What Makes Someone a Chicken Hawk?

Glenn Greenwald revisits the now-tired “chickenhawk” debate by chiding Jeff Jacoby for “mis-defin[ing] the concept in order to argue against it.”

Jacoby says the left applies the slur “chickenhawk” against those, like himself, who “support a war but have never seen combat.” He cites several examples of prominent Democrats, including their most recent presidential nominee, using the concept in that manner. That’s pretty much how I’ve understood the criticism as well.

Greenwald says this is nonsense. While conceding some use the term that way, he insists the real definition is far more nuanced.

Although there is no formal definition for it, the “chicken hawk” criticism is not typically made against someone who merely (a) advocates a war but (b) will not fight in that war and/or has never fought in any war (although, admittedly, there are those who mis-use the term that way). After all, the vast majority of Americans in both political parties meet that definition. The war in Afghanistan was supported by roughly 90% of Americans, as was the first Persian Gulf War, even though only a tiny fraction of war supporters would actually fight in those wars which they advocated.

Something more than mere support for a war without fighting in it is required to earn the “chicken hawk” label. Chicken-hawkism is the belief that advocating a war from afar is a sign of personal courage and strength, and that opposing a war from afar is a sign of personal cowardice and weakness.

He cites several examples of people making variants of that argument, including Bill Kristol in this week’s Standard. (Although, in fairness to Kristol, one could argue that he’s merely claiming moral resolve in the face of a constant stream of depressing news rather than actual courage; I haven’t read through the other links sufficiently to see whether they’re making such a claim.)

This is an interesting distinction, to be sure, although it’s unclear how the coinage of a slur word to poison the well helps advance the argument (with which I’m in full agreement, by the way) that one can simultaneously believe a war that one’s country is fighting is ill advised and be a patriot. Regardless, however, it’s rather silly to claim Jacoby is advancing a straw man when, in fact, he is defining the word in the sane way as virtually everyone who uses it; indeed, Glenn Greenwald is the only known exception.

Most amusingly, Greenwald’s commentators simultaneoulsy cheer him for taking down Jacoby’s “intellectural fallacy,” so common not only to Jacoby’s writing and to evil Bush loving Repugs everywhere, while using the slur in the Jacoby-defined fashion repeatedly.

Jennifer said…

That’s the best explanation of “chickenhawk” I’ve seen to date. I would add one thing: among the class of people you describe, “chickenhawk” is particularly applicable to those who had ample opportunity to fight in war and deliberately avoided it. To name a few examples, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, and Rush Limbaugh all sought deferments during Vietnam, yet today they pratically equate themselves with soldiers. 2:47 PM

Anonymous said…

Ah, the mis-states the opponamt’s argument then aegue against the misstatment. A Republican classic. 2:47 PM

Ah, the irony of the Anonymous commenter . . .

steve_e said…

Ugh, more strawmen for these cowards to burn with a mix of righteous glee and solemn concern. What an accomplishment. Next time, he should visit reality and pontificate on that. 2:58 PM


peter said…


Check out the link above for an examination of who served in the military and who didn’t. 3:08 PM


Dimitri said…

Chicken hawk describes the Bush/Rove smear of Kerry, swiftboating lies that went way over the line. Bush was snorting coke at some keg party while Kerry was in combat. And as posted above it seems as though all of the cheerleaders of our adventure in Iraq did everything possible to not serve in South East Asia when they had a chance and those that chose to go without getting drafted are now cowards. The wacko right wingers are just experts at framing the message and now wish to frame “chicken hawk” as an insult when it is the perfect description of these cowards. 3:33 PM


liquified viscera said…

It’s really quite simple.

A “chicken hawk” is someone who cheers the use of military force both overt and covert, yet is unwilling to take a part in the dirty work and expects others to do it for him/her.

Typically such “chicken hawks” also will criticize any view which opposes that use of military force as an “appeaser” or “terrorist sympathizer” or “weak, spineless simp” or suchlike. Where the critic is of suitable age and fitness to perform military service in the desired theater, this only serves to amplify the applicability of the “chicken hawk” label.

