More in the Chickenhawk Chronicles

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Following this item on Donald Trump’s (ill-advised) criticism of Richard Blumenthal’s military record, and this exchange of reader mail, several more responses. I’m not planning an open-ended forum of everyone’s Vietnam-era memories, but I think these offer a valuable range of perspectives. More ahead.

From a recent veteran:

It is fascinating for me—a Millennial veteran, whose service was like that of Al Gore’s—to see the feedback you received from boomers on the Vietnam-era decisions that were made.

As a brief extra bit of background I can draw a straight line from 9/11 to my decision to serve. But I also made my decision as a response to the “Support Our Troops” marches in March 2003 regarding a theater I was morally ambiguous about (but did not oppose at the time). I can also draw a straight line from my service to my cynicism with the U.S. military and neo-con policy.

Your readers’ inputs show how much has changed in the era of the all-volunteer military. The Vietnam War is something still hotly debated, whereas I don’t know how many folks will talk seriously about Iraq—it’s so esoteric to most Americans. On the flip side, having played sports at an overseas base myself, the experience of the baseball player blows my mind a bit. It’s nice to know the military has changed for the better in some ways.

There were two other points from your first reader that I find interesting. The first is this:

“By the mid- to late-sixties, it was clear that Vietnam was a crime, a mistake, and an accidental catastrophe. Was this position morally ambiguous?”

Yes, I still think the Vietnam War was and is a morally ambiguous moment in American history. Better thinkers than I have written to defend America's involvement, so I won’t re-hash their arguments. However, I also have the utmost respect for those who opposed the war. MLK and Muhammad Ali displayed a courage that just did not need to exist in the era of Iraq with an all volunteer military.

But that brings up the other fascinating thing to me—the quote of yours about being unable to affect national policy. The crazy thing is, y’all did affect national policy! The Vietnam War ended. That’s how democracy should work—an anti-war movement shook up a major political party and pulled us out of a fight we weren’t losing because our involvement was not in line with what they believed our country should stand for.

Again—that hasn’t happened in today’s wars. They are endless, nobody has enough skin in the game to put on large-scale protests, and the DOD has largely insulated the average civilian from exposure to the wars rather than openly debate whether this is how American power should be used. They are talking of an Afghan viceroy in the White House!?

You’ve written about how the Iraq War was far less defensible than Vietnam, but our run-up to war was an unstoppable year-long process. There was no Gulf of Tonkin incident, just a highly covered invasion and then 14 years of mission creep around the world because people are scared of terrorism.

I don’t want to sound nostalgic for Vietnam-era civil-military relations, nor do I intend to frame Vietnam as a positive counterpoint to our current situation. More Americans died then, returning service members had a far less positive experience than I did, and your baseball contributor highlights the waste that came in a large army of draftees. But I do think there is much we can and should learn from Vietnam and the past 16 years as we wrestle with how best to apply American power in the current and future, and how best to check American power with American democracy.


On the origins of the term ‘Chickenhawk’. A clergyman writes:

I’m a long time ... admirer of Michael Kinsley. I believe, however, that Mr. Kinsley did not coin the term “chickenhawk.” I believe that Andy Jacobs, who for many years was a congressman from Indiana when I was in university at DePauw and later when I was a young curate in Indianapolis, first coined the term.

I remember hearing Mr Jacobs use that term at a town hall meeting in his district (he was my rep) in 1983 in reference to the chest thumping in congress over Nicaragua and other Reagan-era misadventures.


The moral ambiguities of  Vietnam service. A reader who served in Vietnam writes:

Like many of my generation, I made my way through college during the 1960s (1963-1967) receiving annual draft deferments and not giving much thought to their receipt. As a college freshman in 1963, I am not sure I had heard about Vietnam, recalling that the cover of Time did have stories about Laos. Of course by the spring of 1967, we all knew about Vietnam.

As a graduate student in 1967–1968 the deferments continued and then ended abruptly after the 1968 Tet Offensive and the North Korean capture of the Pueblo.

I eventually received a draft notice in the spring of 1969 while still in graduate school and reported to basic training in June 1969 and eventually landed in Vietnam in August 1970. When I attended infantry training in the fall of 1969, I found myself as a minority, as most of those training for the infantry were non-white soldiers. It was clear to me at that time that the draft had primarily caught those with no ability to seek an escape route, which primarily meant those from minority and low-income white families.

Interestingly, in basic training at Fort Bragg during the summer of 1969, there were more than a few graduate students and law students who had made it through two years of law school before being drafted [or perhaps enlisting in advance of the draft].

My point in writing these comments to you is that I long ago resolved in my own mind the conflict over how some of my generation avoided service in Vietnam or otherwise did not. We have observed this issue resurfacing from time to time over the years—often in dealing with presidential politics with candidates who would have been draft-eligible during the 1960s.

