“The Making of a Hawk”

By David Talbot

Topics: Books,

Read “The Making of a Hawk.”

“American firepower has been on the right side of history.”

This comes as no surprise — after all, it’s the winners who write history.

– Xana Huerta

Thank you for your brilliant and heartfelt piece explaining why you (and by extension) others like you have become “hawks.” But as a left-liberal who agreed with your position on Vietnam and who agrees with you now on the effort against terrorism, I do not believe we have made any journey at all. It only seems that way because you have used an academic model mechanism which splits the intellectual world into boxes, fills those boxes with “Wilsonians, Jeffersonians, Jacksonians” and heaven knows what else, and then uses these artificial categories as analytical tools which reflect realities. They don’t. They are simply rhetorical devices used to rationalize positions reached on other, far simpler grounds.

The problem is that the dove-hawk dichotomy does not fall on any radical-liberal-conservative-reactionary axis. People take their dove-hawk positions not because of any predilection for Wilson, Jefferson, or Jacksonian thought but rather because of the exigencies of the particular situation as they relate to their individual lives at the time. In the late 1930′s the liberals were the hawks, begging for intervention against fascism because Hitler had hijacked German democracy and was proceeding to throw liberals, Jews, socialists, etc. into concentration camps while conquering most of Europe. This did not seem a bright prospect for liberals of any stripe. That we did not see the same danger in Stalinist Russia is a question which still haunts us today. On the other hand, conservatives and reactionaries were the doves because, I think, they simply did not believe that Hitler would ever attack the US and it was perfectly fine with them if Hitler and Stalin fought themselves into oblivion. Wilson, Jefferson and Jackson had little to do with any of this, except as rationalization after the fact. Indeed, the military Jacksonian types were very quiet during this period, not because they were lacking military courage but because they mainly agreed with the conservatives.



All this changed after WWII. Conservatives, panicked by the threat of Soviet Communism, became hysterically hawkish (no more Jeffersonian isolationism for them). But many liberals were chagrined to discover that Stalin also continued to chuck social democrats (at least those who were still left in Russia) and intellectuals into the Gulag while foisting the dogs of anti-Semitism loose on the land. Most liberals (not all by any means) began to reconsider their then dovish tendencies and swung behind the Truman doctrine, Marshall plan and other anti-Communist interventions. Remember, these interventionist moves were created and executed by the New Deal/Fair Deal Truman administration, most of whom were dyed in the wool liberals. The Korean War was the culmination of liberal hawkishness and was initially supported by most Americans. It was ended by a center/conservative Eisenhower administration which was more dovish than hawkish.

The Vietnam misadventure also had its genesis in liberal hawkishness: John Kennedy and his crowd were not conservatives. They were perfectly happy to intervene in a civil war in Asia when the cost seemed to be low. It wasn’t until the cost escalated that the game seemed not to be worth the candle. And it was not because nothing that happened in Vietnam really threatened any American core values. That’s when your generation came on the scene and interpreted liberal disenchantment as a condemnation of any US military intervention in the world. That was a mistake. Most liberals were not and are not pacifists. What we objected to (and I think rightly) was intervening on the side of a passel of tin-pot despots whose rule betrayed every value which liberals favored.

Which brings me back to my main point. Liberals are hawks when the values they uphold appear to them to be threatened. They are doves when those values are not in play. So, by the way, is everyone else. All the rest (Wilsonianism, Jeffersonianism, etc.) is intellectual sophistry.

– Martin Jay Gaynes

Fear does funny things to reasonable people. This is the most important lesson I have learned from the events of Sept. 11. David Talbot’s article “The Making of a Hawk” is a perfect example. Is he really suggesting that what has gone on in Afghanistan has reached some sort of final conclusion? To say that this so-called war on terrorism is a success is beyond the absurd. Yes, it is true that our munitions have killed a lot of people who had nothing to do with the attack on the World Trade Center. Yes, it is true that the Bush administration was able to successfully label the Taliban as the guilty party and in doing so validate our spilling of their blood to fulfill our revenge fantasies. Is this a good thing? I think not.

While Talbot looks at what has gone on and sees success, I see only failure. There has been no true American military intervention. We paid one bunch of thugs to attack another bunch of thugs and yes, we have succeeded in avoiding any great loss of American lives, but then we also have failed to bring the guilty parties to justice. All of this might make us feel good but it has done little but destabilize much of the Middle East and Southern Asia. This new American doctrine of which he speaks now allows any country the right to use military force as long as they label their enemy a terrorist. The truth is still, and has always been, that one country’s terrorist is another country’s freedom fighter and just because America has donned a cloak of self-righteousness that it has always been so good at wearing, does not mean that the world is a better or safer place. These actions are merely a match that has set much of the world on fire. Only when the conflicts between Pakistan and India and between Israel and Palestine have been resolved will there be some sort of conclusion possible about the success of this venture in Afghanistan.

