The Rule of the Chicken Hawks: Base Canard, or Fair Comment?

As C.S. Lewis pointed out about his Screwtape Letters, sometimes it is the howls of outrage that show where a remark has really hit home. That seems to have been the case with Gen. Anthony Zinni’s swipe at the war wimps in the Little Bush White House (led, of course, by the AWOL-in-Chief):

Here’s Zinni’s rude remark, as reported by CNN:

“Attacking Iraq now will cause a lot of problems,” Zinni told members of the Florida Economic Club. “If you ask me my opinion, General Scowcroft, General Powell, General Schwarzkopf, General Zinni — maybe all see this the same way.

“It might be interesting to wonder why all the generals see it in the same way, and all those, who never fired a shot in anger and really held back to go to war, see it in a different way. That’s usually the way it is in history.”

Eliot Cohen points out that civilians sometimes get it right when generals get it wrong. Glenn Reynolds (the Instapundit) and Andrew Stuttaford of National Review Online accuse Zinni of “channelling” Robert Heinlein, whose Starship Troopers depicts what Heinlein’s narrator sees as an admirable society in which the elective franchise and officeholding, though not civil liberty, are restricted to military veterans (and veterans of comparably dangerous civilian pursuits).

But of course none of this addresses Zinni’s point. He wasn’t challenging the qualifications of non-veterans to vote, or to hold office. He was asserting that, on a question of whether to go to war, the views of those with experience in actually leading troops in battle should be preferred to the views of those who had personally avoided fighting.

What Zinni really said was much nastier than what his critics pretended to hear him saying. Phrased as it was, his remark didn’t just challenge the expertise of his opponents: it denigrated their physical courage. Zinni could, of course, be wrong, as well as rude. One might equally well attribute the opposition of old generals to new wars to a reluctance to give younger men a chance to replace them in the public esteem, or to an undue concern with the institutional health of the military machine, and the welfare of it members, as opposed to the national interest it is supposed to serve. That’s part of the reason ad hominem arguments are so much fun; they’re gloriously unselective.

So if an argument is both impolite and without much analytical force, perhaps it not ought to be offered at all? I’m not so sure.

Historically, one of the strongest forces on the side of proponents of war is the presumption that they embody courage, the manly virtue par excellance, and that their opponents are somehow effiminate. (See Harvey Mansfield’s reflections on the contemporary importance of andreia, which can mean either “courage” or “manliness.” ) Without endorsing in full what Mansfield calls a “patriarchial” view, it would be reasonable to note, with Machiavelli, that the management and defense of the state involves the exercise not only of coercion but of punishment, the deliberate infliction of harm on foreign enemies and domestic criminals. Someone greatly deficient in the willingness to inflict such harm may be a good person, but he (or she) will be, to the extent of that deficiency, a bad ruler.

And if the ruler’s willingness to hurt is not accompanied by the willingness to expose him- or herself to being hurt, then we have rule by bullies. (Someone should remind some of our contemporary presidents that Theodore Roosevelt was using the Gay Nineties slang term “bully” (= fab, def, cool, neat, groovy) when he claimed the Presidency as a “bully pulpit”: he did not mean that it was a good pulpit for a bully to hold, or a good pulpit to be used for bullying.)

That analysis would seem to make personal courage what the law of employment discrimination calls a “bona fide occupational qualification” for a ruler. Putting one’s life and bodily integrity at risk for the defense of country is also, of course, a way to demonstrate one’s willingness to place the public welfare over one’s own immediate good, another quality voters might reasonably look for in those they choose to bear temporary rule over them. Little as I find to admire in Joe Lieberman’s public career, his freedom riding in the early 1960s, when white freedom riders were at risk of being beaten and even killed, struck me as a genuine character recommendation, and not entirely because of my admiration for what was then his cause.

[That military service is one good way to demonstrate the virtues of courage and commitment to the public good is one good reason, in my view, that it ought rightfully be open to all capable of performing it, without discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual orientation.]

Physical courage is also sometimes thought to be a sign of, or an aid to, moral courage, which is perhaps the greatest virtue required of a public servant, but although the virtues share a name and a common mechanism — what Plato calls right opinion about what is truly to be feared — I doubt they share much else, and there are so many counterexamples in both directions that it would be foolish to make any strong inference from a willingness to go in harm’s way on the battlefield to a willingness to displease one’s political supporters or defy the temporary public whim.

The political damage done by lack of demonstrated personal courage is particularly grave when someone now holding a dovish position also previously chose not to fight when many others fighting, as in the case of Ted Sorenson’s conscientious objection in World War II, which blocked his appointment as Director of Central Intelligence by Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton’s legal, apparently conscience-driven, but still rather devious draft avoidance in the Vietnam era.

