Archive for August 5th, 2007


Chickenhawks Exist…Theoretically

August 5, 2007

One of the most widely used and abused epithets in political discourse is the term “Chickenhawk“.  It’s most often used by those who are against the Iraq war as an ad hominem argument directed at those who are for it.  Here’s the wiki definition:

Chickenhawk (also chicken hawk and chicken-hawk) is a political epithet used in the United States to criticize a politician, bureaucrat, or commentator who strongly supports a war or other military action, but has never personally been in a war, especially if that person actively avoided military service when of draft age.

The term is meant to indicate that the person in question is cowardly or hypocritical for personally avoiding combat in the past while advocating that others go to war in the present. Generally, the implication is that “chickenhawks” lack the experience, judgment, or moral standing to make decisions about going to war. Often, there is a further connotation that “chickenhawks” falsely believe that their support for military action is a mark of personal courage analogous to actual combat, thereby demeaning those actually serving while elevating themselves.[1]

Or, an alternative definition:

Chickenhawk is “A person enthusiastic about war, provided someone else fights it; particularly when that enthusiasm is undimmed by personal experience with war; most emphatically when that lack of experience came in spite of ample opportunity in that person’s youth.”

The problem with the term is that it is fraught with logical fallacies, at least in the manner that it is commonly used.  In its ad hominem form, it is all too often wielded as a substitute for an actual argument, and is typically done in a knee-jerk fashion as slur more than anything else.  Usually, it points to bit of intellectual laziness on the part of the user.

However, I’m going to make take pieces of the above definition(s) and make the argument that chickenhawks are indeed among us, at least in theory.  After giving it some thought, here’s my definition:

A vocal or influential supporter of a war or conflict whose support is contingent upon the fact that they won’t have to sacrifice anything of significance personally (themselves, children, a close friend, etc.); someone whose public statements contradict their private sentiments based on that condition (for example, an exercise in partisanship); especially significant if one has also vocally expressed disdain for those who have voiced concerns about, or have spoken out against said war.

Unfortunately for the vast majority of the people out there who widely use the term, it is very hard to prove that someone fits this definition.  Pointing out that someone is for the war but has never served in the military or doesn’t enlist won’t cut it.  To prove that someone is a chickenhawk in this case would require some knowledge of a person’s private thoughts or conversations and knowing that they are contradictory to what they have said publicly.  For the definition, I put emphasis on “vocal or influential” to intentionally exclude those who simply express an opinion if asked.  “Vocal” in this case means a supporter who is making an effort to influence others (politicians, radio hosts, columnists, etc.), or, to a somewhat lesser extent,  someone whose arguments are being made public enough to possibly influence others (like bloggers).

Here are a couple hypothetical examples:

  • Karl “prepared for war” Rove actively discourages his son from joining the military.
  • Vocal war supporters suddenly change their tune or simply run for Canada if the draft were reinstated.
  • A politician’s support for war based primarily on political expediency.

You see, we don’t know what Rove tells his son privately, and we may never see a draft that would force the chickens to drop their tough guy masks.  It’s also safe to assume that a politician’s position may be different if they knew that someone close to them would be sent into harms way, but you’ll have a hard time proving that as well.

I think that everyone can agree, however, that there are probably plenty of people out there who would fit my definition.  The problem is, one can’t really use the term because we can’t positively ID most of them (especially complete strangers on the internet).  Also, what is unique about my definition, I suppose, is that prior military service doesn’t automatically disqualify someone.

So, if you know of a real chickenhawk in your personal life, don’t be afraid to call him on it if they question your patriotism for any anti-war rhetoric you might utter.  I think that’s fine.  After all, they’re phonies.  But the term is very hard to apply to someone that you do not know personally, so most of its usage on the internet should be avoided.

Previously in the Chamber: Is Andrew Rove “Prepared For War”?

And a blog of note:  Operation Yellow Elephant