Once again, what about the guilty parties? Does Talbot really believe that al-Qaida has been defanged? Have the greater issues of Western intervention in the affairs of Middle Eastern people been resolved? I think not. What has happened is that the Bush administration, by choosing a military solution to what should have been a police action, and by choosing to act unilaterally instead of allowing for a true coalition, has embarked on a path that is certain to destabilize the entire world for many decades to come. Just whose definition of success is Mr. Talbot using?

– Charles Rainey

While David Talbot makes some excellent points in his piece on foreign policy, there’s one point on which I totally disagree with him. Leaving Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq is one of America’s finest foreign policy moments. Hussein may be a blight on his own nation, but we have had little trouble thwarting his expansionist desires since the Gulf War, so he has not been a threat to other nations. Beyond that, the U.S. has no business dictating to a sovereign country what their government should be.

Beyond our failed war to prop a dictatorship in Vietnam, the Cold War produced many other cases where the U.S. dictated to developing countries what their government would be, in the name of fighting communists. I hope even those who believe it was necessary in the face of communism will acknowledge that forcing governments on countries in the name of democracy is repugnant. And in the absence of a threat to the rest of the world, what could possibly justify it? In the case of Serbia and Afghanistan, removing the government was an unavoidable consequence of stopping a threat to other nations. In Iraq, it was not. Further, just as trying to impose order on Somalia failed, if we had tried to impose a post-Hussein government on Iraq, it might well be an Islamic theocracy by now.

The U.S. should try to stop international aggression with force when necessary. We should oppose repressive regimes, as well. But the U.S. has no business and no moral authority interfering with the affairs of sovereign nations who do not want us there any more than is absolutely necessary, even when the cause is just.

– Andrew Norris

The author reveals his bias toward the end of the article by calling for the reestablishment of a draft. There are minor and major refutations available here — U.S. success in Afghanistan is provided by small numbers of highly trained volunteers, not mass conscript armies; the draft would be no help here or elsewhere in the wars we are likely to fight. An unreconstructed liberal, he is eager to tax the rich, depriving them first of their money and then their lives.

That the less well off form the rank and file of our infantry is no more to be wondered at now than it was in World War II, where the Army General Classification tests were used to allocate talented people to anywhere but the infantry. American strategy of continuous attack dictated the use of “economic cannon fodder” to keep the ranks full, even at the cost of sending barely trained 18-year-olds to die so quickly that the survivors did not even remember their names.

The major refutation is the author’s inconsistent thinking about Vietnam, a defeat not unlike Kasserine Pass or Hurtgen Forest. Unlike the previous generation our best and brightest preferred to quit when they did not first succeed.

To reinstate the draft now, and expand the reach of our imperialism beyond the necessity to defend ourselves, is a kind of intellectual bankruptcy. I pray we avoid it.

– Richard D. Henkus

I very much appreciated your essay, particularly the crucial question, “Am I willing to put mine or my children’s life on the line for an American war policy?”

As a Vietnam Vet and father of a 27-year old son and 25-year old daughter, I remember vividly holding my son in the delivery room saying, “He will never go if I have anything to do with it.” Since then, the horrors of Srebrenica and 9/11 have reminded me that there are times when war is the lesser of two atrocities. I recently completed a short documentary, “Memories of War,” that has interviews with nine veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Their comments about war and the lessons learned for their grandchildren were quite powerful and moving. It can be viewed on the internet at www.ifilm.com.

Finally, I recently resigned my four-year membership in the Unitarian Church of Santa Monica when they were unwilling to permit any type of official display of the American Flag, for any time, not even on Memorial Day, Independence Day or Veterans Day. Vietnam still lives for a major part of our society. I hope we learn soon, especially for the future Srebrenica’s and 9/11′s.

War is a horrible, nasty business — unfortunately it still remains part of the business of being human and wanting a better world.

– John Medlin

In David Talbot’s excellent article, “The Making of a Hawk,” Mr. Talbot concludes (among other things) that “I have come to believe we need to bring back the military draft.”

Um, no.

I disagree with Mr. Talbot for a number of reasons, but the two most important are: I believe a draft is morally wrong and, coupled with that, don’t believe that an army that relies on the draft (rather than getting the best people) is an effective army. Ask yourself this: if you are in Afghanistan, or Somalia, or wherever, what would make you the most comfortable? Having a professional, Jacksonian soldier on your flank, one who volunteered and has shown by his or her behavior that he or she is willing to die for you and for your unit? Or one who has been forced into the army, who constantly gripes, and can’t wait to be elsewhere? Given the dangers of sabotage, do we want reluctant draftee soldiers?

If a republic cannot generate enough volunteers to defend it during times of national danger, one wonders if said republic is not already in a heap of trouble.

In Robert Heinlein’s widely celebrated — and equally widely reviled — “Starship Troopers,” he postulates a society where two years of federal service is required before a person is given the right to vote. This federal service is largely civil; 90 percent of the enrollees are in the federal administrative service (in this country, think of low-level government jobs, Capitol pages, and so on). While I doubt that such a plan would be unlikely in this country, I would vastly prefer it to a large, drafted army.

