Chicken Hawks II
I was going to ignore the idiotic rantings of Frank Lautenberg on the Senate floor yesterday, since they essentially refute themselves. Plus, I’ve discussed the issue before (here and here and, less directly, here).
Matt Yglesias has an attempt at a more nuanced version of this issue, though, creating a chicken hawk taxonomy:
First you’ve got the straw-man chickenhawk. This would be the theory that it is wrong to advocate a war if you have never served either in the military or perhaps in an actual war. This is a very silly position to have. Among other things, since most Americans have never been in the military (just combine the people who are currently over 18 with the women who were not allowed to serve back when they were young enough and you have an awfully large slice of the population) it would follow from this that the country may never fight a war.
Then you’ve got the present-day chickenhawk. This would be an able-bodied person who is of roughly military age (not sure exactly what this is — 17 or 18 to something between 25 and 30 I guess) and who favors some war, but declined to volunteer to fight in it. Now there are various degrees of chickenhawkery here, according to how you would behave under alternate scenarios, to which I think it’s appropriate to have different responses. The most important question is probably this. Suppose the president said to you, “Sure Citizen X, I’d be happy to invade Nation Y, but if and only if you volunteer for service in the conflict.”
Then you’ve got your “Vietnam-era chickenhawks.” These are people who, during an era of conscription, avoided military service in a war they nonetheless supported. There is, of course, a class edge to this. Obtaining educational deferments and National Guard slots was much easier to do if you were relatively well off. Thus, the position of your average campus chickenhawk (see, e.g., Cheney, Dick) was that we ought to fight this war, and, indeed, people ought to be coerced into fighting this war, but my well-born friends and I ought not to be coerced and, indeed, ought not to fight at all. I think it’s obvious what’s morally problematic about this stance. Does it disqualify you from future political service all on its own? No, but it speaks to character in a powerful way.
I agree that the straw man is silly, so let’s just dismiss that argument out of hand.
The “present day” category is made particularly interesting by the fact that we have a volunteer military. One could reasonably be in favor of a governmental policy and yet have no desire to join in its enforcement. One could, for example, support government restaurant inspections and yet not be willing to change careers to become a food inspector. No one argues that that’s hypocritical. “Ah,” you say, “but food inspectors don’t risk their lives in the way that soldiers do! Straw man! Straw man!” Fair enough. Can one support putting out fires but not be willing to join the fire department? If so, does that make one a Pyro Chicken? Or, since we all know bears are in charge of preventing fires (at least in the forest) perhaps chicken-bear? Can one advocate the arrest of murderers and not go off and join the police department? I’ve never heard anyone called names for that combination. Chicken-Shepherd? I dunno.
The Vietnam argument is more compelling, I suppose, given that there was a draft. Then again, the draft predated the war and was just the natural order of things at the time. Over time, we created—wrongly in my view—a system whereby any number of people could get out of military service while others were compelled to join. Is it cowardly to think a war is worthwhile but decide to do something else–like go to school or join the Peace Corps–that the political system has decided was an acceptable alternative to military service? I suppose that depends on one’s motivations. Certainly, there are a lot of people who come to the conclusion that going to war is the right thing to do who are not particularly compatible with military service or who think they would be more valuable doing something else. (As an aside, what were the views of Bush and Cheney on the Vietnam war, anyway? Are we so sure they were hawks?)
Returning to the Lautenberg’s idiocy:
“We know who the chickenhawks are,” the New Jersey senator said on the Senate floor. “They talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersions on others, but when it was their turn to serve, they were AWOL from courage.”
Now, if anyone were questioning Kerry’s service in Vietnam, I suppose that would be a fair response, even though it’s still an ad hominem. (One can simultaneously be a coward and still point out that someone else who claims to be a hero actually wasn’t. That would open the accuser up to ridicule but not necessarily invalidate the charge.) But does the fact that Kerry served in Vietnam mean that he’s innoculated from any criticism on national security policy making judgment from non-veterans? If so, why?
Dick Cheney and John Kerry both have fairly long records on defense matters in their lives as politicians. Certainly, the fact that Kerry has been in harm’s way gives him some perspective that Cheney lacks. But I’d argue that Congressman Cheney’s votes on defense matters were better than Senator Kerry’s. SecDef Cheney was right on the Gulf War; Senator Kerry was wrong. Vice President Cheney’s vision on the war on terrorism and the Iraq War are certainly more coherent than Senator Kerry’s; it’s way too early to pass judgment on who got it closer to right. Regardless, these wars are at the center of the re-election debate. The idea that Kerry is supposed to be immune from criticism because he went to Vietnam 30-odd years ago is just nuts.