Chickenhawk: The other right meat

Cindy Sheehan's demand that war supporters pick up gun and fight has gotten under the skin of conservative pundits.

Published August 26, 2005 8:34PM (EDT)

Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney looks at the conservative outcry over the "chickenhawk" debate.

Cindy Sheehan has returned to Crawford, Texas, and brought back with her all the questions she's raised about the Bush administration's war in Iraq. One issue that's clearly ruffled the feathers of conservatives is the word "chickenhawk," which has risen in prominence since Sheehan began to demand that those who are gung-ho about the war pick up a gun and replace a grunt in the midst of his third rotation.

Fresh-faced pundit Ben Shapiro and Jonah Goldberg of the National Review are among the conservative commentators who have pecked angrily at the "chickenhawk" assertion, arguing that just because they're not fighting in the war doesn't mean they can't support it. Goldberg clucked last week that "arguments must stand on their own merits, regardless of who delivers them," while in a two-part series titled, "Why the 'chickenhawk' argument is un-American," Shapiro squawked that for liberals to mock supporters of the war who haven't served in the military "undermines fundamental values of representative democracy."

It looks like Shapiro and Goldberg need some context. Contrary to what Shapiro says, we don't disagree with the principle that "those who do not serve in the military have just as much of a right to speak out about foreign policy as those who do." The problem is that we have a "chickenhawk" epidemic on our hands, beginning with an administration that's top-heavy with people who lust for war but haven't served in any themselves.

It starts with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, both of whom avoided serving in Vietnam but nonetheless supported the war. Many of our political leaders served in Vietnam, saw it for what it was, then came back and opposed it. The president and vice president's experience was the exact opposite, and it shows, because they appear not to have learned critical lessons that Vietnam imparted. Bush administration hawks have demonstrated their ignorance of the Vietnam experience by underestimating the enemy; assuming the occupation would be easy; failing to consider the domestic opposition that might arise to a bloody, prolonged and seemingly pointless struggle; and making military decisions with political goals in mind.

The Bush team behind the war in Iraq is glutted with others who learned about war in college, not on the battlefield, including Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. What being in combat teaches most people is not to take war lightly, and those who haven't served might be seduced into thinking that war is thrilling, sexy or easy. Taking war lightly means sending people to die when it's not absolutely necessary. The cabinet member with the highest degree of military experience, former Secretary of State Collin Powell, turned out to be cautious and was forced out.

The other important bit of context here is the military's shortage of soldiers. Now that the ranks are thin, where are the war supporters who are willing to follow former professional football player Pat Tillman's lead and abandon a life of privilege to sacrifice for his country? People like Goldberg and the editors of The Weekly Standard may throw the word "sacrifice" around at Washington cocktail parties, but whether they'd be willing to sacrifice a family member to install an Iranian proxy in Iraq is another issue altogether.

Shapiro wrote that liberals employ "chickenhawk" because they are "incapable of discussing foreign policy in a rational manner" and must engage in "purely emotional, base personal attacks," since they are "unwilling or unable to counter the arguments" of Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz. Wrong. First of all, "chickenhawk" is a pretty mild epithet. Second, are there any liberals above the age of four who are unable to counter the president's pillow-fluff reasoning for the war? Third, and most important, the left has tried to engage the administration and its allies in a rational manner, but the right has operated in bad faith, from distorting the threat posed by Iraq to denouncing the liberal opposition as traitors to declaring that liberals want to provide Osama bin Laden with therapy. Is there, in fact, any better example of eschewing a rational debate of the facts in favor of base personal attacks than the Bush administration's assault on the credibility of Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame?

In other circumstances, facing a war that was necessary, in which the United States was faced with "a grave and gathering threat" and not a crippled regime, the term "chickenhawk" would not be relevant. But the Bush administration's pre-war deception and subsequent public refusal to face the reality of the war have made the administration's unflinching supporters seem like they too are in the throes of denial. The "chickenhawk" challenge calls their bluff -- If you're not just playing politics, if you really believe this war is a noble cause, then go and fight it yourselves.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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