The Chickenhawk Tragedy of the American Military

January 7, 2015

“The Tragedy of the American Military” is the title of a superb essay in this month’s Atlantic by James Fallows.  Actually, the word “tragedy” hardly appears in the essay. Instead, the phrase that grabs you by the lapels is “Chickenhawk Nation.”

Fallows argues that the current U.S.military has met repeated failure over the past decade and yet that we, as a nation, are hardly paying any attention to these failures. We’re overspending on the military and directing our resources ineffectively and all the while we’re not talking about what’s gone wrong. Instead, we’re giving lavish but shallow support to the military with hardly a discouraging word to be heard in this era of endless war. “These distortions,” contends Fallows, all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.”  (On his blog, Fallows is publishing a variety of responses to his essay, many of them from military officers.)

Note: I’m feeling led to be writing more on this blog about issues of war and peace. Since our beginning, Quakers have been vocal advocates for peace, but I’ve come to think we are being too reluctant today to speak up, as Friends, about issues of war and peace.  

Fallows’s argument is multi-stranded. “Chickenhawk” is how he wants to bind them together.  He talks about how we waste money in procuring the wrong weapons. He talks about our complacency about military matters, and the shallow, uncritical support we accord the military. He talks about the disengagement of the military from most of the American public. He discusses at length the foolish waste of the Pentagon’s F-35 airplane project. Several times he references Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex. And more.

For me, his most striking claim is his assertion that the U.S.military has failed in its various efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Yemen. This is especially striking because you hardly ever hear anyone assert any such thing in public. We’ve spent trillions of dollars on this endless war, and “Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned.”  He adds, “The last war that ended up in circumstances remotely resembling what prewar planning would have considered a victory was the brief Gulf War of 1991.”

It has become “too easy to go to war,” he says. We keep repeating the same mistakes in a thoughtless way.  For me, “thoughtless” is a better touchstone word for what Fallows is talking about than either “tragedy” or “chickenhawk.”

Fallows is no pacifist. He believes we need a military and that this military should fight wars. He wants a more thoughtful approach, one in which we have honest, engaged public debate about the purposes for which we should wage war and about the military we should construct and support to succeed at those purposes.

I, too, want a more thoughtful approach, but I enter this discussion deeply skeptical that our long-term purposes can be advanced by waging war. War breeds war; violence begets violence.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to The Chickenhawk Tragedy of the American Military

  1. Pingback: Learning to Kill | River View Friend

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