The Corner

Responding to The Atlantic: Is the U.S. a ‘Chickenhawk Nation?’

Yesterday I began my response to James Fallows’s Atlantic cover story, “The Tragedy of the American Military.” His thesis is rather simple: The military — riding its astounding popularity — escapes “serious external scrutiny,” and consequently the military not only suffers the consequences for its alleged lack of accountability (through bloat and inefficiency), it finds itself committed to war again and again by a public and political leadership increasingly divorced from the real consequences of combat. As Fallows puts it:

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win.

According to Fallows, Americans are “eager to go to war, so long as someone else is doing it.”

Before I get to the substance of his critique, please allow me a brief aside on the “chickenhawk” slur itself. The term came to prominence in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the “argument” (if you can call it that) was essentially that pro-Iraq invasion pundits who weren’t willing to put their boots on and go to war should just shut up. In its original use, the slur was a cheap way to avoid true argument and imply that your opponent is a coward. After all, there was no shortage of veterans who supported the war, and the Left hardly gave their arguments deference. 

At the same time, however, there is sometimes a kernel of truth hidden inside the most mean-spirited of insults. It is simply a fact that too few of our “elite” — on both sides of the aisle — have served. It is simply a fact that too few of our “elite” even consider service. By no means do I believe that every able-bodied male should serve in the military, but I do believe that every able-bodied male should give serious thought and prayer as to whether at least a period of enlistment is right for him and for the nation. Too many of our young people — kids who could truly contribute — don’t even give military service the slightest thought. And that’s a big problem. Surveying the 2016 field, will there be a single veteran in the Republican primary? Aside from Jim Webb — a true warrior — which veterans are considering running for the Democrats? 

On to the substance of Fallows’s argument. Are Americans “eager to go to war?” I’d say the evidence suggests not. 

To prove his point, Fallows speaks primarily of the Iraq War, not of the war in Afghanistan. Unquestionably, America went to war over strong objections, but was the nation “eager” to do it? I don’t know how he measures eagerness, but I’d argue America showed restraint for years before taking action. Indeed, it showed more restraint than great powers traditionally show when confronted with similar provocation. By the time of the 2003 invasion, Iraq had materially breached the Gulf War cease-fire accords, had tried to assassinate a U.S. president, and was daily firing on American pilots who were enforcing lawful no-fly zones. Each of these events, by itself, would constitute lawful cause for war. And they were compounded by Hussein’s material support for terrorism, his funding of jihad against our close ally, Israel, and by his failure to dispose of stocks of chemical weapons. In other words, the United States had refused to invade Iraq for years despite being presented with ample casus belli.

Going to war in such circumstances may or may not be strategically wise, but going to war in such circumstances is not evidence of “eagerness” for conflict. In fact, America only invaded after months of deliberation and debate, with the administration taking its case to the American public, to Congress, and to the United Nations. To be clear, I do think there were individuals who were “eager” to remove Saddam Hussein, but the nation as a whole — by its longstanding conduct since the Gulf War — demonstrated it was not. We had tolerated Saddam Hussein’s aggression and lawlessness for more than a decade, despite his obvious military vulnerability.

In fact, recent history only reinforces my point that our nation is hardly “eager” for war. President Obama’s intervention in Libya was launched with no opportunity for public debate and without congressional approval. So that intervention says little to nothing about our national attitude towards the use of force. But his planned intervention in Syria — in retaliation for the Assad regime’s probable use of chemical weapons — met with immediate popular resistance, from left and right, even though the President pledged not to use ground-combat forces. Despite the fact that “someone else” would be flying the missions, Americans understood the risks of intervention and the potential for empowering Sunni jihadists who are worse than Assad. When those Sunni jihadists began marching through Iraq, sentiments changed. Looming genocide and strategic catastrophe demanded a more decisive response.

None of this shows an America “eager” for war. Instead, it shows that our nation has struggled to land on the right kind of military response to our enemies. Yes, we’ve been involved in continual conflict since 9/11, but to claim in any way that’s the result of American aggression is to ignore the jihadists who declared war on America long before we declared war on them. In fact, if you want to see an example of true eagerness for war, look to the jihadists who attacked us on 9/11, or to Saddam Hussein who invaded his neighbors and fired on American pilots and tried to kill an American president, or to the multiple jihadist movements who even now threaten our strategic interests, kill our allies, and plot to kill us at home. Only our enemies are truly eager for war.

To recap two days of posts. No, the American military does not “escape serious external scrutiny.” No, America is not a “chickenhawk nation.” But that doesn’t mean Fallows’s analysis is all wrong, either. In the next post, I’ll talk about what he gets right.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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