Would Edmund Burke have opposed the war in Iraq?
Edmund Burke, the 19th century British statesman and writer, is something of a patron saint to conservative intellectuals- the same people who spent countless hours arguing about whether the war was a good idea, the same people who largely decided that it was. So I was quite surprised to realize that I’ve never heard this question asked before.
Burke’s most celebrated book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, put forward the most basic conservative idea- that human institutions have evolved as they have for good reasons, and even seemingly unjust and arbitrary institutions should be changed gradually rather than completely overthrown. It is not obvious why overthrowing a government and trying to rebuild a country from the ground up is a better idea in the Iraq of 2003 than it was in the France of 1789. There are arguments to be made, of course, for why this time is different; but, by and large, they were not made. The problem was ignored.
Less famously, Burke was a leading anti-imperialist of his time, advocating a lighter hand in Ireland and India, and supporting the American revolutionaries. He was not a man to easily support the occupation of another nation.
This is the problem with having dead heroes. When they would agree with you, you take comfort in the fact and proclaim it. But when their condemnation should ring loud and clear, we do our best to silence their nagging voice. When people we claim to respect cannot speak with their own voice, we must remember their words, whether they are convenient for us or not. This sort of intellectual honesty, practiced widely, could have made for some very different recent history.