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Wednesday, 04 March 2009 15:47

Conservatism with a small “c”

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Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman. Metropolitan Books, 2008. 304 pages.

Try to imagine a book enthusiastically reviewed by George McGovern (former Democratic presidential candidate), Ron Paul (former Republican presidential candidate), and Nicholas Von Hoffman (author and commentator). Bill Kauffman has spent many years staking out his ideas on politics, particularly on conservatism with a small “c.”

Author of several books and writer of essays for such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Onion, and The American Conservative, Kauffman has expended considerable energy, talent, and time on one single theme: that real conservatives, those who trace their lineage back to John Randolph of Virginia, to Thomas Corwin, the conservative Ohio senator who opposed war with Mexico in 1847, to moderns like Senator Taft of Ohio, are often those who oppose and lead the opposition against American foreign wars and bigger government control.

In Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism (ISBN 978-0-8050-8233-9, $25), Kauffman brings under one big tent much of his thinking of the last few decades regarding Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, imperialists and anti-imperialists. Although he addresses the gnawing issues of today from many different angles — Republican social concerns like abortion, Democrat traditional interest in bigger government — Kauffman focuses chiefly on the idea of conservatism and warfare. He raises the question: how did conservatives (again, note that little “c”) acquire a reputation as a bunch of warmongers?

Much of Ain’t My America is obsessed with that question and with the its answer, namely, that conservatives traditionally are not warmongers obsessed with expanding American power or with crushing our enemies. Quite the contrary, in fact. As Kauffman digs through the bone yards and reliquaries of American history, particularly its wars, he demonstrates time and again that Americans generally regarded as conservative in the past were rarely supporters of overseas wars. From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, from the fields of Gettysburg to the battlefields of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, American soldiers have gallantly fought wars which large portions of the population — often the majority — have opposed, at least initially. Using example after example of politicians, protesters, and conservative anarchists, Kauffman demonstrates that real conservatives — and real liberals — have much in common, especially in regard to the foreign policy of the United States.

Consider, for example, Thomas Corwin, Ohio senator, who in 1847 during the Mexican War thundered at the Senate that “If I were a Mexican, I would tell you, ‘Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hands, and welcome you to hospitable graves.’” Dozens of other examples follow, showing conservatives and libertarians from both of America’s political parties opposing war as well as various writers and thinkers, including the novelist John Gardner, who like Kauffman was an Upstate New Yorker.

Kauffman ends his book with this plea:“The decline of Western civilization? I see it writ across George W. Bush’s petulantly vacant mug. As for John Gardner, daffodils, baseball, bluebirds, my daughter, and the Davids of Albion — hell, they’re the only hope our little corner of American civilization has left.

Come home, America. Reject the empire. Please.” As Ron Paul states on the back of the book, “For those who have been neoconned into believing that conservatism means unquestioned support for the welfare state, Ain’t My America is the perfect way to show that real conservatives defend peace and liberty.”

•••

Nancy Sherman, who has taught at Georgetown University and the United States Naval Academy, has written two books on virtue and character. With her third book, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind (ISBN 0-19-515216-6, $26), Sherman takes a look both at stoicism, the ancient philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and the part played by stoicism in the American military.

Although Stoic Warriors may sound academic, Sherman’s writing is in fact lively and readable. She employs frequent examples of stoicism in the military, where men and women of all branches learn early to “suck it up,” to get tough, to complete their mission despite physical obstacles and personal feelings. Using numerous anecdotes from the wars of the ancient Greeks to our present conflicts, Sherman examines such concepts as “toughness” in war, morals, anger, and abuse. She reveals how quickly a “virtue” such as toughness can become a vice, especially in regard to enemy prisoners or civilians.In addressing the commonalities between ancient Stoics and modern warriors, Sherman also looks hard at such topics as “Fear and Resilience” and “Permission to Grieve.” In all these chapters Sherman considers the value of the philosophy of stoicism to the soldier in terms of military leadership; she addresses the issue of anger from the standpoint of stoicism, showing how that philosophy so strongly advocates self-control; she examines the value of military brotherhood and individuality both from the stoic viewpoint. Sherman writes that the military men and women who took her courses particularly felt the pull of these words by Epictetus:

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices ... So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men ... And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me.’”

Stoic Warriors should appeal to many readers who enjoy their military history flavored with a strong dose of philosophy.

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