Thursday, November 1, 2012

Against Chickenhawking, or, the Prussianism of the Left


                La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.--Georges Clemenceau

If this war is such a good idea, why don't you go enlist? If Bush is so keen to fight Iraq, why doesn't he send Jenna? You're sending other men's children to die, but you won't send your own? Why don't you put your money where your mouth is? How dare Mitt Romney propose sending troops into harm's way when he had four draft deferments, and none of his sons serve?

So goes the favorite rhetorical device of some factions of the modern American left: chickenhawking. Spurred by the rise of neo-conservatism after 9/11, war opponents in this country have often resorted to accusing war proponents of cowardice. The war party, they allege, are chickenhawks, willing to send others to die but unwilling to do so themselves. It is at its core an argumentum ad hominem, or, on occasion, an argumentum ad filium, as the chickenhawker often implies that the target's failure to "send" his children into the military--as if they were their parents chattels--is itself an act of cowardice.

It is an incredibly tempting allegation. After all, many neoconservatives possess a disturbingly cavalier attitude towards the use of military force. At minimum they tend to be unrealistically optimistic about the results of its deployment, and at worst they are pure jingoists. They are willing to take tremendous risks with other people's lives (to say nothing of other people's countries), for an often non-existent reward. Surely it seems galling that many of their most loudest adherents have never served, yet so eagerly clamor to send others to die in the name of dubious causes.

The thing is, neoconservatism stands or falls independently of the service record of its adherents. Whether it is right or wrong for this country has absolutely nothing to do with whether Jenna Bush or Tagg Romney or Timmy Krauthammer serves in the military. Let us remember, after all, that perhaps the most vocal and politically senior neoconservative alive today, Senator John McCain, most certainly does understand the cost of war, and the tremendous suffering that it can bring. Say whatever else you will about him, John McCain is no coward. His hawkish pedigree does not carry any taint of poultry. But that doesn't make his proposed foreign policy any wiser.

If chickenhawking were merely an ad hominem attack, that would be bad enough. The real problem, however, is much, much worse. The taunts to enlist, to put one's money (or one's children's money) where one's mouth is, leads to some very dangerous places, very, very quickly. War, Clausewitz famously pointed out, is the extension of politics by other means. It is in other words fundamentally a political instrument. War and the threat thereof are very important tools for any country's statesmen. It is the "or else", this ultimate stick, that ultimately backs a great deal of diplomacy.

Yet the logic of the chickenhawker insists that only soldiers and veterans are sufficiently acquainted with the horrors of war to be qualified to embrace it as state policy. And yet, if one accepts, as presumably most chickenhawkers do, the premise that war remains an essential tool of statecraft--and indeed, arguably the decision to go to war is the gravest and most important any statesman can make--it must therefore follow that only soldiers and veterans are fully qualified to serve as statesmen. After all, he who would serve as custodian of the dogs of war must be able to release them and be able to credibly threaten to do so; by the chickenhawkers' own logic it follows that any civilian must be unqualified to serve in such a role. Thus, chickenhawking ultimately attacks the principle of civilian control of the military. It places the military on a pedestal and establishes soldiers as a privileged caste, nay, an Elect, possessing wisdom unknowable by and grace inaccessible to civilians. It demands that not only must soldiers decide when and with whom the nation will go to war, they must decide how the nation will go to war.

It is also worth noting the similarity the chickenhawker bears to the Tea Partier who complains that too many Americans "don't have skin in the game" because they do not pay income taxes. This of course is the root of Mitt Romney's disastrous 47% comment, Paul Ryan's starkly Randian declaration that the country can be divided into "makers" and "takers", and the increasing demands on the Right to raise taxes on the poor. There are even dark mutterings in some corners of the Tea Party that the vote should only be open to those who pay a certain amount of taxes, or even own a certain amount of property. It is borne of the idea that participation in the franchise and other democratic institutions is a privilege, not a right, and of the fear that the great unwashed masses will simply decide to vote itself ever greater largesse paid for by taxes imposed on others but not themselves. Democracy, to quote Franklin, would become two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner.

This is doubly true when one realizes that left-wing chickenhawking often goes hand-in-hand with enthusiasm for the draft, whose advocates on the left use similar language. The draft, to them, is a way to get everyone's "skin in the game". Just as the Republican who wants to see income taxes raised on the poor and the Tea Partier who thinks that only property owners should hold the franchise hope to ensure that the nation's treasure is not spent by the unworthy, draft advocates on the left hope that the draft would prevent the nation's blood from being spent by the unworthy. Ultimately, both are expressions of a distrust in democracy, the belief that voters and public officials simply cannot be trusted unless made to directly bear the consequences of their actions. We would not hesitate to call the former anti-democratic; why would we hesitate to so name the latter?

I can think of one country in recent history where military service was a prerequisite for political stature: Prussia. Within Prussian society, the reserve officer's commission became the sine qua non of a gentleman. For a man to reach the highest levels of Prussian society or civil service, that commission was practically a requirement. When Bismarck, in his role as Chancellor of the North German Confederation and President-Minister of Prussia, attempted to control military policy during the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian generals resisted him tooth and nail. Who was he, a mere major in the reserves, to seek to involve himself in military matters--never mind that he was the head of government and the man who had arranged the war in the first place! Prussian militarists, largely unchecked by civilian authorities once Bismarck was forced from power in 1890 and legally answerable only to the Kaiser, ultimately led their country and the rest of Germany to a string of disasters, culminating in its own complete collapse in the fall of 1918. And every step of the way, they insisted upon their absolute independence from any form of civilian "interference".

Perhaps not coincidentally, Prussia also maintained a complicated three-tiered voting system, wherein the weight of a man's vote was determined by the amount of taxes he paid.

Conversely, consider our two greatest wartime presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Before becoming President Lincoln had served in the militia, but by his own account never fought anything more frightening than mosquitoes. He sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to their deaths in what was by the end of 1863 a deeply unpopular war. Roosevelt, meanwhile, had promised repeatedly that he would keep America out of the war. Yet even before Pearl Harbor he (rightly) pursued a deeply antagonistic foreign policy vis a vis the Axis powers, helping to provoke the surprise attack that led to our entry into the war. And, despite having served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he never wore a uniform either.

Of course, the chickenhawkers do not actually believe what they are saying. They do not honestly wish to see a politically independent, Prussianized military, or to see military service become a prerequisite for civil service. The fools who chanted "Send Jenna!" at President Bush for the most part are not chanting "Send Sasha!" at President Obama. But they are part of what Andrew Bacevich has identified as an increasing discourse of militarism within this country. And this is genuinely dangerous, because even in the best case scenario, as Isabel Hull observes in her brilliant study of the Imperial German military, Absolute Destruction, weakening civilian oversight of the military leads to a kind of military myopia that damages national defense and makes wartime atrocities more likely. Worse, it risks weakening the very fabric of democracy.

The European Left fought tooth and nail for civilian control of the military, and the great Democratic President Harry Truman fired one of the most decorated generals and celebrated war heroes of his time for insubordination. They understood from bitter experience that the military cannot be trusted to its own devices, even if with the best of intentions. And yet, too many on the American Left today would throw away the hard earned-controls, the bitterly won victories of their philosophical forebears, in the name of political point scoring. It undermines not only the Left's core values, but democracy itself. It's madness.

Neoconservatism is flawed, but it should be attacked on its many, many demerits, not on where, how, or if its adherents--or their children--have served in the armed forces. If, as Clemenceau said, war is too serious to be left to the soldiers, then we must accept--nay, even celebrate--the fact that our nation's soldiers are ultimately answerable to its people.

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