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April 30, 2006

Talking About Chickenhawks

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

After being treated to the strange spectacle of two right-wing bloggers (including one who should know better) calling out Amanda Marcotte for not going to Afghanistan, I think it's important to be clear about how this "chickenhawk" criticism actually works. 

I've never thought the whole point of the thing was to criticize war supporters for lacking the physical courage to put their own lives on the line.  There's actually something very sensible about wanting to avoid situations where you could get killed.  The point is that they don't think enough about the lives of other people to apply this good sense to them.

There's plenty of good reasons why you might be in favor of a war, but choose not to fight in it.  If you're doing AIDS research or something of similarly awesome value to humanity, keep doing that and don't go to war.  If you're disabled or elderly, no obligation falls on you.  And if we already have all the soldiers we need, there's no reason for you to go.  There are probably a couple other reasons that I haven't thought of yet.  But the selfish reason that the costs will fall on somebody else doesn't count.   

In all the US military activities I've supported -- Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan -- there were good reasons for me not to go.  We had plenty of trained personnel for these wars.  But if it had turned out, for some reason, that America needed untrained, scrawny, too-wimpy-for-tackle-football guys like me to save hundreds of thousands of Bosnians from genocide, things might have been different.  If I had been needed, and if I had known how carefully the Bosnian intervention would be conducted (zero combat fatalities) I'm pretty sure I would've signed up. 

It seems to me that many supporters of the Iraq War are basically in that situation. Most people, probably including most war supporters, aren't curing deadly diseases or anything like that.  (Having a family isn't enough of a reason not to go -- the government regularly sends parents to war, away from their spouses and children.)  Lots of war supporters have the necessary physical capacity.  And we need more troops, as stop-loss policies, the deployment of National Guardsmen, and Colin Powell will confirm. 

War opponents often put the emphasis on the accusing side of the chickenhawk conditional: "If you think this war is such a great idea, why don't you sign up?"  Personally, I think it works better the other way around -- "If you're not willing to sign up for this war, why do you think it's such a great idea?"  Deep inside, all of us know what a shitty deal going off to fight in a war is.  This isn't cowardice, it's knowledge.  It's why we should be reluctant to send people off to war, why we should praise careful leaders who hold casualties to a minimum, and why we are so unwilling to sign up for military duty ourselves.  Most war supporters have this knowledge -- it's why they don't go.  My concern is that they don't apply their gut-level knowledge of the price of war when they decide to send others. 

April 30, 2006 in Foreign Policy | Permalink

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There's plenty of good reasons why you might be in favor of a war, but choose not to fight in it. If you're doing AIDS research or something of similarly awesome value to humanity, keep doing that and don't go to war.

Nope. Not good enough. You want a war, go fight it yourself. If you're doing something so important that you shouldn't go fight, then that means the war isn't really the priority you're trying to make it sound like.

Most war supporters have this knowledge -- it's why they don't go.

Most of those so far identified as Chickenhawks don't have this knowledge - at least not in the way you think. They know that fighting in a war is a shitty deal for themselves. Ask them, though, and you will get a hundred reasons why it's so good for those other people they want to go and fight for them.

People who are curing AIDS or cancer or something are generally intelligent enough to understand that war is a terrible way to settle disputes. It's an especially terrible way to try and make your country "safe." These chickenhawks are full of Tom Clancy novels and Cheetos. Their lives are so devoid of purpose that they are glomming onto this war thing and patriotism in order to make themselves feel like they are part of something big, something important. Yet they are so selfish, self-centered and cowardly that they are content to live - and die - vicariously through those for whom the words "honor" and "patriotism" are more than just epithets to spit casually across the internet.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 30, 2006 8:59:58 PM

Neil, you should know better than to fall into this kind of fallacious thinking. We live in a representative democracy. As such, there's nothing wrong with supporting policies in which we don't personally participate. If you do, indeed, thinks it's immoral to support a policy without personally participating in the execution of that policy, then by all means criticize the rest of us. But in a representative democracy -- and short of being an anarchist -- that's pretty much impossible.

