of the road."(12) Justin Raimondo says that "America's overseas empire is an albatross hung 'round our necks: if we gave it up, we could solve a good many of our economic problems here on the home front, or at the very least make a good beginning."(13)
It is not just the sheer cost of war that worries antiwar conservatives. It's also the way that war balloons governmental size and power. They know that government programs, including weapons systems and specific wars, often escalate beyond control. Wars become juggernauts, smashing everything in their path: facts, common sense, rational argument, ethical questions, compassion, and even self-interest. Justin Raimondo put it this way: "In wartime, the State rears up in all its malevolent magnificence, like a great dragon snarling fire." He said it "sprouts all sorts of extra tentacles in wartime, wrapping itself like some institutional anaconda around the private sector, and--given enough time--choking it to death." He wasn't referring just to private business, but also to "the non-governmental organizations that make up the fabric of human civilization, from the pulpit to the Ladies Home Garden Club and all points in between."(14)
Antiwar conservatives protest the way that governmental power is turned against our Bill of Rights in wartime. Economist Paul Craig Roberts, for example, worked in President Ronald Reagan's administration and was a major advocate of supply-side economics. Strongly opposed to the current wars, he is one of the fiercest critics of assaults on the Bill of Rights by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In a column last September, Roberts denounced FBI raids on antiwar activists' homes in the Midwest. He predicted "witch hunts that will close down all protests and independent thought in the US over the next few years." An exaggeration? Perhaps. But after the Patriot Act, widespread and intense government surveillance of U.S. citizens, "targeted killings" (assassinations) abroad, torture of terrorism suspects, detention without trial, "state secrets" claims, and the FBI raids--who can be sure? Roberts, now 71, said that "America, as people of my generation knew it, no longer exists."(15) And Justin Raimondo warns: "The tree of liberty inevitably wilts when war-clouds block the sun, and the long conflict we are now fighting will kill it off for good--unless we take our foreign policy back from the War Party."(16)
Taking it back is a daunting task, to say the least. How can antiwar conservatives persuade other conservatives to return to a George-Washington foreign policy? While arguments based on U.S. self-interest are often persuasive, they are not enough to win the day. Indeed, if self-interest were the only consideration in foreign and military policy, there would be nothing but pragmatic arguments against very great evils.
We need more emphasis on justice and the rights that people of other nations share with us--especially the right to life. Just-war standards provide one way to make this point and to put current practices under the light of reason and ethics. As developed from ancient times to the present, those standards deal with 1) whether a nation is justified in going to war at all, and 2) if it is, how it must conduct warfare in order to avoid wanton cruelty and attacks on civilians. In the second category, it's essential to take seriously the just-war standard that forbids using weapons that are especially cruel and indiscriminate. I believe this requires banning--at least--nuclear weapons, napalm, cluster bombs, and landmines. I hope antiwar conservatives can make other conservatives confront the profound evil of these weapons.
To persuade those who are ambivalent about war, the antiwar conservatives can show how it harms or destroys specific human beings and families. Antiwar.com, the libertarian-conservative website, does this well. Some commentators, though, could strengthen their case greatly by using casualty stories to illustrate their points.
