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Chicken Hawks
Published on Tuesday, August 20, 2002 in the Guardian of London
Chicken Hawks
by Matthew Engel
 
Of all the many nonsenses affecting American aviation at present, the most absurd by far is the post-September 11 regulation imposed solely on flights to and from National Airport (or, as the Republicans try to insist, Reagan National) in Washington that bars anyone leaving their seat for the half-hour of flying time nearest the capital.

No matter that you are old, young, sick or simply bursting. No matter that half an hour in the air takes you hundreds of miles away. No matter that the rule does not apply at Washington's other airport, Dulles (about two minutes' flying time from National), nor at any of the hundreds of other American airports near potential terrorist targets. The flight path at National goes close to the center of Washington and the leaders' safety is paramount. As we saw when the president's jet zigzagged across the country in the hours after the attacks, members of the ruling elite are concerned about the safety of all Americans, but somewhat more concerned about their own. This fits, to a startling extent, with their personal histories.

Traditionally, the left has always had an inferiority complex about military experience. In Britain, Ted Heath (a wartime artillery colonel) used to patronize Harold Wilson (who spent the war in Whitehall) on the subject. Here in 1996 Bob Dole (badly wounded in the second world war) played the same card against the unheroic Bill Clinton. But as the Bush administration paints itself into an ever-tighter corner with its Iraq rhetoric, it is instructive to note the astonishing extent to which those so anxious to stage the next war managed to be absent from the last one.

The US is now mainly governed by men in their mid-50s, i.e. the Vietnam generation - except that this lot missed being the Vietnam generation. The enterprisingly original New Hampshire Gazette maintains a "Chickenhawks" database to tell their stories. Most of the allegations fit with facts recorded elsewhere.

Not everyone is implicated: Colin Powell's military record is solid, of course, which may help explain his distaste for fighting; and Donald Rumsfeld, an older man, was a naval aviator, albeit in the undramatic mid-50s. Otherwise, it starts with the president, who missed Vietnam by securing a cushy number in the Texas air national guard after (so everyone assumes) his congressman father pulled strings to get him in. It is less well-known that Dick Cheney avoided the draft by getting deferments, first because he was a student, then because he was married. "I had other priorities in the 60s than military service," he has said. Fine. Me too, Dick. Some people have got other priorities now. How about you?

Consider Washington's two most prominent superhawks: Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld's deputy) and his adviser Richard Perle. Who's Who in America is curiously vague about their precise whereabouts in the late 1960s, though it is fairly clear where they were not. As the shrewd and skeptical Republican senator Chuck Hagel said last week: "Maybe Mr Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad."

The two Democrat leaders in Congress, Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, served; their Republican counterparts, Trent Lott and Dick Armey, did not. Tom DeLay, the most powerful hawk in the House of Representatives, missed Vietnam too: he was working as a pest exterminator. Reportedly, he once complained that he would have served; but, he said, all the places were taken up by ethnic minorities.

There are similar stories about almost every other prominent rightwing Republican of recent vintage. Newt Gingrich, ex-Speaker of the House, went the Cheney route; Kenneth Starr, Clinton's legal nemesis, had psoriasis; Jack Kemp, Dole's running mate in 1996, was unfit because of a knee injury, though he heroically continued as a National Football League quarterback for another eight years; Pat Buchanan had arthritis in his knees, though he soon became an avid jogger.

The best story concerns Rush Limbaugh, the ferociously bellicose radio personality, who allegedly had either "anal cysts" or an "ingrown hair follicle on his bottom". It is not my custom to mock others' ailments, but anyone who has listened to Limbaugh's program can imagine the dripping scorn he would bring to the revelation that a prominent Democrat had skipped a war over something like that. Also, in his case, a pain in the arse is peculiarly appropriate.

Admission: I did not serve in Vietnam either. My country was not there, and did not ask me, or anyone else. Like those named above, I was unenthusiastic about that war. Unlike most of them, I am profoundly alarmed about the one now being plotted.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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