The general trump-it-all insult that the antiwar crowd aims at the pro-war crowd these days is a neat little portmanteau term that manages to impute, at once, cowardice, ignorance, selfishness, bloodlust (as long as the blood spills from others' veins) and hypocrisy: "chicken hawk."
The generally accepted definition of the term, which dates at least to 1988, describes "chicken hawks" as public persons, generally male, who advocate war but who declined a significant opportunity to serve in uniform during wartime.
"Chicken hawk" is interesting as an insult because it is such a pure example of reactionary thinking or, rather, the substitution of reaction for thinking. It is the sort of thing you say when you need to stop the argument in its tracks because you simply can't bear to address its realities. Other obvious examples of the type might include "my country right or wrong" and "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like."
As these suggest, the power of the reactionary argument-stopper is in inverse correlation with any underlying truth. Nothing could seem more immediately unanswerable than "my country right or wrong." Of course: It is your country, and it remains your country no matter what, and at first blush this seems the morally admirable position. But nothing could be more disastrous, or less morally supportable, than the philosophy this tautology represents: "My country right or wrong," wrote G.K. Chesterton, is on a moral par with "my mother drunk or sober." This is an idea that ends you up with Napoleon's France, Hitler's Germany and Mao's China.
So it is with "chicken hawk." Its power lies in the simplicity that comes with being completely wrong. The central implication here is that only men who have professionally endured war have the moral standing and the experiential authority to advocate war. That is, in this country at least, a radical and ahistorical view. The Founders, who knew quite well the dangers of a military class supreme, were clear in their conviction that the judgment of professional warmakers must be subordinated to the command of ignorant amateurs -- civilian leaders who were in turn subordinated to the command of civilian voters. Such has given us the leadership in war of such notable "chicken hawks" as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Further, the inescapable logic of "chicken hawk"-calling is that only military men have standing to pronounce in any way on war -- to advocate it or to advocate against it. The decision not to go to war involves exactly the same issues of experiential and moral authority as does the decision to go to war. If a past of soldiering is required for one, it is required for the other. Chicken doves have no more standing than "chicken hawks." We must leave all the decisions to the generals and the veterans.
I am myself not technically a "chicken hawk," as I was, thank God, a few years too young to serve during the Vietnam War and too old and too untrained to be of any military use during the next significant war, the Persian Gulf War of 1991. But I suppose I fit the spirit if not the letter of the slur. I am certainly now a hawk, and during the Vietnam years I was certainly a dove. What changed me was in fact experience of war -- but not as a soldier.
I covered the Gulf War as a reporter, and it was this experience, later compounded by what I saw reporting in Bosnia, that convinced me of the moral imperative, sometimes, for war.
In liberated Kuwait City, one vast crime scene, I toured the morgue one day and inspected torture and murder victims left behind by the departing Iraqis. "The corpse in drawer 3 . . . belonged to a young man," I later wrote. "When he was alive, he had been beaten from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head, and every inch of his skin was covered with purple-and-black bruises. . . . The man in drawer 12 had been burned to death with some flammable liquid. . . . Corpses 18 and 19 . . . belonged to the brothers Abbas . . . the eyeballs of the elder of the Abbas brothers had been removed. The sockets were bloody holes."
That was the beginning of the making of me as at least an honorary "chicken hawk." After that, I never again could stand the arguments of those who sat in the luxury of safety -- "advocating nonresistance behind the guns of the American Fleet," as George Orwell wrote of World War II pacifists -- and held that the moral course was, in crimes against humanity as in crimes on the street corner: Better not to get involved, dear.