The best essay on war in the libertarian tradition is Rothbard’s War, Peace and the State. Another brilliant essay on the matter is Robert Nisbet’s conservative Prevalence of War, which was publish in his The Present Age. I recently read it for the first time in probably 3 years, still impressed by its sweeping insight and observation regarding the cultural effects of war. Here are some of the excerpts that stood out. 

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Of all faces of the present age in America, the military face would almost certainly prove the most astounding to any Framers of the Constitution, any Founders of the Republic who came back to inspect their creation on the occasion of the bicentennial. It is indeed an imposing face, the military. Well over three hundred billion dollars a year go into its maintenance; it is deployed in several dozen countries around the world. The returned Framers would not be surprised to learn that so vast a military has inexorable effects upon the economy, the structure of government, and even the culture of Americans; they had witnessed such effects in Europe from afar, and had not liked what they saw. What would doubtless astonish the Framers most, though, is that their precious republic has become an imperial power in the world, much like the Great Britain they had hated in the eighteenth century. Finally, the Framers would almost certainly swoon when they learned that America has been participant in the Seventy-Five Years War that has gone on, rarely punctuated, since 1914. And all of this, the Framers would sorrowfully find, done under the selfsame structure of government they had themselves built.

Clearly, the American Constitution was designed for a people more interested in governing itself than in helping to govern the rest of the world. The new nation had the priceless advantage of two great oceans dividing it from the turbulences of Europe and Asia. Permanent or even frequent war was the last thing any thoughtful American of the time would think of as a serious threat.

The present age in American history begins with the Great War. When the guns of August opened fire in 1914, no one in America could have reasonably foreseen that within three years that foreign war not only would have drawn America into it but also would have, by the sheer magnitude of the changes it brought about on the American scene, set the nation on another course from which it has not deviated significantly since. The Great War was the setting of America’s entry into modernity—economic, political, social, and cultural. By 1920 the country had passed, within a mere three years, from the premodern to the distinctly and ineffaceably modern. Gone forever now the age of American innocence.

When the war broke out in Europe in 1914 America was still, remarkably, strikingly, pretty much the same country in moral, social, and cultural respects that it had been for a century. We were still, in 1914, a people rooted largely in the mentality of the village and small town, still suspicious of large cities and the styles of living that went with these cities. The states were immensely important, just as the Founding Fathers and the Framers had intended them to be. It was hard to find a truly national culture, a national consciousness, in 1914.

In terms of habits of mind, customs, traditions, folk literature, indeed written literature, speech accent, dress, and so forth, America could still be looked at as a miscellany of cultures held together, but not otherwise much influenced, by the federal government in Washington. For the vast majority of Americans, from east to west, north to south, the principal, if not sole, link with the national government was the postal system—and perhaps also the federal income tax, which was approved at long last by constitutional amendment in 1913.

The Great War changed all of this. By November 1918 after four years of war in Europe and nearly two years of it for America, the whole world was changed, Europe itself ceased in substantial degree to be a contained civilization, and the United States, after close to two years of what can only be called wrenching military nationalism under the charismatic Woodrow Wilson, was brought at last into the modern world of nations. State loyalties and appeals to states’ rights would not vanish overnight; they aren’t gone yet in constitutional law, and aren’t likely to be. But whereas prior to 1914 one still saw the gravamen of American development in the four dozen states, “provinces” in European terms, by 1920, it had shifted to the national culture, with the states becoming increasingly archaic.

War, sufficiently large, encompassing, and persisting, is one of the most powerful media of social and cultural—and also material, physical, and mechanical—change known to man. It was in circumstances of war in primordial times that the political state arose, and at the expense of the kinship order that had from the beginning been the individual’s sole community. Ever since, war has had a nourishing effect upon the state; it is “the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne observed darkly but accurately, when America went to war in 1917. Werner Sombart, historian of capitalism, devoted a volume to the tonic effects of war on the rise and development of capitalism. But no less true is Max Weber’s pronouncement of war and the barracks life of warriors as the true cause of communism. War communism precedes, indeed gives birth to, civil communism, Weber argued. The Communism of Soviet Russia has been based from the very beginning upon war preparation, upon the Red Army and its absolute power in the Soviet state.

War tends to stimulate intellectual and cultural ferment if only because of the mixture of ideas and values that is a by-product of combat, of victory and defeat, in any war. In both world wars, millions of Americans, men and women alike, knew the broadening and enriching effects of travel abroad, of stations in exotic places for the first time, as the result of enlistment or conscription. Granted that some were killed. Far more were not.