In any event, the criticism I made jumped off from Atrios' suggestion that supporters of the war ought to serve, either in the military or in a civilian support capacity. If he truly believes that, then I see no reason why he ought not go right straight to Afghanistan. I mean, if he's being consistent.

Amanda tells me she did not support the invasion of Afghanistan, for which I will take her word. I would speculate that she supports *some* military action in our "war on terror", though, so her aforementioned criticism leaves her obligated to join up. Unless she thinks she can support a policy without actually participating in it.

If proponents of the chickenhawk-argument either serve in the military, serve in a support role or will do so as soon as they advocate military action action, so be it. It's still a fallacious argument, but at least they're sincere about it. But if not, then they are necessarily either (a) must never support a military action, or (b) are disingenuous.

At the end of the day, this is merely a rhetorical bludgeon. They don't mean it. It's just an attempt to shift the debate away from ideas and to the person. You may note, for example, that my two co-bloggers -- who have military experiece of the "trigger-pulling" actual combat type -- support the wars, but they are not given deference by critics of the war. That's because it's the merit of the ideas that matter, and not the experience of the person who advocates a particular policy.

Posted by: Jon Henke | Apr 30, 2006 9:31:20 PM

Neil, there are really no good excuses for granting oneself a war exemption except one: being a true member of a pacifist religion - and many of those have served in non-militant positions. In WWII, virtually all volunteered or were called and went - including some very privileged or important people.

I've had mixed emotions about an all-volunteer military for some time because the 'smart' and 'well-connected' always have better alternatives, yet their families can cheer for war. So I'm a national service guy - military or civilian, mandatory.

And the scrawny, too-wimpy-for-tackle-football thing won't work. Ask Markos Moulitsas (hehehe).

Either a war is worth sending our best and brightest, or we shouldn't be sending anyone.

"If you're not willing to sign up for this war, why do you think it's such a great idea?"

Yeah, that's a good statement of the challenge. But the bigger challenge is 'Mr. President (or Senator, or Congressperson), when are your children leaving for the xxxx war that you have supported?'.

BTW, a significant percentage of those fighting in Iraq are not US citizens, but 'illegal' immigrants or children of those immigrants. Yeah, those that the rightists want to send back to their countries or put them in prison as felons. This is just EVIL.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 30, 2006 9:39:28 PM

And if we already have all the soldiers we need, there's no reason for you to go.

Let me "me too" this.

If the armed forces are in great shape, anyone who has an argument about how to use them is perfectly free to make it. It's, uh, democracy or something.

If you're complaining about the way your garbage gets collected you don't get grief for not having the balls to be a garbageman. (I concede that being a garbageman does not have the neato fantasy machismo of soldiering.)

That said, the chickenhawk label is so deliciously fun to wind the unsophisticated up with that it makes people go loopy and do this.

Posted by: Righteous Bubba | Apr 30, 2006 9:39:51 PM

It's not so much that so many of the chickenhawks on the right are unwilling to fight. It's that they're unwilling to make ANY sacrifice, or ask any of the readers to make any sacrifice. Not only will they not fight, they'll support a repeal of the estate tax, they'll oppose raising CAFE standards, etc. They oppose any substantive show of support, so long as they can symbolically show their support. They not only want others to fight their war, they want to make sure that the only suffering they feel is from lifting the extra page or two in their newspaper dedicated to stories about the war. Fortunately, the media has remedied that by cutting back their coverage.

Posted by: Vladi G | Apr 30, 2006 9:41:15 PM

"If he truly believes that, then I see no reason why he ought not go right straight to Afghanistan."

Mr. Henke, as I understand it, there's no way that anyone can sign up for the army and be guaranteed that they would be deployed to any particular area (i.e. Afghanistan or Tsunami Relief). Most likely, anyone who signs up for military service will be sent to Iraq. Why should anyone who doesn't support the war in Iraq, sign up for military service and be sent to Iraq? If someone has information to prove me wrong, please provide it.

Mr. Henke, if you support the war in Iraq, and are reasonably able to do so, you should go there, and stop making absurd challenges to people who rightly feel that the war has been a disaster and that our troops should be redeployed as soon as reasonably possible.

