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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Veterans of the Long Wars: ‘Of course it’s a good thing we’ve begun entering politics.’

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.