Invariably, whenever columnists like myself write in support of the Iraq war without having served in the military there, letters flood in deriding us as “chicken hawks.” How can writers support the war without fighting in it themselves? these letter writers ask, although usually not so politely.
The Cindy Sheehan controversy has revived the long-running chicken-hawk argument, since so much of her appeal has to do with her unique standing to pronounce on the war given the sacrifice of her son. Amazingly, after three years, President Bush critics still write chicken-hawk letters as if they have arrived at something clever and cutting, when they are really rehashing a bottom-of-the-barrel ad hominem argument. The chicken-hawk line is the “Oh, yeah? Your mama!” of antiwar arguments.
Its logic, if taken seriously, actually would boost the hawks. If only members of the military–who are overwhelmingly conservative–were considered competent to decide the nation’s posture on matters of war and peace, we would have an even more forward-leaning foreign policy. I’m comfortable letting the 82nd Airborne decide what we do about anti-American rogue states. Are opponents of the war? I’m guessing that even if you let only mothers of fallen soldiers in Iraq direct our Iraq policy, the result would be stay-the-course rather than the immediate pullout favored by Sheehan.
The chicken-hawk argument is nakedly partisan. During the Kosovo war waged by Bill Clinton and supported by Democrats in 1999, a cry didn’t go up from the Left that no one could support the war unless they were willing to strap themselves into B-2 bombers for the 33-hour ride from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Belgrade and back to degrade Serbian infrastructure.
By the same token, we could say to proponents of leaving Saddam Hussein in power: “That’s an illegitimate position unless you yourself are willing to move to Tikrit to live for the duration of Saddam’s regime.” Or to supporters of “containing” Saddam: “You’re a hypocrite until you go help patrol the no-fly zone.” Or to advocates of inspections: “You can’t support them unless you don a baby-blue cap and sniff around his suspected chemical-weapons sites yourself.”
Why should this line of argument be limited to Iraq? “You think we should help fight AIDS in Africa? Well, go work in a clinic in Lavumisa, Swaziland.” “You oppose land mines? Go clear them from the Korean DMZ.” “You think there should be a new U.N. protocol in favor of [insert fashionable cause here]? Then spend interminable hours helping negotiate it yourself.” “Support jobless benefits? Become a clerk at an unemployment office.”
Alas, the argument only swings one way. A few radical antiwar groups, including Code Pink and Veterans for Peace, have released a statement supporting the Iraqi insurgency. But no one is badgering its members about whether they are going to go set off roadside bombs in Baquba. Jihad is so easy when it’s someone else’s son or daughter doing all the suicide bombing!
The chicken-hawk argument is, of course, made in bad faith. If anyone should be–and usually has been–in favor of rigorous civilian control of the military, it is the left. Since when do liberals favor government on the model of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, with the military running amok since civilians don’t have the standing to direct it? Maybe Harry Truman was wrong to fire Douglas MacArthur after all. Maybe no one should have contradicted Curtis LeMay when he offered to bomb North Vietnam back into the Stone Age.
The Iraq war was arrived at through the democratic deliberation of the American public, who–this is how it works–get to decide all sort of questions, even if they are not experts or don’t have personal experience with whatever is at issue. The anti-war movement would have a better chance of convincing the public of its position if it weren’t so fond of arguments that are juvenile, opportunistic and irrelevant.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2005 King Features Syndicate