That’s a plausible characterization of the attitudes of senior military leadership because it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for soldiers who lived through the wars in Vietnam and Iraq to think. We can all “smell the . . . sense of retreat from the Obama White House over Afghanistan.” A lot of liberals who applauded Obama's campaign rhetoric about "finishing the job in Afghanistan" are beginning to like the aroma.“[T]he military feel that Republicans are much more likely to stay the course than Democrats. Most Democrats were war hawks on Vietnam, only to become doves as the war dragged on and costs mounted. . . . Many Democrats supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, only to split off soon thereafter. And as far as the military is concerned, they smell the same sense of retreat coming from the Obama White House over Afghanistan. Obama once proclaimed the need to "defeat" the enemy in that country and now seems to be suggesting withdrawals that the uniforms deem premature.”
That raises a fair question: why are Democratic hawks so much less resolute than their Republican counterparts? It’s not that Democratic hawks are more willing to reassess a military strategy as casualties mount because they place a higher value on American lives. Recall Bush and Cheney’s argument argued that we have to fight terrorists in Iraq to avoid having to fight them here. That may have been an egregious strategic mistake, especially with respect to Iraq, but it would never have occurred to them to justify the American lives lost in Iraq in any currency other than the greater number of lives saved at home. So if the pertinent difference between conservatives and liberals over Iraq isn’t about the value of American lives relative to competing goods, what is it about?
The best answer I’ve come up with has less to do with the magnitude of war's costs than with their distribution. We all know that liberals care more about equality in the distribution of social benefits and burdens than conservatives—that’s what liberals are for. That’s true even when the objectives of public policy aren’t in dispute. Everyone agrees in the abstract, for instance, that government should be in the business of producing public goods like basic infrastructure and clean air that can’t be produced efficiently by markets. Liberals and conservatives have a harder time agreeing, however, over how the costs of producing them should be distributed.
National security is the quintessential public good, so we shouldn’t be surprised that liberals want its costs to be distributed more equally than conservatives. That certainly goes for the treasure expended to remake Iraq and Afghanistan by military means. Liberals’ egalitarianism compelled them, but not conservatives, to ask whether every additional public dollar spent to those ends was justified relative to its best alternative domestic use. The liberal refrain that we shouldn’t have been opening fire houses in Baghdad when we were closing them here would never occur to most conservatives. They think that, because national defense is, but the redistribution of wealth isn’t, a legitimate state function, considerations of national security trump considerations of distributive fairness.
The more pertinent consequence of liberal egalitarianism, however, is the way it affects choices respecting the application of military power. The costs of conducting foreign policy through the exercise of soft power and economic leverage can be steep. But because they’re largely denominated in dollars and cents, they can be distributed or redistributed according to one’s view of distributive justice and administrative ingenuity. The same can be said for the military budget since it’s mostly an exercise in enhancing military preparedness rather than putting troops on the ground.
The unequal distributional consequences of a shooting war, however, are irremediable. There’s no way of effectively redistributing the costs of American casualties from the soldiers and their families that suffer them to the rest of society. Whenever we pursue national security policies that result in American casualties, then, there’s always going to be a glaring disparity between the equal distribution of any benefits secured across the population and the concentration of the costs on unlucky military personnel. So all other things being equal, liberals are, and should be, more inclined than conservatives to abandon a military mission with every rise in American casualties and every development attenuating the causal nexus between American lives certainly lost and shattered and lives possibly saved.
This is one respect in which a comparison between the Iraq and Vietnam wars is illuminating. For most of the duration of the latter war, exposure to enemy fire was allocated among Americans largely according to a military draft that afforded better off military-age males exemptions, like college deferments, and ample opportunity to exploit their social connections to influence local draft boards. That meant that, while whatever national security payoff the war generated was distributed equally across the population, its costs were concentrated by the compulsion of the state on draft-age males with relatively bleak economic prospects and relatively low social status. The distributive injustice of that arrangement was obvious to people across the political spectrum. That’s why by the early 1970s a consensus encompassing liberals and conservatives emerged that the prevailing selective service regime should be replaced, first with a largely exemption-less lottery system and then by the all-volunteer army we have today.
Taking state compulsion out of the picture pretty much settled any distributive issues about the application of military force as far as conservatives were concerned. From their perspective that makes perfect sense. Generally speaking, conservatives are ideologically disinclined to second guess distributions that emerge from the voluntary interactions of individuals. That’s why they resist public policy that disturbs market outcomes. In their eyes, the fact that military personnel now voluntarily assume the risk of suffering casualties in the national interest makes the resulting distribution of benefits and burdens ethically unobjectionable as well. So long as the total expenditure of American blood is, by their lights, commensurate with the gravity of the national interest being served, and citizen soldiers are willing to put themselves in harm’s way voluntarily, conservatives recognize no separate distributive ground for deeming it excessive. For liberals, however, the unequal distribution of benefits and burdens that result from the military operations conducted by an all-volunteer army is just as ethically suspect as the distributions generated by voluntary market interactions in the broader economy.
You can begin to see the ideological fault line between them and conservatives in their running contest over which side really supports the troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. To conservatives, that means giving the troops the means to accomplish their mission by funding it lavishly and according them the gratitude and respect they deserve for putting their lives at risk in the national interest. It doesn’t involve altering an otherwise worthwhile mission just to make things easier on the military personnel who’ve volunteered to undertake it. To liberals “supporting the troops” means, above all, redressing the distributive inequity inherent in any decision to wage war. That’s why liberals are more insistent than conservatives about increasing veterans’ benefits and changing troop rotation policy in Iraq and Afghanistan to ease the hardships borne by military families. If that makes it harder for the administration to put our soldiers in harm’s way, all the better. For a liberal, there’s never going to be a better way of supporting the troops than bringing them home.
If liberal hawks were more self-conscious egalitarians, they’d be more circumspect about getting us into wars against enemies determined enough, and ruthless enough, to push them past their moral limits.