The equation of the military profession with conservatism was enshrined in Samuel Huntington’s 1957 The Soldier and the State, a book that continues to influence perceptions of civil-military relations. To be fair, there are historic and cultural reasons why the military profession and military institutions have tended to be conservative, but there are, equally compelling forces pushing the profession of arms in the direction of liberalism.
Why have military forces tended to be seen as and to see themselves as conservative? In ancient times, military rank was closely tied to birth and social position. Military leaders had a vested interest in the status quo. Aristocratic commanders communicated some of their conservatism down the ranks, partly through the “glamour of class distinctions” which philosopher Kenneth Burke considered the basis for discipline in regular armies. Class distinctions apart, the military profession sets great store by tradition and hierarchy. It often looks to the past for example, and it has made common cause with other conservative institutions, most notably with the churches, although also sometimes with conservative political parties.
Perhaps for these reasons, the armed forces still often attract people who might be called social conservatives: comfortable with continuity and authority, resistant to change and lack of order. To speak personally, and as an American, I was a Republican for many years, a party affiliation that sometimes seemed the implicit home for the relatively non-political patriotic military person. What changed me was a combination of what I saw as the party’s sharp turn to the right, and a consideration of my own experiences, the deployments in particular, that convinced me of the need for liberal values in preserving peace.
If it is the conservative person who is often drawn to military service, I would argue that the most important lessons of military service, properly considered, ought to tend us in the opposite direction. Soldiers (and I use this term in the broad sense of applying to all military members) meet people from all over the world, and they often come away with an awakened sense of a common humanity across regional and national lines. The soldier sees and experiences things that the civilian is usually spared. Soldiers of the past two decades have been deployed to places on the brink or over the edge of complete breakdown and disorder. Sometimes these conditions were frankly the consequence of military operations. At other times they preceded the intervention of military forces. In either case, soldiers often bear witness to the need for change in the status quo, for a diminution of the power of vested interests, for greater rights, freedom and opportunity for individuals. Often, it has been a neglect of such liberal values as individual rights and social justice that has pushed societies to the edge. The corrupt and authoritarian regimes that routinely deny these rights also often resort to force to stay in power, and they may give people no outlet but violence. Another lesson the soldier learns is the importance of peace itself, which is more than the avoidance of war. The high cost and frequent futility of war are things borne in on the soldier, who will often come to say to say, like Eisenhower, “I hate war as only a soldier can.”
Thanks in part to all that soldiers see of a world in turmoil, alongside the conservative military tradition is one of liberalism. Soldiers like Lafayette, some dissatisfied with the autocratic ways of their own monarchical countries, came to America to fight in a revolution for a new form of government. Marine General Smedley Butler blew the whistle on what he considered his country’s imperialist policies in Central America. Internationally, armed forces have often sided with constitutional government against tyrants and oligarchs. Also, military practice has changed. The old, top-down approach to military command has gradually given way to greater emphasis on teamwork and inclusion, as recently championed by such distinguished commanders as Generals McCrystal and Dempsey.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for American military members and veterans to self-identify as liberal is the Constitutional Oath that defines our service. Colonel Anthony Hartle has identified the essentials of the Oath as a pledge to “constitutionalism, representative democracy, individual rights, the rule of law, and greatest equal liberty.” In 1789, these principles were radical, but nascent. Today, they are liberal, and endangered. Much of what passes for “conservatism” today is not a longing to return to Constitutional principles, but rather for reactionary, racist, even atavistic cultural forces that have long held in check the aspirations expressed in the Constitution. This kind of toxic, faux-conservatism is on the rise worldwide. In fact, the same authoritarianism, often under the guise of “conservatism,” the damaging effects of which a soldier may have witnessed on a deployment abroad, might be encountered at home on returning to his or her own country.
Soldiers are justifiably subject to some restraint in the area of political activism, but they are allowed to think, and with some restrictions to speak and to act. In Washington’s words, when we assumed the soldier, we did not set aside the citizen. Soldiers may express their opinions in the proper setting. Not all political activity is partisan. It is perhaps even more important for military liberals to uphold principle rather than candidate or party. Military liberals are not as outnumbered as they may think. They should speak up, in a manner informed by their service, in touch with the traditions of liberal thought, and consistent with the laws of their countries.