The heated debate over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense has led to the resurgence of the "chickenhawk" meme: the idea that a lot of armchair generals, who never served in the military, are criticizing a Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts for "appeasement" of our alleged enemies is grating on many ears. The chickenhawk meme came up in a recent New York Times piece on the controversy surrounding Hagel:
"In [a 2003 interview with the Times, Hagel] took a swipe at [Richard]. Perle, then one of the most visible promoters of the war, saying, ‘Maybe Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad.’"
"Mr. Perle had never served in the military. Along with Mr. Hagel’s comment in Newsweek that many of the war’s most steadfast proponents don’t know anything about war,’ his criticism prompted a national discussion about ‘chicken hawks,’ a derisive term for those advocating war with no direct experience of it. And his comments drew a rebuke from The Weekly Standard that Mr. Hagel was part of an ‘axis of appeasement.’"
Go and google "Chuck Hagel chickenhawks" and you’ll come up with a load of commentary linking Hagel’s neoconservative critics to this derisive term. Is it fair?
On the face of it: no. It appears to be an ad hominem argument – that is, a talking point that attacks someone for who they are, rather than what they are actually saying – and it is therefore a logical fallacy. Case closed – or is it?
Well, not quite. Because it’s essential to remember the context in which the chickenhawk meme is making its reappearance. If you recall, during the run up to the invasion of Iraq, an entire platoon of top military brass, active and retired, pushed back againt the Bush regime’s war talk and, as the Washington Post dutifully reported at the time, warned of the coming disaster:
"Despite President Bush’s repeated bellicose statements about Iraq, many senior U.S. military officers contend that President Saddam Hussein poses no immediate threat and that the United States should continue its policy of containment rather than invade Iraq to force a change of leadership in Baghdad."
The generals argued that containment was working, and "Another concern is that Iraq could split up under a U.S. attack, potentially leading to chaos and the creation of new anti-American regimes and terrorist sanctuaries in the region." The Pentagon’s anti-interventionist critique of the neocons’ war plans was eerily prescient: the military brass worried about "How to predict the costs of a post-victory occupation, which presumably would require tens of thousands of U.S. troops, not only to keep the peace and support the successor regime, but also to prevent Iraq from breaking up. Also, officials worry, a large U.S. presence might antagonize Arab public opinion as well as impose heavy financial and human costs on the U.S. military, which already feels stretched by the war on terrorism and peacekeeping commitments in the Balkans."
Retired Marine commander Joseph P. Hoar testified in front of Congress a few days after that piece came out, opening his remarks with:
"When I was a young officer, my government miscalculated the nature of the war in Southeast Asia, and we paid the price. We’re about to do that again in Iraq."
Hagel, who voted for the war authorization but expressed a high degree of skepticism at the time, turned quickly against the Bush war policy and earned the eternal enmity of the neocons for his outspoken stance – the only Republican in the Senate to raise his voice. In Vietnam, as he was being carried off on a stretcher along with his wounded brother, then Sergeant Hagel vowed to oppose unnecessary wars and give voice to the grunts who bore the brunt of the politicians’ folly – and this is the real core of the neocons’ problem with him. Because they can’t really mount a challenge to this kind of critique: Eliot Cohen tried, but his argument urging us to "disregard what appears to be President Obama’s chief case for nominating him: that he served honorably as a sergeant in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded in combat" was pathetically weak:
"What is it, precisely, that one would bring by service as a sergeant in a war more than 40 years past — almost as distant from today as the charge up San Juan Hill was from D-Day, or the Battle of New Orleans was from Gettysburg? It was an important, even searing, life experience, no doubt. But the technology, strategy, tactics and organization now are all utterly different. Today, we have a hardened professional army, not a band of reluctant conscripts caught up in the Big Green Machine.
"Does combat service uniquely produce empathy with the troops, an awareness of the horrors of wounds and violent death? Visits to a military hospital will bring one to that. Did Defense Secretary Bob Gates care any less about the troops because he wasn’t hit by shrapnel during his Air Force service?"
Cohen glides past Hagel’s battlefield epiphany as easily as a snake slithers through the grass, but it’s worth looking at that moment of clarity and how it came about in order to understand why Cohen not only doesn’t want to get, but can’t get it.
Hagel was no "reluctant conscript," he volunteered to be sent to Vietnam. He and his brother were both wounded on two occasions, and the second incident, when a mine went off beneath their armored personnel carrier, had a lasting psycho-ideological effect on the future Senator and SecDef nominee. Hagel suffered severe burns, and the impact knocked his brother out, as Politico reports.
"’He pulled me off, I don’t remember but I was told,’ Tom Hagel said. ‘I was unconscious for a while.’
"Chuck Hagel recalled the incident to the Library of Congress this way: ‘We took the earphones off of him. He had blood running out of his ears and his nose. And I didn’t know if he was dead. So we got him off. I threw him off, and I fell on top of him as we dove off.’
"They escaped under heavy machine-gun fire. After being transported out, Chuck Hagel says he made a resolution.
"’I remember sitting on that track, another track, waiting for the dust-off [helicopter] to come and medical evacuation, and thinking to myself, you know, if I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, calls upon to settle a dispute,’ he said. ‘The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it. People just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it. There’s no glory, only suffering in war."
The soft-bodied pencil-necked geeks who populate the op ed page of the Washington Post, with their endless articles demanding we intervene here, there, and everywhere, not only don’t get it – they will never get it precisely because military service isn’t something you’re likely to find in the typical neocon’s résume. Senor Cohen can’t replicate what Hagel went through – and the insight he gained from the experience – by visiting a military hospital, because, after all, nothing comparable has ever happened to him. Is it really necessary to point out that it’s one thing to see someone without a leg, or any arms, and quite another to actually not have a leg or any arms? Apparently the distinction is too subtle for Cohen, the neocons’ major military theorist, to grasp.
No, a military man who’s been wounded and received two Purple Hearts for his or her bravery isn’t necessarily going to be right about whether or not we ought to go to war. During the Vietnam war there were plenty of brass who disdained the "hippies" who were against the war, and insisted we keep fighting until "victory," and they were wrong. In Hagel’s particular case, however, his battlefield insight was proved right, and not just about the Vietnam war: the officers and veterans who opposed the Iraq war and the "surge" were 100 percent correct in their assessment – just as they’re right in their very public opposition to the prospect of war with Iran. This is the verdict the neocons want to reverse, and it is what’s driving their hate campaign against Hagel.
The post-Vietnam military establishment has opposed the neocons’ "regime change" agenda at every turn: in Iraq, and now with the drive to war with Iran. When Gen. Jack Dempsey, head of the Joint Chiefs, took the unusual move of publicly declaring he did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran, the neocons could barely contain their outrage. For weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been threatening an Israeli attack on Tehran, which – he implied – would inevitably draw in the US. Dempsey’s dissent – calling into question Bibi’s complacent assumption of unconditional American support — put the kibosh on that one.
The neocons know who their enemies are: not only Hagel, but the old hands of the military and diplomatic community, who have to a man come out swinging in Hagel’s defense. As the squawking of Washington’s chickenhawks threatens to drown out voices of reason, the American people – and their representatives in the US Senate – would do well to ask themselves why that is.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’m on Twitter quite a bit these days, and you might want to follow me here.
Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon.
Buy my biography of the great libertarian thinker, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, here.