War tends to break up the cake of custom, the net of tradition. By so doing, especially in times of crisis, it allows the individual a better chance of being seen and heard in the interstices, in the crevasses opened by the cracking up of old customs, statuses, and conventionalities. This was remarkably true once the European war touched the millions of lives which had been for so long familiar with only the authorities and rhythms of an existence largely rural and pretty much limited to towns of the hinterland.

What the Great War did is what all major wars do for large numbers of people: relieve, if only briefly, the tedium, monotony, and sheer boredom which have accompanied so many millions of lives in all ages. In this respect war can compete with liquor, sex, drugs, and domestic violence as an anodyne. War, its tragedies and devastations understood here, breaks down social walls and by so doing stimulates a new individualism. Old traditions, conventions, dogmas, and taboos are opened under war conditions to a challenge, especially from the young, that is less likely in long periods of peace. The very uncertainty of life brought by war can seem a welcome liberation from the tyranny of the ever-predictable, from what a poet has called the “long littleness of life.” It is not the certainties but the uncertainties in life which excite and stimulate—if they do not catastrophically obliterate—the energies of men.

Sometimes, indeed, more than simple reform becomes entwined with war. Revolution takes place. This was one of Lenin’s insights. The German Socialists had made peace and pacifism almost as prominent as the revolutionary cause itself. Lenin broke utterly with this position, insisting that every national war should be supported in one way or other in the hope of converting war into revolution. America did not, of course, go into revolution as a result of the Great War, nor did England or France. But a good many of the countries engaged in that war, on both sides, did know very well, sometimes very painfully, the surge of revolution. What can be said of America in the war is that the people participated widely in a revolutionary upsurge of patriotism and of consecration to the improvement of the world in the very process of making “the world safe for democracy,” as the moralistic President Wilson put it.

Rarely has the sense of national community been stronger than it was in America during the Great War. True, that sense had to be artificially stimulated by a relentless flow of war propaganda from Washington and a few other pricks of conscience, but by the end of the war a stronger national consciousness and sense of cohesion were apparent. But, as we know in today’s retrospect, with these gains came distinct losses in constitutional birthright.

All wars of any appreciable length have a secularizing effect upon engaged societies, a diminution of the authority of old religious and moral values and a parallel elevation of new utilitarian, hedonistic, or pragmatic values. Wars, to be successfully fought, demand a reduction in the taboos regarding life, dignity, property, family, and religion; there must be nothing of merely moral nature left standing between the fighting forces and victory, not even, or especially, taboos on sexual encounters. Wars have an individualizing effect upon their involved societies, a loosening of the accustomed social bond in favor of a tightening of the military ethic. Military, or at least war-born, relationships among individuals tend to supersede relationships of family, parish, and ordinary walks of life. Ideas of chastity, modesty, decorum, respectability change quickly in wartime.

Giving help and assistance to Parkinson’s Law in the predictable prosperity of the military establishment in our time is what can only be called Wilson’s Law. That is, Woodrow Wilson, whose fundamental axiom “What America touches, she makes holy” was given wording by his great biographer, Lord Devlin. The single most powerful cause of the present size and the worldwide deployment of the military establishment is the moralization of foreign policy and military ventures that has been deeply ingrained, especially in the minds of presidents, for a long time. Although it was Woodrow Wilson who, by virtue of a charismatic presence and a boundless moral fervor, gave firm and lasting foundation to American moralism, it was not unknown earlier in our history. The staying power of the Puritan image of America as a “city upon a hill” was considerable throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. America the Redeemer Nation was very much a presence in the minds of a great many Americans. American “exceptionalism” began in the conviction that God had created one truly free and democratic nation on earth and that it was to the best interests of all other nations to study America and learn from her. Even the conservative and essentially noninterventionist President Taft, in 1912, sent a detachment of marines into Nicaragua with instructions to announced to the Nicaraguan government that “The United States has a moral mandate to exert its influence for the general peace in Central America which is seriously menaced. . . . America’s purpose is to foster true constitutional government and free elections.”