Posted by: Alan | Apr 30, 2006 9:51:09 PM

Jon: there's nothing wrong with supporting policies in which we don't personally participate.

I regret that you don't see the difference between paving roads, building schools, teaching kids on the one hand, and killing people - including children, destroying homes and businesses on the other.

War is not government business as usual. That is why our founders conferred war-declaring power on the Congress, not on the Executive (although that has been obscured for some time). They saw first hand what King George III (a very mind-sick man) could do.

Participating in a war is not just some time doing something other than your personal wishes. It is a emotions and personality-altering thing that often results in a broken life, and all too often a broken body - or most tragically, no life at all for your family to love and protect.

Only when citizens realize that war really is different than other government actions, and the human costs are great but not predictable in nature can we have sane national decision-making on war. Everyone is responsible, and if decided upon, the war should fall equally on a very large slice of the people.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 30, 2006 9:55:29 PM

Mr. Henke, as I understand it, there's no way that anyone can sign up for the army and be guaranteed that they would be deployed to any particular area
Again, as Atrios himself noted, "there are still numerous civilian opportunities available to them" in Afghanistan.

Before we take this any farther, explain to me why you are willing to let other people fight, serve and die in Afghanistan, but not yourself? Under our system of government, I find nothing particularly objectionable about taking such a position, but since you seem to find it objection in re:Iraq, I'd really like to know why you weren't fighting/serving in some capacity in every military action that you've supported?

Posted by: Jon Henke | Apr 30, 2006 10:07:02 PM

there's nothing wrong with supporting policies in which we don't personally participate.

Agreed. And I gave some of the reasons why, above. (Many commenters, as you see, think even those reasons aren't sufficient.) The trouble is that in many current cases, these reasons are absent. If you have some other reasons to add, state them. Your comment leaves me wondering whether you read my post -- above, I explain why one is not necessarily obligated to participate in policies that one supports.

If you think something is a sufficiently significant goal that it's worth risking other people's lives for, but not your own life, you should give some reason why you're different.

This isn't a rhetorical bludgeon -- I mean absolutely everything I've written above, and I'm uncertain why you think otherwise.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 30, 2006 10:09:15 PM

I regret that you don't see the difference between paving roads, building schools, teaching kids on the one hand, and killing people - including children, destroying homes and businesses on the other.

Hmm, all seem to be important functions of government, with teaching children being particularly scary.

Anyway, given that the situation is not as you would have it (some sort of equal participation in all acts of war) are those who are in favour of one war or another able, in your view, to advance an argument without lacing up their army boots?

Posted by: Righteous Bubba | Apr 30, 2006 10:16:46 PM

After being treated to the strange spectacle of two right-wing bloggers (including one who should know better) calling out Amanda Marcotte for not volunteering for military duty, I think it's important to be clear about how this "chickenhawk" criticism actually works....

I think perhaps you'd better get your facts straight to start with. I didn't call her out because of a lack of military service. I said specifically "Do tell us, Amanda... why is it that you personally never offered your services in a civilian role in Afghanistan?"

look closely and you may notice the word civilian. I know that's how she wants to spend all of this but the fact of the matter is that she had nonmilitary options to back up her words about her supporting our actions in Afghanistan. Then she didn't take advantage of them by her own lights means sheer really didn't support them.

else, what we have here, is a glaring Liberal double standard. No surprise, since that happens each time a Liberal opens his mouth.

Posted by: Bithead | Apr 30, 2006 10:18:31 PM

Heh. The reason the chickenhawk argument is so strong is that it applies to every level of hawks - from the 'warbloggers' to the Vice President. The chickenhawks constantly bitch about how they are on the troops side, and about how the war opponents hate america, freedom, applie pie. etc. They talk up how great things are going. They obsess about how evil our foes must be. But despite all that they never sign up. Never-ever.

I mean the thing about the chickenhawks, they're all bluster. Not only do they think the war is good idea, they've usually got all this faux-millitary terminology and weapon obsession thing going.

Posted by: Sandals | Apr 30, 2006 10:19:27 PM

Heh. Doesn't Amanda already have a government job?

