Monday, July 24, 2006


Jeff Jacoby had a generally good column yesterday on the incoherence of the term "chickenhawk."

"Chicken hawk" isn't an argument. It is a slur -- a dishonest and incoherent slur. It is dishonest because those who invoke it don't really mean what they imply -- that only those with combat experience have the moral authority or the necessary understanding to advocate military force.

He's right. Lack of combat or military experience does not somehow disqualify someone from rendering judgments on the use of military force. If it did, Clinton -- or Reagan, for that matter -- had no business being president.

But Jacoby ignores the larger point behind the use of terms like "Chickenhawk": that it's easy to order people into harm's way when you and yours aren't risking anything yourselves. The amount of military power at the president's disposal can feel pretty intoxicating -- unless you're versed in the gory details of its application. There is a very real long-term problem if more and more decisionmakers have no personal experience with the military organization they are deploying.

That does not justify terms like "Chickenhawk", but the larger point is a legitimate part of the debate over how our military gets used, and how the military fills its ranks.

Jacoby also messes up his first -- albeit minor -- point:

After all, US foreign policy would be more hawkish, not less, if decisions about war and peace were left up to members of the armed forces. Soldiers tend to be politically conservative, hard-nosed about national security, and confident that American arms make the world safer and freer.

I'd be pretty willing to bet money against him on that. Soldiers are more conservative, true. But they're also more realistic -- and thus more cautious -- about the use of force.

Heck, Jacoby disproves his own point with two examples in the same column:

George C. Marshall, our greatest soldier-statesman after George Washington, opposed shipping arms to Britain in 1940. His boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with nary a day in uniform, thought otherwise....

General George B. McLellan had a distinguished military career, eventually rising to general in chief of the Union armies; Abraham Lincoln served but a few weeks in a militia unit that saw no action. Whose wisdom better served the nation -- the military man who was hypercautious about sending men into battle, or the "chicken hawk" president who pressed aggressively for military action?

In both cases, it was the military man preaching caution -- and the civilian pushing for more aggressive action. Another example would be the Joint Chiefs during the first Gulf War, who counseled going in massively or not at all.

I strongly support civilian control over the military, and thus agree with Jacoby's main point. But his understanding of the military mindset is limited. That's understandable for someone who never served, but perhaps he should be more careful with his generalizations -- especially when he proves them wrong with his own words.

P.S.: Every time I hear the word "Chickenhawk", it makes me want to go re-read the excellent book by the same name, the memoir of a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. If you want a real feel for what it was like to be such a pilot -- and the physical and emotional toll it took -- this is the book for you. My copy has been torn, mutilated and dropped in a lake -- and I still re-read it regularly.

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Blogger David said...

An example of a military man who was less cautious than his civilian superiors was of course Gen. MacArthur.

I do agree that military men and women do have a better understanding of the reality of combat than civilians do, but we have institutionalized civilian control over military policy in this country. Personally, I'm thrilled about that. Now, I would say that civilian policymakers ignore military advice at their own peril, but the strategic decisions are theirs to make or mess up.

7/25/2006 12:11 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

And Patton. There are plenty of exceptions to any rule one cares to write about military men.

7/25/2006 1:37 PM  

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