Woodrow Wilson is without question the key mind; Roosevelt was simply a Wilsonian without the charismatic will and absolute power of mind that Wilson had. One thinks here of Karl Marx when someone reminded him that Hegel had opined that history occasionally repeats its events and great personages. Yes, said Marx, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Wilson was pure tragedy, Roosevelt farce. Wilson sought to invoke all the powers of his Calvinist god and his beloved city upon a hill, the United States of America, in order to bring about a world assembly, the League of Nations, that would realize for the entire planet the sweetness and light of America. This he sought, preached, and died for.

Wilson above any other figure is the patriarch of American foreign policy moralism and interventionism. Churchill wrote, in his The World Crisis shortly after the Great War, that to Wilson alone had to go credit for America’s entry into that war; everything depended “upon the workings of this man’s mind and spirit to the exclusion of almost every other factor. . . . He played a part in the fate of nations incomparably more direct and personal than any other man.” His book The State enables us to see how in his mind the true church for him had become not the historic church, the institutional church, but rather the state—provided, of course, that it was permeated by virtue, goodness, and redemptiveness.

The passion and wholeness of his desire to reform and to redeem can be seen first at Princeton where as president he put Princeton “in the nation’s service.” When he decided to reform the eating clubs, thus dividing university and trustees into bitter camps, he likened his work to that of the Redeemer in the cause of humanity; he did much the same thing when a little later he and Graduate Dean West were opposed as to where exactly to locate the new graduate school at Princeton. Virtually everything he touched became instantly transformed into an Armageddon. As president of Princeton, as governor for two years of New Jersey, and finally as president of the United States, Wilson burned and burned as moralist, seeing crises where others saw only problems, and endowing even his dispatch of American troops into Mexico, in retaliation for Mexican bandit crossings of the border, with a mighty purpose that would benefit all mankind.

World war was thus cut out for a mind of Wilson’s passionate moralism. What he and America did had to be eternally right, before mankind and God. He had been appointed by God to serve the blessed American republic and to determine what was right in the war. His final decision, which germinated all through 1916, the year of his reelection under the banner of “He kept us out of the war,” and came to thundering expression in early 1917, was that neutrality must be scrapped for intervention. He had been right in his policy of neutrality but the world and the war had changed; and now he must, with equal godliness and righteousness, do the very opposite—that is, plead with heart and soul for immediate American intervention.

Thus the birth of twentieth-century moralism in foreign policy and war. From Wilson’s day to ours the embedded purpose—sometimes articulated in words, more often not—of American foreign policy, under Democrats and Republicans alike oftentimes, has boiled down to America-on-a-Permanent-Mission; a mission to make the rest of the world a little more like America the Beautiful. Plant a little “democracy” here and tomorrow a little “liberalism” there, not hesitating once in a while to add a pinch of American-style social democracy.

Today, forty years later, moralism continues to inflame American foreign policy, Ronald Reagan being the devoutest successor thus far to Wilsonianism as interpreted by Roosevelt. He too loves to divide the world into the Good and the Evil, and to define American foreign policy as relentless punishment of the Evil by the Good—led by America. He too sees every Nicaragua, every Lebanon, Iran, Persian Gulf, and Grenada as a little bit of Armageddon, with all means justified by purity of mind.

And conceivably bankrupt. If our foreign policy were one of protecting our national security and looking out for the preservation of our political nationhood and general well-being, from time to time doing what little good for others our capacities permitted, we would not require a six-hundred-ship navy, one bulging with supercarriers, battleships, and weaponry better suited to the now historic battles of Jutland in World War I and Midway in World War II than to defense of ourselves against Soviet aggression. General de Gaulle correctly referred to “America’s itch to intervene.”

When we intervene the act is almost compulsively cloaked, even as Wilson’s acts were, in rhetoric of pious universalism. We use our variants of Kant’s categorical imperative in international affairs. We must always explain that behind our intervention lies the imperative of moral goodness—nothing less.

No nation in history has ever managed permanent war and a permanent military Leviathan at its heart and been able to maintain a truly representative character. The transformation of the Roman Republic into the dictatorial empire was accomplished solely through war and the military. Is the United States somehow the divinely created exception to this ubiquitous fact of world history? Not, assuredly, if instead of a foreign policy based upon national security and finite objectives associated with this security, we indulge ourselves in a foreign policy with an “itch to intervene,” and a purpose flowing out of the preposterous fantasy of a world recreated in the image and likeness of that city on a hill known as the United States of America. That way lies total confusion abroad and an ever more monolithic and absolute military bureaucracy at home.