Tuesday, March 15, 2005

What is a chickenhawk?
A commenter by the name of WhisperingCampaign, whose blog you can access here, has been commenting up a storm tonight. As always, I appreciate audience contribution.

In several of his comments, he has referred to chickenhawks—as I've seen so far he's pointed that accusation at John Bolton and the bloggers at Power Line. I've also been accused of this quite regularly when I've posted at DailyKos. To understand this a bit better, I've decided to do some research.

Though it has its problems—specifically that posts are anonymous and there is no guarantee of their accuracy—I favor WikiPedia for this kind of research. A search for "chickenhawk" came up with three results. Since I'm sure he's not referring to "a homosexual man attracted to, or seeking, much younger men" or either the Red-tailed Hawk or Cooper's hawk, let's look at the more common definition in political discourse.

The entry goes into a lot of detail, but starts out by saying:

Chickenhawk is an epithet used in United States politics to criticize a politician, bureaucrat, or commentator who votes for war, supports war, commands a war, or develops war policy, but has not personally served in the military. Generally, it is not a label applied to essentially 'dovish' leaders who support defensive wars, 'humanitarian interventions,' or UN operations.
Now, as you might guess, I have serious problems with this term—and I assure you, it's not because I've never served.

The US Census Bureau estimated the US population to be 295,664,030 as of 0:39 EST 03/15/2005. Assuming that at least 50% of Americans must support a war in order for it to be justified, that would mean that approximately 150 million Americans would have to be veterans AND support the war in question to meet that criteria. Now, according to the Bureau of Veterans Affairs, the typical number of living veterans hovers somewhere around 26 million. That is about 17% of the number of veterans this country would need to justify a war, assuming that they all supported it. Effectively, this precludes the possibility of almost any military action. And what happens when you adjust for the fact that the majority of these individuals were never anywhere near combat? But let's set this aside for the moment.

The basic assumption behind the term "chickenhawk" seems off-base to me. Why is it that only veterans are qualified to assess the justifications for war? Yes, war is hell, and yes, I appreciate the fact that most who've seen combat are hesitant to support it in the future. But isn't that just a form of bias, completely neglecting any consideration of the specifics of a particular situation? Sure, veterans are the best-suited to comment on the realities of combat itself, but how much consideration does that deserve in a debate over what can be acheived by making that sacrifice?

If service in this country were compulsory, I could understand valuing the opinion of those effected much higher than those who escape—or, even worse, avoid—the draft, but that's simply not the case. Our military is entirely voluntary, and if you enlist you should expect to face the possibility of combat. This does not qualify your voice for any more volume or validity than anyone else's. There are plenty of people in this country who cannot serve for physical reasons but are highly educated and well-qualified to assess the pros and cons of a particular prospect for war. Why are their opinions unimportant in such a debate?

I might serve someday, I might not. Either way, I'll be unlikely to see combat as I'm most likely to serve in JAG or something similar. (Allow me to add that, if we find ourselves facing a draft, I intend to sign up before my number is drawn). But I've studied foreign policy quite a bit. I believe very strongly that if a threat of force has been made, this country needs to be willing to back up that threat—I similarly believe that such a threat should not be made unless that willingness already exists and should never be taken lightly. Does the fact that I supported the threat of military action regarding Iraq and following through when the conditions for avoiding war were ignored by Saddam make me a chickenhawk?

Maybe, but I don't think that means very much.


Gothamimage said...

Generally a chickenhawk is a middle age man, who conspiciously avoided service, and now speaks with a cavalier attitude about military service- the Limbaugh types, etc- it's a good term because it only bothers people who feel slightly insecure about their bravado.

It is decadent for middle age men, who would never think of serving, to speak in such a cavalier manner about war and dying- it's excusable for young people, because they are young and full of enthusiasm.

So- keep in mind, that term applies not to people your age, but to older people- and not those who support war, but avoided service- but just the most conspicuoous types- the Limbaughs- the Cheney-types, etc --- they never would do anything like Kerry did, but they live off the fugue delerium of the cul-de-sac commissars and the laptop bombadiers.

RFTR said...

I recognize and respect the fact that you see things that way, and I hope you restrict your use to the term to those situations—as you have in the comments to which I referred in this post.

Unfortunately, a great many people use the term more expansively, and that's generally what I was talking about.

Gothamimage said...

As a Yale man, you got cut people some slack- a good slur sometimes the only defense against a formidible education and you should expect people to a bit intimadted by that.

I agree that term is used loosely-everyone has their own was of defining it- similar to neocon, which has a definition that seems to expand and conract depending who is arguing what about whom.

But - to see why I chose to use that ugly slur(c-hawk)- look at Nicholas Von Hoffman's column in this weeks NY observer- he is a long time liberal- not until now did he reveal his son's status- think about how he must feel when he sees these bloodthirsty draft dodgers on TV talking tough- I felt the same way because I had friends it third ID and the 1st Cav

yet-when you read the pro-war sites, there is a total emotional disconnect about what's involved- the sheer mass slaughter that these men just experienced- so sometimes a shock word is necessary to say, "Hey , wake up!"

Irina Tsukerman said...

There's another problem with using the term "chickenhawk" even in reference to the middle aged men in power. Well, it's not really a problem, but it does raise some interesting questions: the idea of the separation between a civilian government and the military. I agree that being actually involved in combat in a different time and place might prejudice the veteran against *all* wars, even if the situation is quite different from the one in which he or she has served. Would a President's military experience really add anything valuable to his governance? Perhaps, if the President happened to be a high-ranking officer. (Such as Powell, perhaps, though not specifically him). But a relatively low-ranking veteran's point of view would most likely be very limited. Such a person may be courageous and acquainted with battleground, but how does it really relate to planning out military operations at the highest level? In other words, I don't really think the middle aged neocons' courage or lack thereof really adds or takes away from the way the plan out their operations. Moreover, one can't generalize that simply because one is a veteran, he or she would be less likely to support the war in Iraq. One's interpretation of specific situations, including one's combat experience, is very individual - and as can be seen in the politics is equally variable in the effect on his or her disposition to military operations.

RFTR said...

For more on what military service adds to a president's governing ability, see my column from the May 2004 issue of the Yale Politic.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Good points.