Checking Chickenhawks: the limited leverage of enlisting the elites

For a term deployed so often on the left, chickenhawk has a conservative core. The accusation—that someone is agitating for war only because they’re not affected—implies that someone should be fighting in a war, rather than war should be opposed, point blank. Maz Hussain has a piece at The Intercept on the latest generation of Americans to serve in what was once called the Global War on Terror, which he concludes with a bellicose call to “finish the job,” preferably using the children of the Bush administration and their supporters.

Millions of moviegoers might remember this idea from the highest-grossing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. In the film, Michael Moore, a Marine, and his crew cruise Capitol Hill, trying to convince Congresspeople to enlist their kids for the war in Iraq. In Rachel Maddow’s 2012 book Drift, she connects the “unmooring of American military power” to a constellation of factors, one of which is the perceived disconnect between America’s leaders and the families who fight “our” wars for us. Conservative historian Andrew Bacevich makes a similar point in his 2013 book Breach of Trust.

The idea is that if the elites bore a greater brunt of the suffering, there would be less war. Again, there’s a conservative idea at the core, and it’s an appeal to an imagined time when such a relationship restrained American warmaking. In their critiques of American power, conservatives like Bacevich or Garry Wills harken back to a pre-Cold War golden age, when Edna and Mabel happily forewent their nylon stockings for our boys Over There. A liberal may point to Vietnam as a high-water mark—Maddow’s book begins with this period. In the ’70s, the draft caused such opposition to the war that President Nixon felt compelled to sneak out of the White House for 4am parlays with anti-war demonstrators.

The narrative goes that these links created leaders who were circumspect about the use of American power—like Colin Powell, the “most popular man in America” circa 2000. The “Powell doctrine” provided a template for a war that even liberals can love, and sure enough, Powell enumerated it on the Rachel Maddow Show in April 2009. The archetypal divide between the “reluctant warrior” produced by a holistic elite-military connection and irresponsible, trigger-happy politician is best illustrated in an anecdote from the Clinton administration. Powell, with his knowledge of the realities of combat and son in the Army, sagely reined in American military power, leading an exasperated Madeleine Albright to scream “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

American imperialism would like to align itself with the image of the “reluctant warrior”: reasoned and mature, strong but justified. However, the Empire isn’t Colin Powell, it’s Madeline Albright—nakedly, murderously amoral in the calculus of its own interests. Though the Bush administration obliterated Iraq, it was Clinton’s “genocidal” sanctions regime that murdered more than half a million Iraqi children. In 1996, Albright famously remarked it was “worth it.” War is a racket, but traditional wars are just one tool of opening up markets. More often, as with sanctions, Empire exploits, immiserates, and kills without firing a shot.

The idea that war would be “better” with a more ideal alignment of the elites and the armed forces sacrifices this wider critique for a criticism riddled with conservative tropes: it’s rhetorically tepid, substantively empty, and strategically counterproductive.

As Nathan Fuller points out, the accusation of chickenhawk-ism is weak. It can’t be leveraged because it’s not remotely actionable. Is it a call for a 1% draft? Does it attend a proposal for a ratio of elites, which the armed services must meet before war can be waged? If a hawkish Senator supports war and has military-age male children at Georgetown instead of Forward Operating Base Lightning, what then, exactly?

To apply this to the conclusion of Hussain’s piece: is he saying that the Iraq War is illegitimate only because Liz Cheney didn’t enlist? Were liberals too hasty to pounce on John McCain’s call to occupy Iraq for a century, given that his son served there? Pointing out that a member of the ruling class lacks relatives who’re directly threatened by war is merely a statement of fact, with only a surface level of criticism. It’s the sort of non-substantive observation passing as “seemingly profound pronouncement” that’s endemic to Celebrity Left discourse.

The accusation that our elites are chickenhawks, supporting war only because it won’t affect them, is also largely inaccurate. During the 2008 election, 3 of the 4 candidates had sons serving in the military. John McCain had a Marine son in Iraq, Joe Biden’s son Beau was deployed as his father campaigned, and Sarah Palin’s son Track spent a year in Iraq as an Army reservist. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Senator Jim Webb (D-CA), Representatives Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Joe Wilson (R-SC), and Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin (R-MO) among others have all had one or more sons serve in the military, many in combat. Though Tony Blair has 8 homes and zero children enlisted, Queen Elizabeth easily beats him in size and quantity of houses, and her grandson Harry zipped around Helmand shooting “Terry Taliban” from the air like a true British royal.

The overall demographics of enlisted troops and officers belies the idea that the burden of the all-volunteer force falls on the poorest and least white. A Heritage Foundation study from 2007 found that families making under $40,000/year were underrepresented in the armed forces, and “enlisted recruits in 2006 and 2007 came primarily from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds.” However, the idea that servicemembers enlist largely for financial necessity is pervasive because it’s convenient. Painting the military as an organization to benefit the working poor, like a vocational school or UNICEF, runs interference for imperialism and gives liberals a chance to break out something that sounds like class consciousness. [updated below]

As Fuller pointed out, the chickenhawk accusation concedes ground rhetorically by invoking credentials as a pre-condition for one’s opinion on war. If someone needs a child in the military to advocate for war, why doesn’t someone need to have served in order to criticize war? Credentialism is a profoundly reactionary posture—no one arguing for the maintenance of the status quo has to enumerate the bona fides that entitle her or him to their thoughts. Inviting it into an anti-war discussion drags the conversation from a substantive issue of perspective down to the level of who possesses what attributes.