Jacoby was trying to re-define “Chicken Hawk” to make the argument suit his own perspective. Jacoby is obnoxiously defining a term that he himself would not use, but instead might find used against him. The fact that anyone could take Jacoby’s recasting seriously is indicative of the sad state of the collective American intellect. 5:27 PM

And it goes on and on.

Now, I’m not holding Greenwald responsible for the views expressed by his commenters. But they are a fair example, I think, of the views of a sizable percentage of those on the left in their characterization of war supporters who aren’t currently in uniform. (Indeed, I have heard, on numerous occasions, people argue that even being a combat veteran is no excuse since, after all, one could probably get the military to take you under present circumstances.)

Furthermore, even in its limited Greenwaldian usage, “chicken hawk” is an ad hominem –one of the classic logical fallacies (or, if you prefer, “intellectural fallacy”)– not an argument. Indeed, Greenwald’s caveat is akin to saying that one only uses the word “nigger” to describe blacks who are particularly shiftless, flamboyant, or engaged in criminal activity and that, of course, many black people are just fine. If one’s position is that particular war proponents are poisoning the well by implicitly challenging the courage or patriotism of war opponents, then call them on it by use of rational argument. Surely, a big-time litigator of complex issues of constitutional law who authored a New York Times bestselling book while simultaneously creating one of the most highly trafficked weblogs in the known universe in a mere nine months is up to that task.



Congress and Military Service
Cindy Sheehan’s Special Speech
Chickenhawk Redux – Sacrificing Children
Chicken Hawks Redux: 101st Fighting Keyboarders
Hitchens on Kerry on Veterans
Heroes Don’t Shout
Misplaced Mercy
Former Mates Allege Kerry ‘Unfit’
Chicken Hawks III
Chicken Hawks II

FILED UNDER: Congress, Iraq War, Uncategorized, US Constitution, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Anderson says:

    What I *really* want to know is Greenwald’s position on how to spell “Ockham.”

  2. James Joyner says:

    A complex issue, to be sure. I always spelled it “Occam,” I think.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    I prefer Ockham just to be contrary. I’m a rebel, what can I say.

  4. Cernig says:


    I think to define the label “chickenhawk” correctly you would have to combine both Jacoby and Greenwald. Thus defined, a chickenhawk is someone who praises and advocates war from afar while doing all they can to ensure they never see the war they advocate up close and at the same time labels those who oppose war, even if they have seen it close up, as cowardly and weak (and treasonous). Gene Healy’s description of neoconservatism falls within the “chickenhawk” remit for many of its practitioners who have never been to war themselves:

    For the neoconservatives, itâ??s not about Israel. Itâ??s about war. War is a bracing tonic for the national spirit and in all its forms it presents opportunities for national greatness. â??Ultimately, American purpose can find its voice only in Washington,â?? David Brooks once wrote. And Washingtonâ??s never louder or more powerful than when it has a war to fight.

    I confess I have used the term on occasion, but always within that definition, never about someone who actively served or someone who, like yourself, does not denigrate ad hoc the contrary argument as being “spineless”.

    However, your equating of the term “chickenhawk” with the term “nigger” is a strawman. The neocons and rush-to-war Militant Right – of which some are “chickenhawks” by the definition – are not and have never been denigrated by society or legislation. The comparison is an empty one which spuriously attempts to imply some form of racism and discrimination. In fact, “chickenhawks” arguably enjoy more power than most other groups. A better comparison would be the terms “fat cat” or “robber baron”. Not all of those collected under these perjoratives were deserving of the title, either.

    Regards, Cernig

    P.S. I think you’ll find that the original spelling was “Oggam’s Razor”, after the famous Ogg and in its simplest form it can be expressed as “You don’t need the Mystical Sword of Truth and One True Shield of Righteousness if you have a really sharp kitchen knife with you.”

    P.P.S. whaddaya mean you haven’t read Terry Pratchett’s books. Call yourselves educated?

  5. Anderson says:

    If Renaissance-era practices are any guide to the High Middle Ages, the odds that Willie spelled his own name the same way twice in a row are probably pretty slim.