You arn't a chickenhawk if you support a war and don't sign up. Chickenhawks are perenially pro-war. They are hawks. "The war in Afghanistan is probably, on-balance, a good thing, or it would have been if BushAdmin wasn't so idiotically focused on Iraq" is NOT Hawkery. But it is a pretty common liberal position.

Posted by: Sandals | Apr 30, 2006 10:27:26 PM

Fair enough, Bithead. The difference didn't occur to me, and I'll change the post. I don't see how this really affects anybody's argument, though.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 30, 2006 10:28:02 PM

"Before we take this any farther, explain to me why you are willing to let other people fight, serve and die in Afghanistan, but not yourself?"

I can't speak for anyone except myself, but as someone who is short, a bit overweight, and not particularly aggressive about stuff, I can say with only some doubt that had I been needed during the war in Afghanistan, the conflict in Bosnia (we're only talking hypothetically here, because I was only 11 at the time), WWII, or WWI, I would have nobly been willing to give my life for a righteous cause such as those, or at least I hope I would have. As I understood it, when the war in Afghanistan was being launched, we had no shortage of troops to go there. Thus, I did not feel an urge to drop out of college and sign up, nor did I expect anyone else to. At the time, the all volunteer military seemed sufficient, and it was, or should have been at least, had our leaders finished the job the right way.

As for suggesting that people take civilian jobs in Afghanistan, well, when we start hearing that there's an urgent shortage of civilian workers there, then you can send an email to folks like Atrios. Also, I think most of those jobs go to people who are already in the civil service. In any case, I think discussions about civilian jobs are really secondary to the discussion at hand which concerns why you and your buddies are too chicken to join the army and head off to Iraq to serve in your dear leader's grand adventure.

Posted by: Alan | Apr 30, 2006 10:29:03 PM

I'm sure you do mean it, but as the "chickenhawk" argument is used by, e.g., Atrios and Marcotte, it is a personal attack -- an ad hominem. As a QandO commenter and former Navy servicemember said:

My only comment on the Chickenhawk meme is that I didn’t notice this fierce personal criticism from the left toward the last administration when people with no military service were calling the shots and sending our young men and women into action. This inconsistency is the reason I can’t take it seriously when I hear these people crying "Chickenhawk". It is a lack-of-point; nothing more than fuel on the fire of partisanship, without solving a thing.

Anybody on the left ought to be embarassed for people like Marcotte and Atrios. There are legitimate arguments to be made about the way we will use our military in the "War on Terror". But this hypocritical ad hominem crap is not only stupid on its face, but it also distracts from any real issues that some on the left might be trying to make.


It would be one thing if I thought success or failure desperately depended upon my joining the military. The chickenhawk argument would be legitimate if my participation were marginally necessary. As it stands, we have a military sufficient to conduct the war. In fact, while I believe we could have used more troops in Iraq for a brief period after the start of the conflict, I have never believed that "more troops" would solve any problems. In fact, I've been arguing for serious drawdowns in troops levels for quite some time. I've also argued for drawing the remaining troops largely back into the desert and out of sight of the Iraqi population centers. All that to say that, yeah, I believe we have all the soldiers we need. John McCain can harumph about as he pleases, but I've not found him convincing. In fact, I believe he's exactly wrong on the path forward.

I digress.

You cited reasons not to participate in a war you support, but age and disability were the only ones that directly spoke to your rationale for why proponents of a war should participate. Personal endeavours, and the belief that we already "have enough soldiers" don't address the question of "If you're not willing to sign up for this war, why do you think it's such a great idea?" Sure, they might cite their own importance or lack of importance, but the question you asked was "why do you think it's such a great idea"...for other people?

For what it's worth, though different in degree, conducting war is not different in principle from any other government policy. But if "danger" is the difference, then why do you not sign up for police or firefighting duty? Because, in a representative democracy, policies are voted upon and enacted by agents. I'd love to see a form of government wherein people were obligated to pay the costs of their own choices -- a "user fee government" -- but we don't have it.

