One of the most disturbing aspects of the Republican debate on foreign policy, held November 12, was that it presaged the return of the Republican chickenhawks. The term “chickenhawk,” of course, refers to someone who is an extreme “hawk” on military matters without ever having served himself or herself in the military. It was a frequent taunt of Democrats aimed at the Bush Administration because so many dovish Democrats had, in fact, served in the military, while some of the most hawkish members of the Bush Administration — most notoriously Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most staunchest advocates of using torture, assassination and other extreme measures — never saw a day of military service, much less combat.
As someone who also is not a veteran, I can honestly say that non-veterans owe two debts when speaking about anything involving the military. The first is respect. One of the biggest mistakes of liberals during the 1960s and ’70s, one which, I think, they have now corrected, was to blame rank-and-file soldiers for the decisions made by politicians. Most anti-war liberals now acknowledge that Americans owe a profound debt of gratitude and respect to the men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces… whether or not you agree with the military policies of whatever administration happens to be in power. Freedom truly isn’t free. The second debt non-veterans owe is a frank humility when it comes to actual combat or anything having to do with the actual nightmare that is warfare. And this is something that the chickenhawks utterly lack. They pretend they know what they’re talking about when it comes to things such as waterboarding… which makes them only ludicrous. I think it was Jesse Ventura, who was waterboarded, who made the crack that if Dick Cheney doesn’t think waterboarding is torture, he should come on down to Camp Pendleton and let the Seals waterboard for a bit. A pasty-faced lump of dough like Cheney would last 4 seconds before begging for his mommy.
Well, the neo-con chickenhawks are back in the Republican Party. At the November 12th debate, the subject of torture came up… and only Ron Paul (naturally) and Jon Huntsman had the courage to stand up to their fellow candidates (and also the hawkish Republican audience) and say clearly and forcefully that torture is illegal, immoral and largely ineffective — and that waterboarding is torture. Of course, waterboarding is torture. It’s been defined as torture for decades in U.S. Army field manuals. The U.S. actually executed Axis prisoners after World War II precisely for waterboarding. The rest of the Republican candidates fell all over themselves in their praise of torture, or at least of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Of all the candidates, only Ron Paul and Rick Perry served in the military. Rick Perry joined the Air Force in 1972 and service with distinction for five years, discharged with the rank of captain. Perry, too, was quite hawkish and vocal about his support for a tough line on Iran and in favor of torture — I mean, “enhanced interrogation techniques” — but at least he isn’t a chickenhawk and actually served.
That is quite in contrast to Newt Gingrich, who praised the Obama Administration decision to assassinate U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, never served. In fact, Gingrich, like Cheney, went out of his way to get out of having to serve. “Gingrich received a draft deferment during the Vietnam War owing to the fact that he was studying at the time in Tulane University and he had children,” states a Republican fact sheet on the matter. “In addition, he was also impaired with short-sightedness and had flat feet.”
Mitt Romney, who also said he supports “enhanced interrogation,” also did not serve. He got numerous deferments for being a Mormon “missionary of religion.” Michelle Bachman, of course, did not serve. Neither did Rick Santorum. Neither did Herman Cain, although he did spend six years as a civilian worker in the Department of the Navy.
I don’t mind if non-veterans decide intellectually in favor of a strong military policy. I can see how you can decide that your personal record is irrelevant and what counts is your judgment about what is best for the country and for the world. Golda Meir, for example, who I’ve always admired, never served in a combat unit yet had to make military decisions all the time. Yet I think, at the minimum, a non-veteran has to preface any “hawkish” remarks with some sort of recognition to the effect that, “Well, it’s easy for me to talk tough like this when I’ve personally never seen the nightmare of combat… but here’s why I think we simply must pursue this policy.” The chickenhawks don’t do that. They merely talk tough. And that’s why they’re a laughingstock.
UPDATE: January 7, 2012, New Hampshire…