“It is hard,” Nisbet writes in Quest for Community, “not to conclude that modern populations depend increasingly on the symbolism of war for relief from civil conflicts and frustrations. … The power of war to create a sense of moral meaning is one of the most frightening aspects of the twentieth century.” Moral war, he argues, is uniquely apt to become total war. He continues:
One of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade. … The clear tendency of modern wars is to become ever more closely identified with broad, popular, moral aspirations: freedom, self-determination of peoples, democracy, rights, and justice. Because war, in the twentieth century, has become rooted to such an extent in the aspirations of peoples and in broad moral convictions, its intensity and range have vastly increased. … The enemy becomes not only a ready scapegoat for all ordinary dislikes and frustrations; he becomes the symbol of total evil against which the forces of good may mobilize themselves into a militant community.
Yet this “community,” Nisbet warns, is hollow. The sense of participation it generates is ephemeral compared to the richer and more rooted relationships of subsidiarity. Nisbet is not, to be sure, hostile to affiliation with a cause larger than oneself. His point is that contemporary man gravitates toward vast, diffuse and impersonal causes that open vacuums filled by power rather than traditional forms of authority and meaning.
This moral element of war drives the false sense of meaning and participation in a cause in which, let us be serious, the vast majority of people waving flags and lionizing troops are not participating at all. Hence the decision to invade Iraq, whose most ardent backers never contended that Hussein threatened American “freedom,” became a moral crusade to free the Iraqi people from their chains and, in our own rhetoric, to protect ourselves from the apparent danger of tyranny imposed by—whom?—the onward-marching troops of the Iraqi Republican Guard? The result is a sense of community and common endeavor that is, on Nisbet’s reading, precisely and only that: a sense.