Posted by: Jon Henke | Apr 30, 2006 10:30:37 PM

What was especially repulsive to me is that the Captain argued that he can't serve because he has a family that needs him. I went to Camp Casey and saw what happens to people who have to give up a family member to war. Don't you fucking tell me that your family needs you any more than those parents there need to have their kids still alive. On a visceral, human level, these warbloggers inability to grasp that this isn't a game, that every person who dies in Iraq while they sit behind a computer rooting for the war is a human being with a family and a life, well, it's simply disgusting.

Regardless, as usual the wingnuts who hate me are beating on StrawAmanda. Real Amanda opposed the invasion of Afghanistan because Real Amanda, who turned down an officership in the Army a little over a year before the invasion because she couldn't morally bring herself to ever be in a position to kill another person, couldn't bring herself to support sending others in her stead.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Apr 30, 2006 10:38:15 PM

So you're a pacifist, Amanda? If you couldn't bring yourself to send other people to do something that you could never do, pacifism is the only option you have. You would have to oppose WWI, WWII, etc.

I mean, I respect the principled stand of the people -- the Amish, for example -- who live that out, but I don't see a whole lot of people who genuinely take that position.

Posted by: Jon Henke | Apr 30, 2006 10:42:54 PM

I've never thought the whole point of the thing was to criticize war supporters for lacking the physical courage to put their own lives on the line. There's actually something very sensible about wanting to avoid situations where you could get killed. The point is that they don't think enough about the lives of other people to apply this good sense to them.

I'm not sure exactly what point you are trying to make here, but surely many of these war supporters do in fact lack the physical courage to put their lives on the line. Of course, there is a distinction between foolhardiness and courage. If some pundit sincerely thinks a fight is foolish, then his unwillingness to participate is fully justified. But if that pundit sincerely believes, by his own lights, that a given fight is essential for the security of the country, and yet is not willing to assume an equal share of the physical risk, then I would say, yes, he is deficient in physical courage.

When you say "the point is that they don't think enough about the lives of other people to apply this good sense to them", you are only correctly describing those for whom not fighting is just good sense. If the war supporter in question thinks the fight is unnecessary, and good sense recommends staying out of it, then helping to send others off to the fight makes him a scoundrel, not a coward. But if he sincerely believes that the fight is necessary, and that good sense in fact rcommends joining it, then he is a coward for shirking what his own conscience tells him is his obligation.

Some would argue, of course, that in the matter of war, we all have different roles to play, and have different obligations. Some are charged with making policy, and arguing on it's behalf. Others are charged with carrying it out in the field. But personally, I was never able to internalize such a belief in a wartime caste system - a belief that was prevalent among many of my friends in college. It's just too different from the sort of code by which I was raised. War is not just any "government policy." War is special. It's blood and guts and pain and terror and life and death. A real man fights his own fights, and doesn't send others off to do it for him. If he thinks a fight is worth having, he stands up and assumes his share of the fearsome sacrifice. And if he is not willing to accept that burden personally, then he is a cad for helping to impose it upon others. One shouldn't contibute polemics on behalf of deadly ventures from which one exempts himself.

Peter Beinart, for example, looks like a perfectly healthy and capable young man to me. Either he should join the fight that he has helped send other young men to conduct, or he should stop working to send them there. I note that Beinart has changed his tune a bit where Iran is concerned. But he has called the fight against "Islamofascism" the challenge of a generation. So by what reason does he assign himself the task of watching this fight from the New Republic offices?

The problem is that all these bright and privileged young warhawk pundits and policy wonks seem to think they are needed here at home to, as you say, perform some task of "awesome value to humanity." Every two-bit scribbler imagines he is the "pen of the revolution" or something. Or at least that's what they must tell themselves. Otherwise, I don't know how they can live with the shame.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 30, 2006 10:53:53 PM

Jon, I'm amused by your comments about a 'user fee government' -- I suppose it's the sort of idea that delights a libertarian, but doesn't have any special appeal to a utilitarian like me. Sure, it may make resource use more efficient, but then there's distributive issues, and the inefficiency of setting up all those billing operations...

age and disability were the only ones that directly spoke to your rationale for why proponents of a war should participate

Well, I think you sort of accepted the force of the "there's enough people already" reason when you talked about marginal necessity of additional soldiers. In these cases, most war supporters should at least have the conditional intention to sign up if it turns out that we don't have enough soldiers. But if we have enough, there's no need for additional soldiers, and no obligation to sign up. I'm a little surprised that you don't think more soldiers are necessary, but we can save that disagreement for another day. In any case, it at least has the form of a good reason for not going.

