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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. To extend the “chickenhawk” taxonomy, there are men like me who were eligible for the draft in the 60’s, but were against the Vietnam war and didn’t go, for whatever reason, and yet now are fully in favor of the War on Terror. To call someone like me a chickenhawk is to say that failure to enthuse about one war forever debars one from supporting any war in the future. And the Kerryites are supposed to be so “nuanced”! Even if I didn’t think I was wrong about Vietnam, which I now do, I should still be able to distinguish a mishandled, half-hearted war whose effect was to support the continuation of French colonial policies in Indochina from a war to exterminate Islamic fundamentalist vermin who directly attacked America.

  2. Gerry Owen says:

    So if you didn’t serve, and you support the war, you are a chicken hawk. By extesion, if you didn’t serve, and oppose the war, are you just plain Chicken?

  3. Hal says:

    You guys are so clever.

  4. Boyd says:

    While it may be a joke at your collective expense, Hal, it certainly emphasizes that in a Republic, all citizens have equal say in the matter, regardless of their military service, or lack thereof.

    War is a political entity. The military is merely the tool by which it is implemented.

    And for reference, this is from a retired Navy Chief, who has no more say about it than you.

  5. Ric Locke says:


    Thirty years ago, Kerry was a fair-to-good junior officer and Bush was a fair-to-good jet pilot. So what? Thirty years ago I was a fair-to-good photo interpreter. I got to see pictures of most of Viet Nam. Maybe I should run for President. There’s something to be said for the overall view.


  6. Fred Boness says:

    Kerry’s war experience gave him a tactical perspective on war where a president needs a strategic perspective. Kerry’s senate service means more when evaluating his strategic perspective.

  7. Don says:

    Jefferson Davis served well in the Mexican American War, with distinguish service at the battle of Buena Vista.

    Abraham Lincoln served an undistinguished tour as captain of militia during the Blackhawk Rebellion, seeing no combat.

    Historians generally rank Lincoln’s performance as commander in chief as superior to that of Davis’ when they faced off during the American Civil War. Even though at the time, Lincoln was berated and vilified unmercifully by the press of his time. Interesting how few of his critics are as honored today, but the man is.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    IMO, “Starship Troopers” was the worst movie ever made from a good book.
    Nevertheless, it got some ink for reminding us of Heinlein’s view that only veterans should have the franchise or public safety jobs.
    That was thought to be a frightening view of the future, an incipient tyranny.
    It is, ironically, the easily logical result of following the chickenhawk argument about one more small step.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    I guess I’m confused about the whole “chickenhawk” taxonomy. For example, the attacks on taking educational deferments during the Viet Nam era as somehow dishonorable. Does that mean–by analogy–that if you take an income tax deduction (say for charitable contributions) you’re not allowed to express your opinion on matters of taxation and government spending? Or that taking such a deduction is somehow dishonorable?

    Following that reasoning it sounds to me like pretty nearly everybody is going to be excluded from voicing an opinion on some subject or other. Perhaps we should start wearing tags which show the subjects on which we’re entitled to express our opinions?

  10. nobody important says:

    John Adams agonized over the fact that he was not fighting against the British, but his contibutuions and sacrifices to the cause of independence were as great, if not more so, than those who did.

  11. Sigivald says:

    Richard: I’m not so sure that Heinlein meant it as a “frightening view [of] incipient tyranny”.

    My readings of ST and the rest of Heinlein’s corpus make me think he might well have meant it, at least as a plausible way to run a Very Large Republic, if we have to have a government on that scale.

    (It’s been a while, but wasn’t non-military “service” acceptable to get the franchise, as well?)

  12. furious says:

    Touche, James! If Matt Yglesias or Frank “the Lout” Lautenberg have video of a younger GW Bush or Dick Cheney standing on the flightline at Travis AFB in the Late 60’s cheering and waving flags as the transports lifted off for Indo-China, then I’ll concede their point.

    crickets chirping…crickets chirping…

    The fact that they didn’t serve in combat in a previous war no more invalidates them as Commander-in-Chief in the current war than does John Adams not having served as a Continental render him unfit as CiC during the War of 1812, nor Woodrow Wilson not having charged up San Juan Hill the same for WWI, nor Franklin Delano not having slogged through Belleau Wood the same for WWII.

    But just for grins, I’ll concede the TigerDoves’ point that only those who served should have say over defense policy, and carry it to its logical Heinleinian conclusion that only retired or active duty/Reserve/Guard personnel should have the Franchise…

    …any doubt as to how THAT popular vote would break?


    wind blowing…wind blowing…

    I think we know the answer, seeing as it was the Democrats who tried to invalidate all those servicemen’s absentee ballots in Florida — a tactic so vile that even Joe Lieberman gagged — and who de-funded Pentagon initiatives to facilite voting at overseas military bases.


  13. JSAllison says:

    On ST for the benefit of Sigivald, if you ever wished to vote, or hold public office you had to show up at your local induction center and present yourself for service. You could list choices but the bottom line was that you’d be put to work somewhere, doing something. You could wind up doing public works type stuff, you could wind up in the military, bottom line was that you didn’t get to have a say in the goverance of the country without first demonstrating that you put the corporate good ahead of your own personal welfare. Since it was everyone’s right to join, work would be found even if it had to be made-up busywork and even if you were totally physically incapable of pretty much anything.

    I’ve also heard the point made here and there that those who receive public monies should not be allowed the vote. Else what stops anyone from voting for their own payraise? These days this seem uncomfortably close to reality (the voting for thier own payraise part).

  14. Yglesias touched on the true logic behind all these accusations: “…it would follow from this that the country may never fight a war.”

    That’s what they’re really after. Anyone who advocates war will be subject to some kind of excoriation. (Note, for instance, the way that the same voices who use the “chickenhawk” accusation also tried to discredit Pat Tillman as an idiot for enlisting and going into combat, where he died.)