Real Conservatives Are Anti-War. Ukraine Is Exposing the Real Divide in the GOP | Opinion

The United States is still reeling from two decades of war that ended in absolute tragedy and resulted in nothing particularly good. Yet somehow, we're at the brink again, debating U.S. intervention in Ukraine which is facing another incursion into its territory by Russia. And the episode is exposing a story that we've been getting wrong for a while now: We've somehow convinced ourselves that it's conservatives who are the warmongers and liberals who love peace.

It's because of how our parties have shifted on the issue. During my time in the military, it was obvious that most people considered themselves conservative. What that meant, however, wasn't quite so clear. We didn't exactly poll the forces on their interpretation of new conservative goalposts like abortion or gun rights (though it was clear how most felt about the latter), but the consensus was that liberal equals bad. It wasn't just a hangover from Newt Gingrich's successful effort in the 1990s to turn the word liberal into a profanity; being Republican became synonymous with being pro-war, with the empty platitude "I support the troops."

Our history tells a different story. If we consider the major wars of the 20th century—World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—America entered each under the presidencies of Democrats. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK all led America into major wars resulting in the combat deaths of 426,079 Americans. That's 63.9 percent of all U.S. combat deaths ever.

The Democratic Party via FDR was also responsible for the GI Bill, a landmark piece of legislation that resulted in college educations for veterans, VA-backed home loans, and more, that played a large role in creating the middle class in this country. FDR supported the troops.

Of course, Republicans haven't avoided war. George H. W. Bush intervened during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, but he was lambasted for being weak and even referred to as a "wimp president" by The Harvard Crimson. And while Reagan undertook minor incursions such as the invasion of Grenada as well as all sorts of illegal activities for which Colonel North paid the price, when we think of the greatest generation, or our parents' generation, we think about the big ones—World War II, Vietnam. These are the wars we remember. We seem to have memory-holed the fact that they were started by Democrats.

There was a time when we were less forgetful—as recently as the late 1990s, when George W. Bush ran for President. One of Bush's major campaign promises was that he would not engage in nation building like his predecessor Bill Clinton (a Democrat) had done. And Bush received relatively no flak from conservatives for what one might call this anti-war stance. But the hawkish crowd in D.C. was clearly not thrilled, and unfortunately for us all, his position did not hold.

But the shift really got underway after 9/11, and not just in the way things change when a major world event happens. There was a big shift in how we think about nation building, security, and domestic surveillance. Phrases like "we have to fight them there so we don't fight them here" started getting bandied about, and people started voluntarily joining the military at rates we've never witnessed. Somehow, deploying to Afghanistan and (incredibly) even Iraq became synonymous with conservatism and even patriotism. To criticize the wars was tantamount to criticizing the troops.

US Weapons Shipment
Employees unload a plane with a new US security assistance provided to Ukraine, at Kyiv's airport. SERGEI SUPINSKY/Getty Images

That's how we got to the point where we think about Republicans as being the warmongers—because it's what they became. But this was a betrayal of what the conservative attitude towards war should be. War should be guided by the principle of "only if we must, and only for our home." After all, it's a conservative impulse to avoid meddling with other people's business, especially other countries' business.

Few Republicans over the last 40 years have been governed by these conservative principles. Frankly, I can't recall the last time the neoconservative Republicans did anything approaching conservative.

People say there's a fight for the soul of the GOP between Trump and the establishment. But that's a canard. The fight is really between conservative populists, who dominated the party for years and embody true conservatism, vs. neocon hawks who, despite all the polarizing rhetoric, are comfortably in line with their hawkish brethren in the Democratic Party.

Don't believe me? I know I wasn't the only person watching in disbelief when earlier this month, liberal politicians lined up to shake the hand of former Vice President Dick Cheney, a man many of them called a war criminal. Many of these Democrats' careers were launched with promises to find out what happened in Iraq and hold Cheney et al accountable.

So why are Democrats, who started most of our wars and are today on the hawk's warpath again, seen as weak on or anti-war? Why are Republicans, who may have started our more recent wars but have done less to take care of veterans than we should expect, considered the pro-war, pro-patriotism, pro-troop party?

It doesn't make sense, until you realize that the Democrats aren't the liberal party and the Republicans aren't the conservative party. Because political parties are rarely an accurate reflection of their underlying rhetoric or public perception. Quite often, they're just the opposite.

I consider it to be one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century that people decided to organize themselves around political parties and D.C. celebrities rather than the principles most of us share—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And let's add one more: Believe in principles, not parties.

Dan Hollaway is a veteran of the 82nd Airborne and holds a Master's in Homeland Security from Penn State University. He is the host of Drinkin' Bros Podcast and American Party Podcast.

The views in this article are the writer's own.