A discussion of attributes masking weak, non-prescriptive politics is a hallmark of media figures trying to pass as leftier than they are. The same dynamic is at work when left celebrities blast the powerful for their “hypocrisy,” rather than anything that actually matters. It leads to actual Bush apologia in places whose marketing hinges on seeming adversarial to power, like Dan Froomkin saying “Bush at least thought the war in Iraq would do some good.” Sure, Jenna and Barbara skipped tours in the Sunni Triangle in favor of quaffing Jäger bombs at Señor Frog’s, but at least their dad believed in the goodness of the civilizing mission. Never mind that this is obscene bullshit, it’s personality-based non-analysis.

Accusing the powerful of being hypocrites or chickenhawks reduces a critique of systemic evils to a quibble over personal myopia. It also fatally misunderstands who the elites are—as though being perceived as personally consistent is more compelling than being rich and powerful.

Mitigating the scope of criticism has proven to be strategically toxic for an anti-war movement. The anti-war coalitions that protested the Iraq War might have been more resistant to co-optation by the Democratic Party if the focus had been more strongly on opposing Imperialism. Looking back on some grievances against the war—the US is acting unilaterally, the Bush administration is putting under-qualified people in charge of the “reconstruction”—they read like the sort of complaints that opened up the movement to be placated by more competent imperialists.

The destruction of Libya has been no less severe because that country was bombed by an international coalition that the US “led from behind.” The Obama administration’s deployment of qualified Arabists in the diplomatic and clandestine services hasn’t lead to a less hellish disaster for Syria. These sorts of liberal complaints, of which insufficient elite conscription is one, are a distraction.

Joe Biden is probably the best figure for illustrating how little can be done by fixing an illusory elite-military divide. For much of his Senate tenure, Biden had a hawkish reputation. In 1998, then-Senator Biden was all but calling for war with Iraq. Raising the specter of WMDs and invoking (fictional) horrors like Saddam’s human experimentation, Biden claimed that containment of Iraq was “a very unsatisfying policy,” and made clear that he would vote for war if it came to it. 5 years later, when he did just that, Biden claimed that the war was an essentially Democratic idea.

A warmonger isn’t likely change his or her tune just because their child could be in danger. As Beau was shipping off to Iraq, Biden was flying to Georgia during the South Ossetia war, agitating for greater American involvement in a conflict that threatened to start a US-Russian shooting war.

Based on the logic of having skin in the game, presumably a politician like Biden would at least have a deep wellspring of sympathy for the plight of the troops. Even if his family connections don’t stem his war advocacy, at least he would try to make the enlisted’s lives easier post-deployment.

Before his post-2008 whitewash as an avuncular straight-talker, Biden was the most loyal servant of the credit card industry. The industry was notoriously predatory towards enlisted soldiers, so in 2005 Dick Durban (D-IL) tried to introduce an amendment to a particularly odious piece of Senate legislation called the Bankruptcy Bill. The GI Protection Amendment would protect deployed soldiers from having their homes foreclosed on while they were overseas. Naturally, Biden came through for his patrons, helping defeat an amendment whose sole purpose was to keep The Troops from being made homeless by predatory credit agencies.

Someone like Biden doesn’t enjoy a lifetime Senate sinecure because they let familial relations affect their voting behavior. Politicians are in their positions because they can be relied upon to serve the needs of capital. Kids or no, their loyalties are to their corporate benefactors. Imperialism should be opposed because it’s the most evil, destructive force on earth. Anything else is likely to be at best counterproductive, and at worst actively destructive to anti-war agitating.


Update: David Mizner has brought to my attention via Twitter that the Heritage Foundation study is flawed to the point of not being credible. While those demographic specifics are inaccurate, I stand by the remaining points.

2 thoughts on “Checking Chickenhawks: the limited leverage of enlisting the elites

  1. This is an excellent, all-encompassing response to the childish “chickenhawk” argument! Another thing credentialism does is create an opening for people to bat away antiwar arguments by invoking division of labor. War is something of a business, even natsec hawks would concede, and we do have a market economy, no? Some people are janitors, some are bankers, some are doctors, some are security guards and others are NATIONAL guards.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing, Sassy. Your “courage of no convictions” piece was very helpful. I’ve heard this argument before: “what could be wrong with enlisting as a combat medic? Surely doctors are good, right?”

      In addition to everything else, this just feels like the sort of thing whose uselessness seems overwhelmingly well-established. Obviously pointing out Cheney’s 5 draft deferments didn’t make a difference in 2003, why will it make a difference a decade on?

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