Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How Conservatism Almost Lost the World to Tyranny

Flyboys is James Bradley’s account of American pilots in WWII in the Pacific. It is a fascinating story, unbelievably gruesome at times, but engaging on many different levels.

It begins with a short history of the Japanese Empire, followed by a short history of the development of aviation as a legitimate military weapon in the years between WWI and WWII. It contains descriptions of some unspeakable atrocities.

And it contains a short account of a war that was almost lost before it started.

Billy Mitchell was the first American pilot to fly over the enemy lines in war (WWI) and he and his men delivered valuable intelligence.

Following The Great War, Mitchell saw the value of aviation during a time when sea power (namely, the battleship) was viewed as the key component of national defense.

He argued for developing aviation because he foresaw that the Japanese would use air power as a means towards broadening their own empire. In fact, he predicted a Pearl Harbor type attack in the 1920s.

But the powers that be did not agree with Mitchell. They would not devote resources toward the development of this unproven mode of warfare. They resisted Mitchell’s ideas.

Bradley recounts,

When asked to give his opinion as to why airpower was stillborn in the U.S., with little funding or interest coming from the army or navy, [Mitchell] replied: “Conservatism … You see, the army and the navy are the oldest institutions we have. They place everything on precedent. You can’t do that in the air business. You have got to look ahead.(p. 46)

Mitchell lost. He was court-martialed.

But Mitchell’s view eventually won and the world was saved from German and Japanese domination.

Yet a congressional action to reverse Mitchell’s court-martial was rejected on the same day he entered the hospital for the last time before he died in 1936.

Why do I say this?

Recently, some have been writing about conservatism and its importance.

And in the main, I agree with them. I think conservatism is important. Things have stood the test of time for a reason, and we are right to give priority to  conserving that which has been handed down. Fads are a horribly inadequate way to foster lasting values and to build sensible societies.

My fear is that conservatism becomes the goal. And I am unconvinced that conservatism should be the goal.

The goal of all things is genuine love of God and love of fellow man. Those are, after all, the two great commandments.

The question should be, How do we do that?

A people who fail to wrestle with current challenges will never be prepared to meet them.

Notice I did not say that people who fail to adapt to current challenges will never be prepared to meet them. By saying “wrestle,” I am saying we at least need to ask the questions and come up with some answers.

In many cases, I am convinced those answers will push us to conservatism. But if they do not, we must follow the higher aim.

Last month, B2 bombers flew nonstop from their home base in Missouri to Libya and back, something that was unthinkable when Mitchell was flying piston-powered airplanes with open cockpits during WWI.

It is something that was impossible for conservatism.

It is something that is indispensable for modern life.


Michael Riley said...

From Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles:

"Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation."

Chad McCune said...

Very interesting and insightful post, Larry. I'll put Flyboys on my "to read" list. Really interesting application, too.

ChosenRebel said...

I agree with Chad. Well done brother. Insightful and helpful. Too often we do one or the other.

Conservatism is not where Christians need to plant their flag. Our flag flies for and over the Kingdom of God. change is necessary. But to change well, we have to ask the right questions.