In response to you and Stephen, I didn't mean the AIDS research case to be about mere personal endeavors. It's about being able to make massive contributions to the general good in another way. Saving a hundred thousand people from genocide is a goal worth risking your own life. Saving a million people from AIDS is similarly significant. If you're one of the rare people who has a special way of saving enormous numbers of lives, it's fine for you to put that way of saving lives over the military way of saving lives.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 30, 2006 10:55:15 PM

"they'll oppose raising CAFE standards, etc."

Ah, yeah, that's the way to support the troops. Idiot.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 1, 2006 12:01:33 AM

Neil, are you a 14-year old freshman? Your arguments remind me of the last time I read fresh comp papers. Do you self-challenge anything you think, or do you just blurt it all out?

Posted by: Anonymous | May 1, 2006 12:06:47 AM

Jon: Well, maybe in Jon-world, we have all the soldiers we need.

Unfortunately, the rest of us reside in the real world. In that place, the Pentagon (and specifically, the Department of the Army), seems to think that we don't have all the soldiers we need. Otherwise, why would DoD still be using stop-loss orders, mobilizing and re-mobilizing National Guard and Reserve forces, and dipping into the Individual and Inactive Reserves? The only reason you'd be dipping into the IRR is because of manpower needs.

Look, join, don't join; I don't personally care, and I say this as someone who did my share of the fighting in '03 and '04. But claiming that you know better what the various logistical scenarios are vis-a-vis the quantity of troops needed are, and then using that as your defense is a bit specious.

However, since you're advocating for a drawdown, your position isn't as illogical as some others I've heard.

Posted by: Rafe | May 1, 2006 12:53:17 AM

All of this is interesting, but it is arguing the issue from the perspective that is most favorable to the chickenhawks.

Jon is right about some of this. It is ok to support the policies of the government which you are not personally implementing. And, at its foundation, the chickenhawk insult is not about philosophical ideals or logical arguments. It is far too easy to label us liberals "hypocrites" if there was ever a time that we supported the use of US armed forces without at least trying to be one of the soldiers involved.

The chickenhawk insult is really about the chickenhawks themselves. These are guys who are blogging - blogging! - in favor of the policies of the majority party, and calling it brave. They have denigrated all who dare to criticize them or the politicians with whom they agree, calling them un-American or terrorists and what-have-you. They have romanticized war and the American soldier while not giving a rat's ass about things like proper equipment or proper care for the injured. They have allowed the government to cut medical and retirement benefits with nary a peep about the welfare of the soldiers, but they are the quickest to claim that they "support the troops."

Above all, they have worked to make the clickety-clack of their fingers against computer keyboards sound like some sort of noble, courageous calling that is vital to the war effort. Meanwhile, their fellow citizens in the all-volunteer army they love to "support" are being held past their contractual termination dates, troops are being rotated through Iraq and Afghanistan much more often than is safe, the armed forces can't make their quotas without lowering their standards to accept anyone who is still sort-of breathing.

And so it comes down to some people getting sick of their self-righteousness, their unfounded sense of bravery, and finally telling them that if this war is so damned important, so vital to the continuation of this Republic, and if you are so damned willing to sacrifice for it, then just go over there and join the fight.

Philosophy can be fun, but that's not what this is about. Remember, this is about cowards and bullies who have gotten tired of being called chickenhawks and the 101st Fighting Keyboarders, but instead of growing up and taking away the reasons for the names, have decided that they need to try and reverse it. Amanda and Duncan don't need to be pacifists in order to make fun of these people, and neither do I.

Hey chickenhawks, why don't you grow a pair and join the army if this "war on terra" so important?

Posted by: Stephen | May 1, 2006 1:24:16 AM

Ah, yeah, that's the way to support the troops. Idiot.

Right, because the fact that we're dependent on oil from that region has nothing to do with why we're there, idiot.

Posted by: Vladi G | May 1, 2006 1:39:25 AM

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