"It's touching that you're so concerned about the military in Iraq," a reader in
Wyoming e-mails in response to one of my columns on the war. "But I have a
suspicion you're a phony. So tell me, what's your combat record? Ever serve?"
You can expect a fair amount of that from the antiwar crowd if, like me, you
support the war but have never seen combat yourself. That makes you a "chicken
hawk" one of those, as Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, defending John
Kerry from his critics, put it during the 2004 presidential campaign, who
"shriek like a hawk, but have the backbone of a chicken." Kerry himself liked to
play that card. "I'd like to know what it is Republicans who didn't serve in
Vietnam have against those of us who did," he would sniff, casting himself as
the victim of unmanly hypocrites who never wore the uniform, yet had the gall to
criticize him, a decorated veteran, for his stance on the war.
"Chicken hawk" isn't an argument. It is a slur and a dishonest and incoherent
slur at that. 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. After all, US foreign
policy would likely be more hawkish, not less, if decisions about war and peace
were left up to those who have been in the armed forces. Soldiers and
ex-soldiers tend to be politically conservative, hard-nosed about national
security, and confident that American arms make the world safer and freer. On
the question of Iraq stay-the-course or bring-the-troops-home? I would be
willing to trust their judgment. Would Cindy Sheehan and Howard Dean?
The cry of "chicken hawk" is dishonest for another reason: It is never aimed at
those who oppose military action. But there is no difference, in terms of the
background and judgment required, between deciding to go to war and deciding not
to. If only those who served in uniform during wartime have the moral standing
and experience to back a war, then only they have the moral standing and
experience to oppose a war. Those who mock the views of "chicken hawks" ought to
be just as dismissive of "chicken doves."
In any case, the whole premise of the "chicken hawk" attack that military
experience is a prerequisite for making sound pronouncements on foreign policy
is illogical and ahistorical.
"There is no evidence that generals as a class make wiser national security
policymakers than civilians," notes Eliot A. Cohen, a leading scholar of
military and strategic affairs at Johns Hopkins University. "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. Whose judgment looks better?"
Some combat veterans display great sagacity when it comes to matters of state
and strategy. Some display none at all. 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. Who proved more farsighted during the terrible years of the Civil War
the military man who was hypercautious about sending men into battle, or the
"chicken hawk" president who pressed aggressively for military action that he
himself had never experienced?
The founders of the American republic were unambiguous in rejecting any hint of
military supremacy. Under the Constitution, military leaders take their orders
from civilian leaders, who are subject in turn to the judgment of ordinary
voters. Those who wear the uniform in wartime are entitled to their countrymen's
esteem and lasting gratitude. But for well over two centuries, Americans have
insisted that when it comes to the debating and shaping of security and defense
policy, soldiers and veterans get no more of a say than anyone else.
You don't need medical training to express an opinion on health care
legislation. You don't have to be a police officer to comment on matters of law
and order. You don't have to be a parent or a teacher or a graduate to be heard
on the educational controversies of the day. You don't have to be a journalist
to comment on this or any other column.
And whether you have fought for your country or never had that honor, you have
the right every citizen has to weigh in on questions of war and peace. Those who
cackle "Chicken hawk!" are not making an argument. They are merely trying to
stifle one, and deserve to be ignored.