Hawks, chickenhawks, and other birds of prey
Democratic Representative John Murtha has been in the news lately, most recently in his appearance on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert. Many have commented on his strangely disjointed and virtually unintelligible utterances during that interview (for example, see this from Jeff "I don't speak Murtha" Goldstein, and this from Ann Althouse).
I don't know what accounts for Murtha's near incoherence lately. I'll leave speculation on that to others. I want to comment instead on a phenomenon that comes up often in connection with Murtha as well as so many others: whether service in the military (or lack thereof) is a legitimate way to credit or discredit a person's judgment on military matters.
In other words, the old hawk vs. chickenhawk argument.
"Hawk" probably isn't the best term, however, because the hawks in question tend to be--like Murtha--former military men who are against the Iraq war, or at least many aspects of it. Perhaps they should be called "dovehawks," instead? This is, of course, in contrast with the "chickenhawk" phenomenon--the term is always applied to those who have not served in the military but who are advocating military action of some sort of other.
Murtha himself has served in the Marines; no chickenhawk he. But military service does not a master military strategist make. Murtha has given his critics plenty of ammunition by offering up some rather spectacularly strange military suggestions in the Russert interview--for example, the idea that Zarqawi could have been (and should have been) effectively dispatched with bombers launched from, of all places, Okinawa. At Blackfive, Murtha's military judgment in offering his "Okinawa option" seems pretty effectively demolished (please read the linked text for details).
On the subject of Murtha's dovehawk credentials, Blackfive's Froggy writes:
As an ex-Marine Colonel, Murtha is probably the senior military veteran in the Democratic Caucus which somehow earns him a pass on his ridiculous military proclamations.
This is the opposite of the "chickenhawk" accusation. To summarize, the chickenhawk assertion is that anyone who did not serve in our armed forces and yet advocates military action is suspect, and the hawk (or dovehawk) assertion is that anyone such as Murtha with a history of military service by definition knows what he's talking about in military matters by virtue of that history. Both arguments are used by the antiwar left: the hawk argument to give extra credit to military men who are now antiwar, the chickenhawk argument in an attempt to invalidate the pro-war views of those who didn't serve.
Why have these arguments become so popular lately? Part of it may be due to the relentless twenty-four hour news cycle. The need to fill airtime dictates countless interviews with retired military experts who don't necessarily have access to up-to-date information, and were not necessarily military strategists even when they did serve. But they are considered very qualified to pass judgment on the details of military decisions in the Iraqi theater and elsewhere. So when any of these military people are antiwar (and there are so many of them that some are bound to be antiwar, just by the law of averages), it's understandably considered a huge advantage by the left.
Another factor is a change in the demographics of the military. Ultimate control of the US military has always rested in the civilian hands of the executive branch. It was never a requirement that, in order to hold the post of Commander in Chief--the Presidency--a candidate must have served in the military, and of course some Presidents have not (most recently and notably, Bill Clinton comes to mind). Nor does the Secretary of Defense need to have actually served.
But back when the draft was still in effect, it used to be far more common for US citizens (that is, males) to have served, so opportunities for mounting the chickenhawk argument were few and far between. But with the end of the draft in the early seventies, and the start of the all-volunteer military, the number of people in public life--both pro and antiwar--who have a history of military service has gone way down, and there's no reason to believe that it will go back up any time in the near future.
(One interesting sidelight is that now, with far greater numbers of women in Congress, they constitute a large group in government who are especially unlikely to have served in the military. And yet, strangely enough, the hawk vs. chickenhawk argument is almost never mounted towards women--although, paradoxically, woman bloggers are considered vulnerable to it. But I digress.)
The chickenhawk accusation is actually a form of ad hominem argument:
An ad hominem fallacy consists of asserting that someone's argument is wrong and/or he is wrong to argue at all purely because of something discreditable/not-authoritative about the person or those persons cited by him rather than addressing the soundness of the argument itself. The implication is that the person's argument and/or ability to argue correctly lacks authority.
The dovehawk argument is an ad hominem argument as well, although of a different sort:
In contrast, an argument that instead relies (fallaciously) on the positive aspects of the person arguing the case is sometimes known as "positive ad hominem," or appeal to authority.
Murtha's military experience doesn't help his argument much if he's not making a logical and thoughtful point; the argument must stand or fall on its own merits. Likewise, those who have not served should not be automatically discredited. But, as the above linked Wikipedia article states, ad hominem arguments are extremely tempting to mount because they feel so powerful and convincing, and are therefore very common.
All else being equal, it does make a certain amount of sense to believe that someone who has served in the military might have more knowledge of military matters, and be more inclined to make good military decisions, than one who has not. But all else is very rarely equal; arguments can and must be judged on their own merits.
That should go without saying, but it seems there's a need to spell it out once again.
[See this video for an example of Murtha himself using the chickenhawk argument to deflect criticism from Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert.]