Life was unfair occasionally before Vietnam and has continued so afterwards. I have sensed in conversations in recent years with some of my contemporaries who missed the draft a general discomfort in discussing the whole issue of Vietnam and the draft.  I do not bring it up in those conversations.  I believe we should consider restoring the military draft but doubt that will occur.


‘Scorn’ is wrong. A note I quoted yesterday said that many returning soldiers “deserved scorn” for agreeing to serve in Vietnam. From one of many readers who disagree:

Your reader’s judgment regarding those who served is overly harsh and unfair. To “scorn” those who knew the war was wrong but served anyway ignores the extraordinary dilemma faced by those individuals, all of whom were very young.

In the first place, the conclusion that the war was “criminal” is a highly debatable judgment at best. Wrong from a strategic and political perspective, sure; maybe even immoral.  But criminal?

Second, the decision to serve one’s country, even by serving in a war one doesn’t agree with, is a laudable impulse. I have no quarrel with, and indeed admire, those who refused to serve and endured significant sacrifice as a result of that choice. But at the same time, I find no fault with those who obeyed the law, complied with the draft, and served during the war.

(Full disclosure: I write this as one who had the benefit of a student deferment during my college years, at the end of which the draft had been discontinued.)


You send someone else to fight.’ What chickenhawk policy means:

I start by saying that I was briefly in the military during Vietnam. I didn’t see combat in ’Nam but had experience in a nearby nation that was involved in the conflict.

Like most young people, I took an extreme view. I was a domino-theory conservative. My experiences changed my mind as to the value of the war, as I saw little chance of our achieving our stated goal. These opinions were reinforced later by the book Of a Fire in the Lake. [JF note: by Frances FitzGerald, based in part on her reporting from Vietnam for The Atlantic. ]

To me, “chickenhawk” means you want to send someone else to fight. That’s the issue I have with our policy across administrations, that we’re going to send our children to some distant place to achieve some nebulous objective. Our leaders cannot even clearly define the reason why they send the young to die.

A second issue, and I’m being charitable, is unintended consequences. We’re in the Gulf area to provide energy security for Europe. The result has been a decades-long destabilization that has created European dependence on Russian energy.


‘Child Sacrifice Pure and Simple’. From another Vietnam-era vet:

I think there is one point missing from the discussion. At the time of the Vietnam War I was an adolescent, too young to go. Now, much older, I see those “older” (at the time) folks who went in a different light. They were kids. I think the “warriors” can be cut a fair amount of moral slack because they were really children.

The utter crime of the war was for the adults to rotate 18-year-old kids through something like that. Having seen life, one’s passions may peak at 18, but one’s considered decisions don’t really start until you are 30.

I once saw a documentary that concluded that the reason 18-year-olds are drafted is because a 25-year-old (who is still physically fit enough) is too old to buy the type of nonsense that they are expected to swallow whole: like nothing bad will ever happen to them, and killing and dying is somehow heroic and exciting, and that those in charge know what the hell they are doing.

The war was child sacrifice, pure and simple. Nobody should ever think that that is something that only happened thousands of years ago in pagan times and lands. It was the adults at the time who had blood on their hands.

By the time I got to college, there was the first Arab oil embargo. I remember a noted scholar saying that the country should be willing to go to war over oil. I remember quite clearly that the scholar was old and gray and that he knew perfectly well that he would not be going, but that I (or my generation) would be the ones dying for cheap oil. My blood was a price he was willing to pay, and I didn’t think much of him for that.


From north of the border. A reader on the ramifications for Canada:

Your current [chickenhawk] usage was new to me when you wrote on it two years ago. But in the AA fellowship, a chickenhawk is a “recovering” alcoholic, usually a man, who preys on incoming teenagers, usually adolescents and young men. This usage had been in place a long time before I first encountered it, during the mid-1980s.

In the Vietnam discussion there is a side of the story rarely if ever covered in American media. I was at university 1963-68 in Vancouver and spent the next few years as a newspaperman [across Canada]. The student left in all its factions was uniformly against the war and Canada’s participation in it (via the IOC overseeing the DMZ), though diverse in what to do about that.

But we all were enmeshed wily-nilly in the project of welcoming, aiding, and supporting American draft dodgers and war objectors. We found places for them to crash, places to meet, counseling, and immigration services—only to be met, in academia at least, over the next few years with an overabundance of overqualified Ivy-League war-objecting graduates cutting to the front of the queue for jobs. Ungrateful wretches.

Maybe this helps explain the overabundance of talented Canucks in US media, music, and comedy: Revenge, you elbow up to our table and we’ll shoulder up to yours. I myself am one such inky toiler; I married an American girl and moved to the States and spent my career in publishing.