Here is one that haunts my memory: In December, 2001, an American reporter visited a hospital in Afghanistan and described casualties from U.S. bombing raids on some villages there. She said that Noor Mohammed, age 10, had "lost both eyes and both arms. Sometimes, he turns his head and moans to himself.... Asked this morning how he felt, the boy whispered, 'I feel cold and I cannot talk.'" (A photo that ran with the story showed the little boy flat on his back in a hospital bed, with bandages that covered most of his head and the stub of his right arm.) The reporter also mentioned an eight-year-old boy who "suffers from head injuries and has been in a coma since he arrived." There were twin toddlers who shared a bed. "One of them is hurt more seriously than the other," the reporter noted. "Their father, Faizal Karim, is dead. They don't know that yet." An uncle of the twins was keeping vigil at the hospital. "Their village, he said, was always hostile to the Taliban and [Osama] bin Laden's foreign fighters.... He asked why U.S. planes were seeking out targets in a settlement of mud houses 20 miles from bin Laden's reputed mountain hideout in Tora Bora. 'Our home is far away from there,' he said. 'We are civilian people. So why are they bombing civilian people?'"(17)
Antiwar conservatives can expect to be charged, sooner or later, with lack of patriotism. Sometimes those who make this charge have a braggadocio attitude about America, strangely combined with the slogan of "My country, right or wrong." It is as though they are saying, "We're the biggest, the best, and the greatest, and we almost never make mistakes. But if by chance we do make a mistake, it's gonna be a big one--and you've gotta go over the cliff with us." (The Huckabee Maneuver again.) The best response to this approach was given in 1872 by Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri. In a Senate debate, Schurz declared: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."(18) Setting our country right may be the highest form of patriotism.
Another approach of pro-war forces is to shout, "We must support our troops!" But the best way to support our troops is to bring them home, alive and well--and thus liberate them from the terrible roadside bombs and the hatred people have for occupation armies. As Andrew Bacevich says, "the primary duty station of the American soldier is in America."(19)
The antiwar conservatives are on a difficult journey, but they have the courage for it. A heartfelt toast: Long life to them! May they grow quickly in numbers and strength. May the wind always be at their back.
1. "Texas Straight Talk" is the name of a column Rep. Paul writes for his congressional website, www.paul.house.gov. I use the term here to describe his speech and writing in general.
2. For many examples, see Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right, 2nd ed. (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2008); and Bill Kauffman, Ain't My America (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2008).
3. Ibid., 10.
4. "Transcript: Republican Presidential Primary Debate," Durham, N.H., 5 Sept. 2007, www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,295886,00.html, accessed 19 Dec. 2010.
5. Gen. George Washington, ret., to Chevalier de la Luzerne, 7 Feb. 1788, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931-44), vol. 29, 404-07, 406. Luzerne, a French diplomat during the American Revolution, had been quite helpful to the Americans.
6. President George Washington, "Farewell Address," 19 Sept. 1796, ibid., vol. 35, 214-38, 234.
7. Gen. George Washington, ret., to Marquis de Chastellux, 25 April[-1 May] 1788, in Fitzpatrick (n. 5), vol. 29, 483-86, 484-85. Chastellux, a French general, had aided America in its Revolution.
8. According to the Washington Post, 21 U.S. service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan have had triple limb amputations, and three have had quadruple ones. See Michael E. Ruane, "Unbroken Spirit," Washington Post, 11 Nov. 2010, A-1 & A-22. The article profiles Marine Cpl. Todd A. Nicely, who lost major parts of all his limbs to a bomb in Afghanistan in March 2010.
9. James A. Tyner, Military Legacies: A World Made by War (New York and London: Routledge, 2010).
10. Christopher Derrick, "Bombs and Babies: Three Baffling Questions," New Oxford Review, Sept. 1981, 2-3, 3.
11. Kauffman (n. 2), 207 & 203.
12. Patrick J. Buchanan, "Liquidating the Empire," www.antiwar.com, 23 Feb. 2010.
13. Justin Raimondo, "Foreign Policy and the Midterms," ibid., 20 Oct. 2010.
14. Justin Raimondo, "An Antiwar Credo," ibid., 15 Feb. 2010.
15. Paul Craig Roberts, "It Is Official: The US Is a Police State," ibid., 25 Sept. 2010.
16. Justin Raimondo (n. 14).
17. Susan B. Glasser, "At Hospital, Villagers Tell of U.S. Bombing," Washington Post, 5 Dec. 2001, A-17.
18. Congressional Globe, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess., 29 Feb. 1872, 1287.
19. Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules (New York: Metropolitan
Books/Henry Holt, 2010), 239.