I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What makes someone a "chicken hawk"?

Jeff Jacoby launched an impassioned attack in The Boston Globe on Sunday against what he calls "the chicken hawk slur," an attack which was widely hailed by many who apparently feel they've been unfairly smeared with the term. But in order to attack the "chicken hawk" argument, Jacoby completely distorted what it actually means:

"Chicken hawk" isn't an argument. It is a slur -- a dishonest and incoherent slur. 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.

That is simply not what "chicken hawk" means, and it is less than forthright of Jacoby to mis-define the concept in order to argue against it. 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. A "chicken hawk" is someone who not merely advocates a war, but believes that their advocacy is proof of the courage which those who will actually fight the war in combat require.

Just this week, Bill Kristol, writing in the Weekly Standard in order to urge U.S. intervention in the Israeli war, argued that those who want the U.S. to intervene in that war are "strong horses" and those who oppose such intervention are "weak horses." Accordingly, to Kristol, E.J. Dionne, Richard Cohen, and George Will are all "weak horses," because they wrote columns arguing against increased U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern wars. By contrast, Kristol is a "strong horse" because he wants to send other people off to fight in more wars.

Kristol believes that his desire for other people to go fight more wars in the Middle East makes him not only wise (which it might), but also courageous, resolute and "strong" (which it most certainly does not). The flaw in Kristol's perception is not that he wants the U.S. to fight a war which he does not plan to fight himself, but rather, that he assigns to himself the courage and strength of those who will actually fight the war, simply because he sits in his office, protected and safe, and advocates that the war be fought.

Over and over again, those who simply advocate a war in which the lives of other people will be risked label themselves strong and courageous. National Review's Cliff May this week argued that those who advocate wars are warriors every bit as much as those who actually fight them. Conversely, pro-war advocates frequently ascribe qualities of weakness, spinelessness, cowardice, hysteria, and anti-American subversiveness -- not to mention being “small hollow men [who] are the equivalent of those grubby little Nazis” -- to anyone who is against the war in Iraq or who favors an end to our occupation there sooner rather than later.

This dynamic requires criticism because it is so irrational, false and manipulative. There is nothing courageous or strong about wanting to send other people to war or to keep them in wars that have already been started. And there is nothing weak or cowardly about opposing the commencement of a war in which others will bear the risks. To the extent courage and cowardice play a role in war advocacy at all, one could argue that those who blithely want to send other people off to war in order to protect themselves against every potential risk are driven by fear and weakness. And those who are less fearful will require a much higher level of personal threat before believing that it is desirable and just to send other people off to risk their lives.

It is certainly true, as Jacoby argues, that whether someone has fought previously in a war neither proves nor disproves the wisdom of their foreign policy views, nor is prior military service a prerequisite for participating in debates over whether the U.S. should go to war. But one's views about whether the U.S. should fight a war that will bring little or no risk to the advocate has nothing to do with personal courage or strength. The term "101st Keyboard Brigade" mocks not those who merely support wars, but who strut around as though their support for the war means that they are fighting it, and who consequently apply the warrior attributes to themselves (and the coward/deserter attributes to war opponents).

A "chicken hawk" is one who strikes the pose of a warrior, who imputes the personal courage of a soldier in combat to themselves by virtue of the fact that they are in favor of sending that soldier off to war, or who parades around with the pretense of personal courage and resolve while assuming none of the risks. And a "chicken hawk" will, conversely, attempt to depict those who oppose such wars as being weak, spineless and cowardly even though the war opponents are not seeking to avoid any personal risk to themselves, but instead, are arguing against subjecting their fellow citizens to what they perceive are unnecessary dangers.

There certainly is an argument to make that those who will incur the risks of war are more likely to think carefully and soberly about whether to start one than those who can urge on wars without risks. It is, for instance, much more difficult for Israelis to urge war with Lebanon than it is for Americans sitting comfortably out of reach of Hezbollah rockets to do so. And it was much more difficult for European monarchs to choose war when their own children would fight on the front lines than it is for American Senators and administration officials whose family members won't fight to make the same choice. And indeed, the Founders mandated in the Constitution that only Congress could declare war because they knew war would be less likely if those who bore the burden (which they assumed would be the nation's citizens) were required to approve of any wars. Despite all of that, one can still advocate a war in a risk-free position without being a "chicken hawk."

A "chicken hawk" is one who fails to recognize these logical principles by desperately equating advocacy of wars with fighting a war itself, or opposition to wars with running away from risks. "Chicken hawks" are not those who simply urge war without fighting in it, but who urge war and then pretend that doing so makes them courageous, powerful and strong. They are the ones who use dichotomies such as strong/weak, resolute/spineless, and courageous/cowardly to describe not those who fight or run away from wars, but those who encourage or oppose wars from a safe distance.

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