What’s at least a little surprising is how little personal wimpiness damages hawks, or how little a good service record protects doves. Ronald Reagan fought World War II on a Hollywood sound stage, and it no more weakened his support among the “nuke ’em” crowd than his divorce weakened it among the “family values” crowd. By the same token, Lincoln’s honorable service in the Black Hawk War didn’t protect him from attacks on his patriotism for opposing the Mexican war (a precedent the anti-war forces of the 1960s could have used to some advantage, if so many of them hadn’t been carrying ideological baggage that made them despise both history in general and American heroes in particular).

Logically, of course, deciding not to serve in a conflict which one opposes on political or moral grounds casts less of a shadow on one’s personal courage than deciding not to serve in a conflict one supports. So it’s much more legitimate to challenge the andreia of those who supported the War in Vietnam but, in Dick Cheney’s lovely phrase, had “other priorities” at the time, than that of the anti-war draft avoiders.

Looking backward, I do not think it reasonable to have thought that a Northern-dominated Communist Government in South Vietnam was likely to produce greater happiness for the greater number in that country than the locally-based mix of feudalism, crony capitalism, military dictatorship, and rule by the Catholic minority that was the only practical alternative. But it was possible, then and now, to think that unification under Ho Chi Minh would have been the overwhelming winner in a free election, as agreed to in the 1954 peace treaty, and that respect for treaties and respect for self-determination ought, in some cases, to trump views from outside about the right forms of government for someone else’s country.

I’m less firm now in that rather Wilsonian view than I used to be — I find that I love personal liberty and the victory over profound mass poverty more than I do government by elections, and I’m convinced that in the not-too-long run personally free and prosperous peoples will find a way to choose their own rulers — but it still seems to me a quite defensible one. It was the view I held at the time of the Vietnam war, and it made my 4-F classification — for a perfectly genuine case of profoundly flat feet — a very welcome development. I was not aware of any particular visceral fear of fighting or objection to killing for the right reasons — I would, I think, have volunteered to fight (e.g.) to free Southwest Africa from South African rule — but I had at the time what seemed to me quite serious moral qualms about waging what I took to be aggressive war.

None of those complexities kept the pro-war forces from, largely successfully, challenging the manliness and the patriotism of the anti-war forces. If it’s sauce for the goose, it’s sauce for the gander. And, as I say, the imputation of lack of personal courage to, e.g., little Bush and Cheney based on their war (non)-records is not entirely unfair. Now how relevant that lack of personal virtue is to holding public office is a different question, but that’s not really a question the party that just spent eight years assaulting Bill Clinton’s personal character, and the twenty years before that doing the same to Ted Kennedy’s, has any right to raise.

It would be interesting to see the results if a the Democrats were to run a retired general, or at least a real war hero — Zinni, Wesley Clark, John Kerry — against a President who never managed to find his way back to the Texas Air National Guard unit in which he was sitting out the Vietnam campaign after taking a transfer to another Guard unit in Alabama so he could work on his father’s friend’s senate campaign.

It was a great mistake for the Democratic left to allow the Republican right to appropriate the American flag as a political symbol in the late 1960s. People who wear uniforms and carry guns — the military and the police — do an indispensible job, and enough of the public feels that fact deeply that the half-heartedness of many liberals about acknowledging it represents a real source of political weakness for the left. The Oklahoma City bombing — clearly an attack by a part of the Far Right against the American government qua American government — provided an opportunity for the Democrats to try to take the flag back, but the project either was never considered, or it was thought too hard to bring off, or the use of the flag as a right-wing symbol had so poisoned it for the liberal Boomers around the Clinton White House that they couldn’t find it in their hearts to even try to reclaim it. However that was, questions about patriotism and courage certainly contribute to the Democrats’ relative weakness among males, and especially among Southern and rural working-class males.

I can think of worthier ways of dealing with this problem than making fun of the fair-weather patriotism of those now urging us to go to war with Iraq, but not necessarily more effective ones. The usual epithet for hawkish draft-avoiders used to be “war wimps.” But given the overtones of assertions of, and challenges to, virility that underlie this whole rather disgusting line of debate, I prefer the more forceful “chicken hawks,” which in addition to its obvious meaning in context can also mean older men with a sexual taste for teenaged boys. If you’re going to be nasty, why stop half-way? As Mr. Dooley said (but perhaps Mrs. Dooley didn’t fully agree?) politics ain’t beanbag.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: