News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

The Chicken Hawk Factor

The army of media pundits, cabinet members, and military experts arrayed in favor of an attack on Iraq have one startling fact in common. Not one of them has a shred of wartime experience.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

"There's more combat experience on the 7th floor of the State Department than in the entire Office of the Secretary of Defense," quipped the high-ranking State Department official to a room filled with senior military officers last month. The statement "generated riotous applause," according to an eyewitness quoted in the Nelson Report, a private newsletter subscribed to by foreign-policy heavyweights and embassies in Washington.

The incident revealed the growing importance of the "Chicken Hawk" factor in the increasingly rancorous debate over the Bush administration's push toward war on Iraq and beyond. At the moment, the military brass is leading the opposition. It includes both the folks who will have to fight this war and those who have retired from the service. The list of former generals includes Secretary of State and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell and his deputy, U.S. Naval Academy grad and Vietnam veteran Richard Armitage; as well as veterans of the Gulf War, including most famously Bush Sr.'s national security adviser, ret. Gen. Brent Scowcroft; the Gulf War commander, ret. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf; and his logistics chief and later successor at Central Command, ret. Gen. Anthony Zinni.

"It is interesting to me that many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don't know anything about war," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), one of the most outspoken skeptics of the war with Baghdad. "They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off," the Vietnam veteran added. Hagel is not alone. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a highly decorated fellow Vietnam veteran who turned against the war, is also openly skeptical.

At the moment, the vast majority of the men pushing for war in Washington are what The New Hampshire Gazette defines as "Chicken Hawks": "public persons -- generally male -- who (1) tend to advocate military solutions to political problems, and who have personally (2) declined to take advantage of significant opportunity to serve in uniform during wartime."

That "significant opportunity" for most of Bush's war party faced was, of course, the Vietnam War. Dubya famously avoided the draft by getting a posting with the Texas National Guard, the kind of dodge that Powell referred to in his memoirs as being reserved for "the sons of the powerful." Cheney, however, avoided the uniform altogether, mumbling to one reporter that he "had other priorities in the Sixties than military service." Rumsfeld, the other leading Cabinet hawk, flew jets for the Navy between the Korean and Vietnam wars but never saw combat.

In fact, the only cabinet member with combat experience is Powell.

The sub-cabinet level also suffers from a distinct deficit in war-time experience. Cheney's hawkish and powerful chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, scooted through the sixties at Yale University and Columbia Law School, while Rumsfeld's top deputies, Paul Wolfowitz and Peter Rodman, completed graduate degrees before entering the national-security bureaucracy. The number three at the Pentagon, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, the administration's most avid champion of the Iraq war and its staunchest supporter of Israel's right-wing government, turned 18 only after the draft ended and, like Libby, went to law school.

Other major administration hawks, such as Elliott Abrams -- of Iran-Contra fame and now a member of the National Security Council in charge of democratizing the Middle East -- and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Strategy John Bolton also avoided military service during the height of the Vietnam War, reportedly for medical reasons. They, too, were law school-bound.

As for the ''axis of incitement'' -- those beating the war drums loudest outside the administration -- members of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), the Center for Security Policy (CSP), and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) also appear to have done what they could to avoid the uniform during the Vietnam War. The chairman of Rumfeld's Defense Policy Board (DPB) and one of the most visible advocates of military action to oust Saddam, Richard Perle, spent Vietnam at the University of Chicago (along with Wolfowitz) before joining the staff of Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who at the time was among the last remaining Democrats to support the Vietnam war.

"Maybe Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad," Hagel quipped recently, earning him an outraged rebuke by the editors at the Wall Street Journal who called the crack "particularly shabby." Another highly visible super-hawk and Perle protégé, CSP founder-director Frank Gaffney, also avoided military service during Vietnam.

Here's a startling fact: only four of the 32 prominent right-wingers who authored the now-famous Sept. 20 PNAC letter to Bush urging him to extend the war on terrorism to Iraq -- as well as Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority -- have any military experience. And three of those four were in the reserves like Bush. Among the signatories who have become fixtures on TV talk shows and op-ed pages arguing why the U.S. must invade Iraq, stand by Sharon, or "remake the face of the Arab world" are: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, his sidekick Robert Kagan, the Canadian-bred columnist Charles Krauthammer, Christian Right leader Gary Bauer, moralist William Bennett, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, former New Republic editor Martin Peretz, and former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, alongwith Perle and Gaffney.

Other armchair hawks include Michael Ledeen -- yet another omnipresent Iran-contra alum who says that the word "stability" gives him the "heebie-jeebies" -- who spent Vietnam curled up comfortably at a university library carrel reading Machiavelli. Rumsfeld intimate and DPB member Kenneth Adelman, who claims that a military campaign against Baghdad would be a "cakewalk," also avoided service.

This glaring disparity between experience and rhetoric has not been lost on the military brass. "It's pretty interesting that all the generals see it the same way, and all the others who have never fired a shot and are hot to go to war see it another," noted Zinni, who as chief of the U.S. Central Command in the late 1990s was responsible for U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region. The main concern of ex-generals like Zinni and Schwarzkopf is that an invasion will burden the military with an impossible and perhaps interminable political task. "Do we really want to occupy Iraq for the next 30 years?" asked former Navy Secretary and Vietnam veteran James Webb in a Washington Post column last week.

But the Chicken Hawks have not been shy about counterattacking Zinni and Co., arguing, like Clemenceau, that "war is too important to be left to the generals." The New Republic editor Peter Beinert claimed in a column that "over and over during the nineties, the generals with firsthand battlefield experience guessed wrong -- and the civilians without it guessed right -- about what would happen when the United States went to war." According to Beinert, military leaders have "repeatedly overestimated the enemy" since Vietnam.

The attitude of rightwing hawks was best summarized last week in the Washington Post by Eliot Cohen, one of the four signers of the PNAC letter who actually served in the Army reserves, albeit in the war-free 1980s. He wrote: "Being a veteran is no guarantee of a strategic wisdom," and as a consequence, veterans "should receive no special consideration for their views."