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The Chickenhawk Myth By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 09, 2002


A cheap debating trick popular with those opposed to attacking Iraq is to discount the position of their opponents by pointing out that they have no combat experience. James Fallows pulls this move in a recent article when he claims that the "strongest advocates" for an attack on Iraq have not served in the military, while "military veterans" are "generally doves." The implication is that armchair generals and "chickenhawks" are eager for conflict because they won't do any fighting and hence suffer the horrors of war, which they discount or glamorize because of inexperience.

I'm not sure how convincing is Fallows' anecdotal evidence, which I can counter with some of my own. Not long ago I spoke to a meeting of the Association of the United States Army, and my hawkish remarks were met with the boisterous approval of a choir being preached to. Rather than questioning my lack of military experience, the combat veterans I spoke with were just grateful to find an academic who wasn't a knee-jerk pacifist hostile to the armed services and scornful of their experiences. Since then, every person in the military I've spoken with fully supports military action against Iraq.

Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter what this or that individual veteran or soldier happens to think. After all, the experience of combat doesn't make anybody an expert on geopolitics or the proper time and place for waging war. It just makes him an expert on the terror and horror of war, which of course, we should never trivialize or discount. But how many people old enough to vote do that? Ever since Homer's gruesome wound descriptions in the Iliad we have known that war is horrific, a time when fathers bury children and the worst--and best too, by the way — instincts of people are displayed.

In fact, the horrific "fog of war" can often skew perceptions and principle, the trees of combat's trauma obscuring the forest of long-term strategic and security demands. Certainly memories of the industrialized carnage of World War I influenced diplomacy in the thirties, with the result that Hitler's repeated violations of the Versailles Treaty were indulged and excused, until a world war and 50 million dead were needed to stop him. More recently, we in the United States, sickened by the carnage of Vietnam beamed nightly into our living rooms, ignored the Viet Cong's violations of the Paris peace agreements, abandoned an ally to the mercies of a totalitarian regime, and squandered the sacrifice of nearly 60,000 American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese.

As usual, Vietnam lurks behind the thinking of those opposed to force, or those, like Colin Powell, who are willing to use force only when success is guaranteed, "quagmires" will be avoided, and casualties will be minimized. But Vietnam doesn't prove the axiom that disaster follows when armchair generals provoke a war. The architects of Vietnam, such as John Kennedy, included numerous veterans of World War II and Korea who knew intimately what war entails. Rather, Vietnam demonstrates, among other things, that the graphic depiction of war's perennial horrors, when isolated from a clearly defined context of principle and values and strategic goals, will lead to disastrous decisions. After all, nothing in Vietnam was qualitatively more horrible than, say, the Pacific island fighting by Marines in World War II. But back then people knew clearly the principles and values that made the sacrifice not only necessary but noble.

The opposition to military force, moreover, often invokes the horrors of combat, as well as the authority of those who have experienced them, to present a false choice: between people living and people dying. But history shows that the choice is rather between some people dying now and more people dying later. Lincoln called this the "terrible arithmetic": the awful choice to kills thousands today so that tens of thousands don't die tomorrow. This is a hard decision, one no one should take lightly or without full recognition of the tragic responsibility it confers. But no matter how hard, the decision still has to be made. Obscuring the choice with the emotionalism of war's suffering doesn't help, and in the long run only leads to more dead.

Other problems follow from the privileging of combat experience in determining when to use force. For example, should we use this principle in all the decisions we collectively have to make? Are issues of, say, police brutality to be reserved for policemen and victims of police brutality? Is medical malpractice the purview only of doctors and those who have been wronged by doctors? Of course not. Our whole jury system is predicated on the opposite assumption: that ordinary citizens are capable of making decisions on complex issues with which they may not have first-hand knowledge or experience. In fact, people who do have such connections are usually booted off a jury, under the assumption that their personal experience will cloud their judgment.

More important, democracy is predicated on the ideas that not only are citizens capable of deliberating and deciding on a whole range of issues that affect the state, but that they should. The fact that they may not have direct experience of the issue does not relieve them of this responsibility. As a matter of fact, anti-democrats from Plato on have argued just the opposite: ordinary people with no first-hand training or knowledge should not be given political power to decide important issues. This power should be reserved for "experts" of various sorts, who presumably know better. Anyone familiar with the history of totalitarianism — remember the "dictatorship of the proletariat"? — in this century knows the bitter fruit of that particular prejudice.

Finally, a cornerstone of democratic freedom is civilian control of the military. The army is an instrument of the citizenry, and must defer to the political wishes of the citizens, whether or not they themselves have direct experience of war. Sometimes this control can lead to disaster, as in Vietnam. But the greater danger historically has always lain with an autonomous military that answers to no one but itself, its authority based on the soldier's intimate experience with war that the civilian lacks.

Our combat veterans should be our most respected citizens. What they have experienced in the defense of freedom should demand our collective gratitude and homage. But when it comes to making the crucial decisions that affect our country, each is just one more citizen among many others. In a time of crisis such as the present, it is the responsibility of all of us to fulfill our democratic responsibilities and take part in the decision of whether or not to go to war. We should not be deterred by ad hominem attacks that seek to obscure principle and strategic interests with a fog of emotionalism.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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