– Douglas O’Morain

I just want to say that David Talbot’s essay was wonderful. Not biased, not a trace of leftist loopiness nor right-wing apoplexy. We could use more of such balanced, careful writing, especially since the tragedies of Sept. 11.

– Danielle Maze

In David Talbot’s wonderful article “The Making of a Hawk,” his statement that “There are surely many other Americans like me, who while firmly in one camp, continue to draw guidance from the others,” rings true to me. He and I have arrived at almost the same position by different routes but influenced by the same history.

Raised in rural Colorado, I was Jacksonian enough to join up right out of high school and because I joined instead of being drafted, I avoided most of the Vietnam experience and got involved in what I call The Big Stick (i.e. nuclear ballistic submarines). But Vietnam affected my position nonetheless. I had never disagreed with the protesters of the war after seeing what was happening, but my Jacksonian leanings kept me in the service. The fact that my government could and was making a mistake jolted me more towards the Wilsonian or Jeffersonian camps than would have happened without that enlightenment. So much so, in fact, that I felt strongly that we should have intervened in Rwanda and hit Milosevic much earlier. The only mistake we made in Somalia was in not enough commitment. On the other hand, I think that President Bush (the elder) did the right thing stopping short of killing every man in the Iraqi army. It seemed to me that we were so dominant that it was bordering on genocide.

And so, the wavering and refinement of position goes on depending on circumstances and moral imperative.

By the way, I like gun shows but the only thing to drive in traffic is a big pickup.

– Robert K. Fullerton

It’s hard to fit Mr. Talbot easily into any niche, as he admits. It is easy to say that he was willing to oppose war when it was his butt on the line, but now that he is safely beyond draft age, he seems more willing to call for the American hammer. But that would not be entirely true or fair. It is easy to say that he is an armchair patriot, wrapped in comfort words like Fourth of July cookouts and Saturday night high school football games, except that in most parts of this country, high schools play football games on Friday nights. It’s easy to criticize him with unfair criticisms, more difficult to really take him to task on the issues.

Being a reformed Jeffersonian leaning toward the Wilson doctrine is comfortable and reasonable, but what Mr. Talbot and the rest of the media seem afraid to point out is that it is the philosophy of Hamilton that rules our foreign policy — Hamilton in the guise of Wilson enflaming Jackson and appeasing Jefferson, all to insert military forces to shore up Hamilton’s money. And it is the Jacksonians of foreign countries who become terrorists as a result of our Hamiltonian machinations.

If you want to know why we intervened in Kosovo and not Rwanda, look for an oil pipeline. If you want to know why we are in Afghanistan, look for a proposed oil pipeline, and ask India who it was who said before September that we’d be in Afghanistan by October. If you want to know why our military is where it is, follow the money and the connections to cartels like OPEC and the Carlyle Group. Who was paid to rebuild Kosovo, and who will rebuild Afghanistan? Who secured drilling rights in oil fields in Central Asia without a way to get that oil to market? Why did the president issue an order preventing FBI investigations of Saudis? And ask, if we were all driving cars that burned seawater, would we have gone into Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan at all? Would we even need to? Wouldn’t these countries all be Rwandas?

That’s why I’m still a Jeffersonian. I’d prefer to be Wilsonian, wielding American might for moral reasons, but I have an innate and unshakable distrust of Alexander Hamilton. After all, he was never a president. As long as Hamilton is wearing his Wilson mask, I’m going to stick with the guy from Monticello.

– Jeff Crook

The Second World War was necessary, but it produced a generation of men very good at accepting and exercising arbitrary authority, repressing themselves emotionally and accepting a fundamentally unsatisfying existence because at least no one was shooting or screaming at them.

That is to say: Modern military values are not the values of a society with maximal usable personal freedom and minimal vulnerability to mass manipulation. This has been obscured in recent decades with the proliferation of the “warrior” as a stock character in entertainment, from the samurai to the Klingon to the “army of one” (snigger). No military today consists of independent fighters allowed to make their own moral and tactical decisions.

Physical force may become necessary for just ends in a morally indifferent world, but to be a “hawk” is inevitably to end up fighting because that is what we know best, rather than because it’s the last resort. We will then all be soldiers, and permanent war will justify permanent diminishment of ourselves and our capacities. Civilian control of the military means little if every civilian is a soldier at heart.

The Jacksonian culture Mr. Talbot references was one scarred by English semi-genocide and forced relocation, and much of what is fine in it has been supervened by feuding, belief in the evil of our world and a cruel callousness that a Cherokee might speak to far better than I.

If we are to be a good nation, and a free nation, we would be better advised to emulate Cincinnatus (who fought when needed, then went back to his plough) than Jackson (who lived with a chip on his shoulder and poisonous lead in his gut [from inane duels] to the end of his days).

– M. Turyn

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