Reporter's Notebook

Chickenhawk Nation
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Below are notes by James Fallows and others about the modern relationship between the American public and its military, in response to his cover story  “The Tragedy of the American Military.”

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More in the Chickenhawk Chronicles

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.

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In roughly the center of this view of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina is the Snow's Island National Historic Landmark. These are the swamplands where the American forces led by Francis Marion applied guerrilla tactics against the British. Google Earth

The Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 18-hour series on The Vietnam War began its run on PBS on Sunday night and continues through this week and next. I felt about as familiar with that era as I could imagine—with its tensions at the time, with the journalism and literature that came out of it, with the historical assessments, with the war’s role in music and movies and others parts of pop culture and public imagination. Even so I found this a tremendously revealing series. I recommend it very highly. Please find a way to watch—now, or in the many streaming and download alternatives they are making available.

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As with any attempt to grapple with a topic this vast and complex, and of such emotional and historical consequence, the Burns/Novick series is bound to be controversial. For one example of an avenue of criticism, see this review by veteran Asia-hand correspondent Jim Laurie, who was on-scene in Vietnam and Cambodia during the war.

Here’s another: When I did an interview with Burns and Novick for the upcoming issue of Amtrak’s The National magazine, I asked them about one of the central themes of their press-tour presentation of the project, as opposed to the video itself. Both Burns and Novick have stressed the idea that the divisions generated by the Vietnam war prefigure the polarization of Trump-era America.

To me, that seems a little too pat. Even though I argued back at the time that the “class war” elements of Vietnam were a central reason the U.S. remained engaged for so many years, so much has happened between then and now that it’s hard to trace a sensible connection from those times to these. Since the height of the fighting in Vietnam, we’ve had: the end of the draft; the disappearance of the Soviet Union; the emergence of China; multiple dramatic shifts in political mood (the arrivals of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, later Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, were each seen as the dawns of new political eras); the 9/11 attacks; multiple wars; multiple booms and busts; multiple grounds for hope and despair. Donald Trump was on one side of the Vietnam class-war divide, with his student deferments and mysterious physical disqualifications. Figures as politically diverse as John McCain, Al Gore, John Kerry, Jim Mattis, and Jim Webb were on the other. But it’s hard to make a neat match of that cleavage 50 years ago to the multiple axes of disagreement now. To me, it seems easier to trace a line of descent from the Civil War—subject of Ken Burns’s first national-phenomenon film series, back in 1990—to Trump-era divides than from the Vietnam war.

I lay out this disagreement on a specific point as a set-up for emphasizing  how valuable and informative I think the series is overall. It is remarkable in interleaving the accounts of participants from opposite sides of the same battle— the Americans and South Vietnamese, but also the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong—all describing what they were afraid of, what their plans were, how they reckoned victory and defeat in struggles for control of a particular hill or hamlet. It offers abundant evidence of battlefield bravery and sacrifice, on all sides—but precious few examples of political courage or foresight, especially in the United States. It’s hard to say whether Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon comes off worse for the combination of strategic misjudgment and flat-out dishonesty in management of the war. The White House recordings from both men are spell-binding.

Please watch. And since most of today’s Americans had not even been born by the time the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, it’s all the more valuable for generations who know nothing about that era first-hand.

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Further on the theme of linkages between Vietnam and previous American engagements, a reader makes the evocative connection to the first war that troops of the newly formed United States ever fought.

With Honor team: from left, Rye Barcott, John Mahony (COO), Ellen Zeng (Political Director), Marjorie Eastman (Advisor), Lori Campbell (Administrative Manager). With Honor

This week I wrote about With Honor, a non-partisan PAC that is supporting “young veterans” — generally people age 45 and below who have served in the post-9/11 “long wars” — as candidates for political office. The occasion for writing about them was a $10 million donation from Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos for this cycle’s Congressional elections.

My argument in the piece was that this effort was worthwhile, because the U.S. “will be better off with a broader draw of future leaders who understand service-above-self as more than an abstraction.” You can read the full case here. For now, reader response, pro and con.

First, on the relevance of John McCain’s example of veteran-leadership:

Your comment, “McCain himself was an imperfect example of the spirit of reasonable compromise...” reflects two key points:

1) perfection is the enemy of good enough,

2) good enough is the father of reasonable compromise…

With the craziness now (continuing) to descend on (within) D.C., it is "imperfect reasonableness" that we desperately need.

Next,  from someone who supports With Honor but would like them to do more with their “pledge” for reasonable-minded consensus-building work:

I admire the effort of With Honor and appreciate the attention you are giving to it.

I would have two wishes to strengthen the effort a bit.

