A high-ranking State Department official was speaking to a room full of senior military officers last month when he cracked, “there’s more combat experience on the 7th floor of the State Department than in the entire Office of the Secretary of Defense.”
“The remark generated riotous applause,” according to an eyewitness who recounted the incident to Chris Nelson, publisher of the Nelson Report, a private newsletter that circulates to embassies and Capitol Hill offices.
The anecdote illustrates what some are now calling the “Chicken Hawk” factor, which could play an important role in the increasingly intense and personalized debate over the Bush administration’s push toward war with Iraq.
Maureen Dowd raised this issue last week in her New York Times column entitled “Coup de Crawford,” in which she noted that those who were huddling at Bush’s ranch planning war against Iraq were mostly civilians with no wartime experience. “We used to worry about a military coup against civilian authority. Now we worry about a civilian coup against military authority,” she pointedly observed.
Indeed, the fact that the greatest opposition to the war is centered in the military brass, the source of the most damaging leaks of the administration’s battle plans—as well as in the upper reaches of the State Department and among the foreign policy veterans of the first Bush administration—has made the hawks extremely sensitive to the question of their own military service, or, rather, lack of it.
“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,” observed Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican Vietnam veteran whose skepticism about an Iraqi adventure has made him persona non grata to the neoconservatives who are leading the charge, now popularly called Chicken Hawks. According to the New Hamsphire Gazette (online at www.nhgazette.com), which maintains a database on the subject, this “is a term often applied to public persons—generally male—who (1) tend to advocate … military solutions to political problems, and who have personally (2) declined to take advantage of a significant opportunity to serve in uniform during wartime.”
That description applies to most senior administration officials in their fifties who were subject to the military draft during the Vietnam War. George W. Bush himself, instead of being drafted for the war, received a posting to the Texas National Guard. It was the kind of dodge from military service that, according to Secretary of State and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell’s memoirs, was generally reserved for “the sons of the powerful.”
Cheney, however, avoided the uniform altogether, insisting to one inquiring reporter that he “had other priorities in the 1960s than military service.” Rumsfeld, the other leading Cabinet hawk, flew Navy jets between the Korean and Vietnam wars but saw no combat. Indeed, the only cabinet member with combat experience is Powell.
The record at the sub-cabinet level is worse. Cheney’s hawkish and powerful chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, spent the Vietnam War at Yale and Columbia universities. Rumsfeld’s top deputies in the same age group—Paul Wolfowitz and Peter Rodman—were similarly engaged, while Dougas Feith, the Pentagon’s most enthusiastic war booster, turned 18 only after the draft ended but then opted for law school.
Other major administration hawks—such as Elliott Abrams on the National Security Council staff 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 due to medical problems.
Even more remarkable, the major agitators for war outside the administration also lack direct military experience. Of the 32 prominent signers of a now-famous September 20 letter from the Project for the New America Century (online at www.newamericancentury.org ) to Bush urging him to include Iraq, as well as Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority, as targets in the war on terrorism, only three have ever donned a uniform.
Indeed, one of the key members of that group, who is also chairman of Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board (DPB) and one of the most visible advocates for military action to oust Saddam Hussein, Richard Perle, spent Vietnam at the University of Chicago (alongside Wolfowitz) and later joined the staff of Sen. Henry Jackson, virtually the last Democrat in the Senate to support that war.
Because of his visibility and reputation as the hub of a pro-Likud network of national-security experts and media commentators, Perle was the target of a particularly sharp remark by Hagel, one of several prominent lawmakers decorated for their Vietnam service who oppose the rush to war. “Maybe Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad,” he said recently, earning him an outraged rebuke in a Wall Street Journal editorial.
“They come at it,” Hagel said of the Chicken Hawks, “from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the pasts a little.”
Another highly visible hyper-hawk and Perle protégé, Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), also avoided military service during Vietnam. Powell’s chief deputy, Richard Armitage, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served in Vietnam, has reportedly referred to Gaffney, as well as other members of the war party who dodged the draft, as a “pissant.”
“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 ret. Gen. Anthony Zinni, former chief of the Central Command that includes the Gulf region, just last week. Gulf War hero ret. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf has also expressed strong doubts about a new war.
It is not so much that they believe Iraq represents a serious threat to U.S. military might, although they have openly scorned the notion put forward by Perle and another influential DPB hawk close to Rumsfeld, Kenneth Adelman, that a military campaign would be a “cakewalk.” Rather, they are mainly worried about the war’s aftermath and the degree to which it will burden the military with an impossible political task with no clear exit. “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 Wednesday.
The Chicken Hawks have already begun a counterattack, arguing, like Clemenceau that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” The editor of The New Republic, an influential neo-conservative weekly, Peter Beinert argued that “over and over during the ‘90s, 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.” He singled out Powell for opposing carrying the Gulf War from Kuwait to Baghdad and the U.S. intervention in Bosnia.
Beinert argued that civilians better understood the political context for both wars and that the brass has tended to overestimate the enemy since the Vietnam War.
Defense analyst Eliot Cohen, who proudly notes that he served as an officer in the Army Reserve, is one of the leading proponents of an attack on Iraq and an embrace of a new militarism in U.S. foreign policy. In a Washington Post op-ed, “Hunting Chicken Hawks,” he makes the case clearly that civilian strategists like himself should be the ones shaping U.S. military interventionism. At a time when the moderate multilateralists and realists in the Republican camp are already balking at the crusading mentality of the administration’s neoconservative strategists, Cohen’s comments may serve to push U.S. veterans toward the “justice not war” camp on the center and left.
From Cohen’s perch at Harvard, he observes, “The expertise of generals lies chiefly in the operational, not the strategic sphere—how to wage war, not whether it should be fought.” What’s more, “There is no evidence that generals as a class make wiser national security policymakers than civilians.” And when it comes to any decision to wage war, “Being a veteran is no guarantee of strategic wisdom” and as a consequence “in matters of war and peace veterans should receive no special consideration for their views.”
The Chicken Hawks are warning the uniformed military to keep their reservations to themselves. Eliot Cohen, an academic close to Perle and one of the signers of the influential Project for a New American Century document outlining the U.S. supremacy agenda, made that point in a Wall Street Journal column two weeks ago entitled “Generals, Politicians and Iraq” in which he reminded the brass of their “obligation to present their views with utter honesty in private, but to maintain silence in public.”
The central message of Cohen’s latest book, Supreme Command, stresses the importance of civilian supremacy in wartime and argues that the military brass are habitually over-cautious. Cohen’s fellow-hawks are making much of the fact that Bush told reporters during his summer vacation in Texas that he was reading the book. Next on the recommended reading list is Cohen’s essay in the New Republic, whose title puts matters plainly: “Make War, Not Justice-How to Fight.” Not having themselves killed or been bloodied in the misadventures in Vietnam or Korea, the Chicken Hawks are now leading the nation to a new ill-defined and morally ambiguous war.
Project for the New American Century http://www.newamericancentury.org/
U.S. Foreign Policy-Attention, Right Face, Forward March By Tom Barry and Jim Lobe http://www.fpif.org/papers/02right/index.html
Copyright remains exclusively with the author.