"IT'S TOUCHING that you're so concerned about the military in Iraq," a reader in Wyoming e-mails in response to one of my columns on the war. "But I have a suspicion you're a phony. So tell me, what's your combat record? Ever serve?"
You hear a fair amount of that from the antiwar crowd if, like me, you support a war but have never seen combat yourself. That makes you a "chicken hawk" -- one of those, as Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, defending John Kerry from his critics, put it during the 2004 presidential campaign, who "shriek like a hawk, but have the backbone of a chicken." Kerry himself often played that card. "I'd like to know what it is Republicans who didn't serve in Vietnam have against those of us who did," he would sniff, casting himself as the victim of unmanly hypocrites who never wore the uniform, yet had the gall to criticize him, a decorated veteran, for his stance on the war.
"Chicken hawk" isn't an argument. It is a slur -- a dishonest and incoherent slur. It is dishonest because those who invoke it don't really mean what they imply -- that only those with combat experience have the moral authority or the necessary understanding to advocate military force. After all, US foreign policy would be more hawkish, not less, if decisions about war and peace were left up to members of the armed forces. Soldiers tend to be politically conservative, hard-nosed about national security, and confident that American arms make the world safer and freer. On the question of Iraq -- stay-the-course or bring-the-troops-home? -- I would be willing to trust their judgment. Would Cindy Sheehan and Howard Dean?
The cry of "chicken hawk" is dishonest for another reason: It is never aimed at those who oppose military action. But there is no difference, in terms of the background and judgment required, between deciding to go to war and deciding not to. If only those who served in uniform during wartime have the moral standing and experience to back a war, then only they have the moral standing and experience to oppose a war. Those who mock the views of "chicken hawks" ought to be just as dismissive of "chicken doves."
In any case, the whole premise of the "chicken hawk" attack -- that military experience is a prerequisite for making sound pronouncements on foreign policy -- is illogical and ahistorical.
"There is no evidence that generals as a class make wiser national security policymakers than civilians," notes Eliot A. Cohen, a leading scholar of military and strategic affairs at Johns Hopkins University. "George C. Marshall, our greatest soldier-statesman after George Washington, opposed shipping arms to Britain in 1940. His boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with nary a day in uniform, thought otherwise. Whose judgment looks better?"
Some combat veterans display great sagacity when it comes to matters of state and strategy. Some display none at all. General George B. McLellan had a distinguished military career, eventually rising to general in chief of the Union armies; Abraham Lincoln served but a few weeks in a militia unit that saw no action. Whose wisdom better served the nation -- the military man who was hypercautious about sending men into battle, or the "chicken hawk" president who pressed aggressively for military action?
The founders of the American republic were unambiguous in rejecting any hint of military supremacy. Under the Constitution, military leaders take their orders from civilian leaders, who are subject in turn to the judgment of ordinary voters. Those who wear the uniform in wartime are entitled to their countrymen's esteem and lasting gratitude. But for well over two centuries, Americans have insisted that when it comes to security and defense policy, soldiers and veterans get no more of a say than anyone else.
You don't need medical training to express an opinion on healthcare. You don't have to be on the police force to comment on matters of law and order. You don't have to be a parent or a teacher or a graduate to be heard on the educational controversies of the day. You don't have to be a journalist to comment on this or any other column.
And whether you have fought for your country or never had that honor, you have every right to weigh in on questions of war and peace. Those who cackle "Chicken hawk!" are not making an argument. They are trying to stifle one, and deserve to be ignored.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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