  1. That the pledge would add a condition similar to the Air Academy's Honor Code:  "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does." Too often, partisanship appears to limit the observation or reaction to corruption.
  2. That With Honor and those it endorses would pledge to make a response to any candidate for national elective office who makes false claims about their own service or attacks the service record of another veteran.

Following this item on a new PAC that is supporting “young veterans” running for Congress, and this round of reader response (pro and con), another set of reactions.

First, a reader with an angle I had not thought about, involving the way people considering a life in politics handle their first decade or so of adulthood. The reader’s conclusion is, “If you want people in Congress who have done something else in their lives besides politics … veterans are probably your best bet.” The case:

I wonder if the "advantage" of having a new generation of veterans entering  Congress (and to the extent it is an advantage, it certainly doesn't outweigh the downsides of the policy choices that made all of these people veterans), is that it creates a path to a political career that isn't this:   

The thing about veterans is they  are often making a career move in their mid 30s or early 40s … prime age to make a first run for Congress, and an age at which much of the rest of the population is fairly locked into their career path.  

I'm 34...there's no way I could take the time off of work for a campaign with no guarantee of a job at the end, and no way I would let go of the job security I have for the uncertainty of a life in politics.

If you want people in Congress who have done something else in their lives besides politics, who are average enough Americans to need to worry about getting their monthly paychecks and job security, veterans are probably your best bet.


Next, from another reader, a more skeptical view of the effect of a military background:

I respect the service of these men and women as well as the With Honor mission.  But the emphasis on military service as some sort of qualification for elected office troubles me.

William Henry Harrison was a veteran-politician. Should we have more? (A.S. Southworth and J.J. Hawes, at Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia)

One more round, on whether in this Chickenhawk era—when the United States is always at war, but 99% of its population is not directly touched by the physical or even financial consequences of combat—having more “young veterans” in politics would improve  politics and policy.

These responses follow this item on a new PAC devoted to supporting young-veteran campaigns; these two rounds of previous reader comment; and my original Chickenhawk Nation piece from three years ago.

First, from a veteran of the recent Long Wars. He writes:

I was surprised by some of the blowback you have received. Yes of course being a veteran shouldn’t be a pre-req for civil service, and yes of course not all veterans are decent and as seen by the veterans in Charlottesville, some are downright un-American.

But most service members are forced to move to small towns all around the country and world and work with people of varying backgrounds and beliefs. We’ve seen American diversity up close and personally, in a stressful and patriotic environment, and worked with people we bitterly disagree with politically because we believed in an American ideal that is greater than Democrat or Republican.

Recently a veteran-turned-CIA-security-contractor threatened that he’d like to strangle Obama because of Benghazi. There’s a lot wrong with that, but it grinds my gears that a veteran-turned-mercenary is a normal thing now. If he still wore the uniform he’d be reprimanded for talking so foolishly (I guess unless he’s Tom Cotton). But mercenaries do what they want. And Erik Prince wants to be the Viceroy of Afghanistan.

This is a problem that only those of us who are part of the 1% have really engaged with, and as long as only 1% serve in the Long Wars, it will continue. ‘Of course our perspective is important, and of course it’s a good thing we’ve begun entering politics.’

U.S. Army marched in the Veterans Day parade on November 11, 2014.
The U.S. Army marched in a Veterans Day parade on November 11, 2014. Mike Segar / Reuters

On November 11, known as Remembrance Day through the countries of the British Commonwealth, the public honors those who died in the military service of their nations.

The same date is observed as Armistice Day in France and Belgium, in observance of the armistice ending the “Great War,” the First World War, 101 years ago today.

In the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, to honor all those who have worn the nation’s uniform. (Memorial Day, in May, is the U.S. counterpart to Britain’s Remembrance Day, to honor those who died in service.)

On this day, most public presentations in the U.S. include the line, “Thank you for your service.” In a long cover story for The Atlantic nearly five years ago, I argued that the real way today’s American public could honor the tiny fraction of its members in military service would be different.

(For perspective on the “tiny fraction”: At the time that I wrote that article, a total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent of the population, had served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once. These days America’s total active-duty forces, in all branches, number less than 1.5 million, or well under one-half of 1 percent of the population. This is a different concept of “the 1 percent” than references to the economic elite.)

The article was called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” and the opening page summarized its argument this way:

The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.

After that article came out, I received thousands of responses from service members or their families, a number of which you’ll see quoted in the posts in this thread. The vast majority were “positive,” in discussing the military’s keen awareness of its status in a “chickenhawk” era—one in which the country was constantly in battles, but only a handful of its people were directly exposed to the costs.


Some circumstances have changed since that time; most have not. The phenomenon of “honoring the troops,” but then skating on to other matters, has, if anything, grown all the stronger over the years.

The article is here.  I hope you will find a chance to read it; if there is further response, I’ll revive this discussion thread.