When I was in college, taking a required two-year military course in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, I wrote a column for my campus newspaper criticizing the compulsory nature of ROTC. I was thereupon ordered to show myself at ROTC headquarters to meet with the captain who headed the program. He gave me a short lecture about patriotism and military service and sent me away with one final question: "Did your father serve in the military?" The question confused me, but I saluted him smartly, mumbled my answer, and departed his office. What was he implying, I wondered. Is military service a measure of one’s patriotism and credibility?
I wish that I could reverse time and relive that moment. Now I have the proper answer. "Did Dick Cheney serve?" I’d shoot back. "Or Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle?" referring to the Bush Administration’s two leading advocates of bombing Baghdad. "Was John Ashcroft ever in the military? Or GOP congressional leaders Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Phil Gramm, Dennis Hastert or White House guru Karl Rove or Newt Gingrich or Russ Limbaugh?" Each of these worthies was eligible to serve in the Vietnam-era military, but none did. And how about John Wayne and Ronald Reagan of my father’s generation, both of whom fought World War II in Hollywood backlots but, in defiance of fact, stand as symbols of the World War II "greatest" generation.
In many states and on the national level, military service is used as a political weapon, aimed by political right-wingers with hawkish views at liberal or left-of-center doves who are critical of our foreign policy and opposed to our country’s military interventions in other countries.
It’s an old and despicable political gambit; and it’s been very successful in stifling debate about America’s military and foreign policy. Politicians who protested the Vietnam War are vulnerable to personal attack if they’ve not done military service (remember how the right-wing attacked Bill Clinton on this subject). Right-wingers, however, get a free ride. They can spout-off in favor of war without ever having to explain their lack of military service.
One result is that men and women with public histories of protesting war are rarely consulted about foreign policy –- not by the media and not by the government. Very few doves, except in the black community, are ever elected to national office. Draft resisters, who stood up for their principles, are very rarely asked to comment on public policy.
From the get-go, policy discussions are biased towards people with hawkish views. Most people now agree that the war in Vietnam was a mistake and that the critics of the war were largely right. But the critics of that war are still very much marginalized in America’s political culture. Those who were wrong about Vietnam are still making policy. Alternative viewpoints are rarely heard.
It’s not just a matter of right and wrong policy decisions, however. Military service or the lack thereof does not automatically make a politician wise. John McCain and John Kerry both served in Vietnam but disagree about Iraq. McCain, to his credit, has spoken up in behalf of Vietnam War protestors serving in government. But he’s an exception. To the Bush Administration, obsessed as it is with fighting a cultural and political war against the activists of the 1960s, hawkish views are patriotic and those who disagree are immediately vulnerable if they’ve not done military service.
I owe the research for this article to Steven Fowle, a Vietnam veteran who
edits The New Hampshire Gazette. He has compiled a list of politicians and public
opinion leaders who advocate war but never served in the military. His web site
is called "The
Chickenhawk Database". Fowle’s definition
of a "chickenhawk" is a "public person" who advocates or fervently supports "military
solutions to political problems" and who has "personally declined to take advantage
of a significant opportunity to served in uniform during wartime." That description
describes, as listed above, some of the most prominent right-wing and neoconservative
hawks advocating attacking Iraq. The list also includes other prominent politicians
and media pundits. (Fowle notes that his use of the term "chickenhawk" has nothing
to do with the Vietnam memoir "Chickenhawk" by Robert Mason, a Vietnam vet).
The chickenhawks advocating a war with Iraq did nothing illegal in avoiding the Vietnam war it should be said. The Vietnam draft was discriminatory in terms of race and class. Student deferments, notes from a friendly doctor, or the support of a sympathetic draft board provided a legal means of draft avoidance. But Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle and their cohorts were pro-war. They still are. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, they’re pleased to have other Americans do the fighting.
Yes, we need a full-blown debate about Iraq, not only in the Congress, but in the media, in schools, and in local communities. (Something to think about: if we still had a draft, there’d be massive opposition to a war in Iraq all over the country, and young people would be leading it). Alas, I doubt if we’ll get the kind of discussion that is needed –-one that explores the merit of the problem from all perspectives and seeks peaceful alternatives to military conflagration. Neither Congress nor the mainstream media is going to give veteran doves a respectful hearing. Those who advocate a multilateral diplomatic solution to the problems of Iraq, terrorism, and the Middle East but who did not serve in the military will not be part of it. Those who advocate a war against Iraq will have center stage; and the chickenhawks among them will not have to justify their lack of military service.
Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By way of disclosure, I was classified as IY (eligible for service in a national
emergency) in 1963. I began protesting the Vietnam War in 1964 and was an organizer
and advocate of draft resistance for the duration.