    But yah, I saw what GG was getting at, but the term can scarcely be said to have a narrow meaning any more. I propose the neologism “cheney” for that narrower sense, if you have nothing against nonsense-syllables.

  6. It’s “Ockham”, after William of Ockham, no matter how you or anyone else may choose to spell it.

    However, more to the point.

    As a combat veteran myself, I fully understand anyone who does not want to see combat and would prefer to avoid it if possible. I do not believe this impacts one’s patriotism in any way.

    However, when someone wants to point at those people and call them cowards, I believe it betrays a deep-seated ignorance about the reality of combat and war, which are fundamentally things to be avoided. If you want to stay out of combat, that is smart. If you want others to stay out of combat, that is noble.

    But it is also smart to recognise that SOMEONE needs to fight, and it is noble to be among those who stand up and go do it. The problem as I see it is that each side wants to criticise the other for being somehow deficient, when both sides are being perfectly intelligent and noble in their aims.

  7. don surber says:

    Good post but you let this lie slip through:

    The war in Afghanistan was supported by roughly 90% of Americans, as was the first Persian Gulf War

    O RLY ???

    52-47 it passed the Senate with troops on the border back in January 1991.

    Compare that to 77-23 Senate passage of the the Iraq War in 2002.

    I really don’t care what some self-righteous lib calls a chickenhawk. Its first entry into slang was an old man who preys on young men

  8. James Joyner says:

    Don: Fair point. Perhaps Greenwald meant that, at the height of its popularity, the war effort was supported by 90%. Bush 41 certainly had approval numbers in the low 90s at one point.

  9. Kent G. Budge says:

    Although, in fairness to Kristol, one could argue that he�s merely claiming moral resolve in the face of a constant stream of depressing news rather than actual courage;

    Moral courage is sometimes as admirable as physical courage. I’d argue that there were a lot of German generals in the 1930s-40s who clearly had physical courage but lacked moral courage.

  10. Whatever.

    I bet there’ll be plenty of commenters to explain how really really smart GG is, though.

  11. Bithead says:


    As I think I mentioned in another thread, the kind of virtiol you describe here is certainly not limited to this one particular issue. Indeed, it seems to permeate just about everything the left asides to identify with, anymore. It’s almost as if they intend to the anger to carry the day alone. (Act up on other stuff too)

    Of course, it does not carry the day; It never has. This is one commentor that is glad that the Democrats tend not to learn from history, even though the general electorate, apparently, has.

  12. Anderson says:

    Iâ??d argue that there were a lot of German generals in the 1930s-40s who clearly had physical courage but lacked moral courage.

    And a lot like that in the U.S. military in 2003-06:

    … to their everlasting discredit, America’s most senior generals did not stand up to Rumsfeld as he and his ideologues went forward with a plan they knew would not work–at least not until after they had retired and the consequences of Rumsfeld’s careless approach were blindingly obvious. Greg Newbold, who later joined the revolt of the generals, told Gordon and Trainor of his reaction to Rumsfeld’s 125,000-troop figure:

    My only regret is that at the time I did not say “Mr. Secretary, if you try to put a number on a mission like this you may cause enormous mistakes…. Give the military what you would like to see them do, and then let them come up with it. I was the junior guy in the room, but I regret not saying it.”

    Men who had put their lives on the line in combat were mostly unwilling to put their careers on the line to speak out against a plan based on numbers pulled out of the air by a cranky sixty-nine-year-old.

    (Peter K. Galbraith, reviewing Cobra II. “Knew would not work” is of course strong–anything can happen–but OTOH, top officers owe their country a little better than to keep silent unless they “know” a plan won’t work.)

  13. Anderson says:

    This is one commentor that is glad that the Democrats tend not to learn from history

    As opposed to, say, Donald Rumsfeld? LOL!

  14. anjin-san says:

    The general electorate has indeed, as Bit points out, learned. I think that explains why Bush has net positives in what, 3 states?

  15. LJD says:

    Well, Cernie, while I love to smash down a liberal troll as much as any red blooded American, you and I both know that using such labels is almost always innaccurate. Your ‘rush-to-war militant right’ probably represents a fraction of one percent of the population- although I’m sure you use that term very freely.

