Like Jonah, I often get the feeling when reading academic commentary about conservatives or the military that I’m reading anthropology — constructed theories based on limited exposure to strange and alien cultures. It’s as if the leftist ideological monoculture views large numbers of their fellow citizens as a strange tribe of aboriginals living deep in the bush of Papua New Guinea. Not knowing many conservatives — or especially many soldiers — they’re left to concoct outlandish theories about our motivations and behavior.
I was reminded of this phenomenon after reading this essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Written by a purported expert on conservative thought, it asserts that conservatives love war:
Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it’s true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. “I enjoy wars,” said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. “Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” The conservative’s commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It’s philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly, as in the case of Santayana, who wrote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” or laboriously, as in the case of Heinrich von Treitschke:
To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace.
Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: War is life, peace is death.
To Professor Robin, the proof of our “love” for war can be found in the early writings of Burke, or perhaps in a phrase or two from David Brooks or the passages quoted above. But Robin says our alleged love is more of the idea of war — not the reality. According to him, we let others fight the wars we love:
Since 9/11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives — or their sons and daughters — to fight the war on terror themselves. For many, that failure is symptomatic of the inequality of contemporary America, and it is. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea—a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24 – it is sublime. As soon as it becomes a reality, it can be as tedious as a discussion of the tax code or as cheerless as a trip to the DMV.
While Professor Robin is good at pulling a quote or two from conservative thinkers, he’s less conversant in the cold, hard facts of our political and military life. Until Desert Storm, every major conflict of the last 100 years of American history was begun under Democratic presidents, men like Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson. I’d assert that a conservative president would have fought each of those wars also, but war in American history has been — politically at least — a quite bipartisan affair. And until the abolition of the draft, the soldiers were bipartisan as well.
Reality is always more complex than cheap and partisan political theories. For example, while conservatives aren’t the only ones to start wars, it turns out they are — in fact — more likely to fight them, at least in the era of the all-volunteer military. The chickenhawk smear is fundamentally false:
Forty percent of enlisted men and women are now Southerners, and the officer corps speaks with an even stronger Southern accent. As a consequence, like the South generally, the military has moved rightward into the Republican Party. “Reversing a century and a half of practice,” laments the University of North Carolina military historian Richard H. Kohn, based on surveys he helped to conduct, “the American officer corps has become partisan in political affiliation, and overwhelmingly Republican.” In his new book, Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations, Jason K. Dempsey reports that in 2007 Republicans outnumbered Democrats 49 percent to 12 percent among senior officers. At West Point, Dempsey found, “enough officers overtly endorse the Republican Party that many cadets apparently conflate an identification with the Republican Party with officership.”
But does this statistic — while disproving his smear — actually prove his thesis? Are these increasingly Southern and rural conservatives fighting because they “love” war? The very idea is beyond absurd. I didn’t join the Army because I love war. I joined because I couldn’t in good conscience continue to support a war I wasn’t willing to fight myself. I’ve never met a soldier who loved war, though I’ve met many men I would call “warriors,” men whose greatest gifts are in combat and personal courage. Yet do even they “love” war? Outside of perhaps a tiny few, absolutely not. There’s simply no data supporting the contention that soldiers as a group — or even any significant subset — “love war.”
Why do men volunteer? Out of a sense of duty. To test themselves. Because they need a job. Because they love their country. Because they’re bored. The answers are as diverse as the men who serve, but “loving war” would be last on the list.