    Ditto what Caliban said, he’s right on the mark.

    Anderson, you make a huge assumption that more troops would have resulted in a different outcome in Iraq. Quite possibly, it would have been nothing more than additional body bags. We will never know, but I love to see the liberal omnipotence demonstrated by such comments.

    Anjin- same sh*t, different day.

  16. Anderson says:

    Anderson, you make a huge assumption that more troops would have resulted in a different outcome in Iraq.

    LJD, we disagree on most things, but I’ve always thought you’re a bright guy, so let me pose some serious questions.

    I really don’t understand this dead-ender opposition to considering how and why things went wrong in Iraq. I was opposed to the war as a stupid diversion from putting Osama’s head on a stick, but given that we were doing it anyway, I wanted it done right, in a manner that would astonish the world with the power of the American armed forces.

    Hasn’t happened like that.

    Do you have the same hostility to historians’ efforts to understand why France folded in 1940, or why Russia didn’t fold in 1941? Or is just a Bush thing?

    Specifically on the more-troops issue, there’s a logic-class concept, “necessary but not sufficient.” More troops were *necessary* for the immediate post-battle situation, but not *sufficient*, if they weren’t being deployed properly. It would not have done for Rumsfeld etc. to put twice as many troops in and *still* have them failing to guard key points, terrorizing the population, etc., etc. And all would’ve been made naught anyway by the twin brainstorms of wholesale de-Baathification and the Iraqi army’s disbandment.

    But more troops *were* necessary if anyone was going to do the job *right*. Hell, we went over there for WMD’s … and we didn’t even send enough troops to seize the alleged WMD sites and seal the borders. What was up with THAT?

  17. Christopher says:

    Kerry had 5 deferments before figuring that Vietnam could help his political carer.

  18. James Joyner says:

    Chris: Sure. He went to college. So what?

  19. Bithead says:

    Now, Iâ??m not holding Greenwald responsible for the views expressed by his commenters

    Well, then, damn it, I will.
    If Ace is responsible for his commentors and their supposed excesses, and Hawkins at RWN for the supposed excesses of his, by GG’s own lights, why its it GG refuses to accept the same role for HIS?

    And Anjin-san, the Democrats have net postives, where?

  20. LJD says:

    Considering how and why things went wrong in Iraq is perfectly o.k. It is quite a stretch however, to support your anti-Bush stance by saying if we did x, then y would have happened. We may yet find out (as we often do during a war) that there may not have been any ‘better’ way to do this. Yet it still needed to be done.

    On WMD, I would say our dedication to diplomacy and coalition building gave Saddam all the time he needed to cover his tracks. I wouldn’t say troop levels had anything to do with it.

    One other assumption you have made, is that if Iraq had not happened, we would have more resources for Osama. This is another classic liberal trap. You assume that we are not employing all necessary resources for Osama, but simply have not gotten him. You assume that applying resources from Iraq to Afghanistan would have brought better results and would not have created a ‘quagmire’ there.

    Where do you guys get this incredible ability to determine potential future outcomes by contradicting past decisions?

  21. LJD says:

    BTW, Whaddya think of this:

    “Iraqis are your allies in the War on Terror,” al-Maliki told lawmakers from the speaker’s podium in the House chamber. “The fate of our country and yours is tied. Should democracy be allowed to fail in Iraq and terror permitted to triumph, then the War on Terror will never be won elsewhere.”

  22. Anderson says:

    Where do you guys get this incredible ability to determine potential future outcomes by contradicting past decisions?

    Straw man, I’m afraid. I don’t know whether I would’ve won the gun fight had I brought a gun instead of a knife, but it’s a pretty good bet that by bringing only a knife, I set myself up to lose.

    As for Maliki, what exactly would you expect him to say to the House? “Glory to Hezbollah, you infidel dogs”? But it appears that he was thinking it. (“Where do you guys get this incredible ability to read minds?” Skill and practice ….)

  23. LJD says:

    A good chuckle on a hot afternoon….