Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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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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.

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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Demonstrators protest the Vietnam War during a speech by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in Chicago on March 15, 1966. Larry Stoddard / AP

Late last night I did an item arguing that Donald Trump represented a classic “chickenhawk” figure from the Vietnam era—someone who didn’t complain about the war, as long as it didn’t inconvenience him personally. With that background behind him, I claimed, it was all the more unseemly for Trump to criticize what anyone else had done in that era, from the long-time prisoner of war John McCain to the one-time Marine Corps reserve member Richard Blumenthal.

Responses have come in on all sides of this debate. I’ll revive this thread, started after my “Chickenhawk Nation” article two years ago, because the arguments are in fact connected to those earlier discussions. (By the way, where did the contemporary term “chickenhawk” come from, to denote people who are all in favor of wars that someone else will fight? The first use I’m aware of was by my friend Michael Kinsley, then in his role as TRB columnist for The New Republic, in the mid-1980s.)

Here are two dispatches from different perspectives. First, from someone who runs a tech company on the East coast, and who thinks I was too dismissive of the “Consistent Non-Warriors,” like Bill Clinton:

You describe those who opposed the Vietnam War, and who refused to participate in it, dismissively: “At least they’re consistent.” Part of the Great Chickenhawk Consensus, which you have so ably documented, holds that we must all atone for the sin of being right, that we ought to pretend that the War in Vietnam was just or that its end was clearly ordained.

[Quoting me:]The brutal fact that it was easier, for opponents of the war, to keep themselves from being involved than to change the whole nation’s policy left this group with its moral ambiguity.

I admire the modesty that underlies your description of those with principled opposition to participating in the War in Vietnam here, but I think it’s questionable both on the historical politics and in its contemporary echoes.

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? I thought then, and to a considerable extent still believe, that the morally treacherous position was the one held by those who knew the war was wrong, but chose to aid it anyway. Those were the returning veterans we scorned, and (though most people today pretend otherwise) they deserved scorn: They went off to kill, they knew better, and in choosing to aid the war they made it harder for their compatriots to end it.

The moral position of the “Warriors” is scarcely better. Some, of course, were ignorant. Some were misled. Thoughtful professionals knew, or should have known, that the war was a crime and a criminal waste; those who allowed themselves to be used to extend and prolong the war deserve scant commendation.

After the Civil War, the US allowed itself to believe things it knew to be untrue for the sake of restoring the union. We always knew there was no Noble Cause, but we pretended otherwise. We knew that Lee and his fellows had committed treason, but it seemed a time to be magnanimous. A nation was patched together, though at great cost—a cost we continue to pay in remission of every last drop of blood drawn with the lash.

We’ve tried the same trick with the memory of Vietnam, hoping to find unity by ceding a merely rhetorical victory to the losers. That unity was always elusive, and after Trump it may well be forever broken.

For what it’s worth, my use of “at least they’re consistent” was meant to be wry shorthand, rather than dismissive. After all, this is the group in which I classified myself. As for the moral ambiguities, they centered on reluctance to face who was being drafted and sent off to fight, as the better-educated, better-connected young men were deferred, but at this point that is thoroughly plowed terrain.

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Next, from a reader who was playing professional baseball, in the minor leagues, as the war ramped up:

I was playing ball in the ’60s and, through the team, got onto a “special” National Guard unit.  I did have to go to Basic Training, but did not have to attend meetings.  Until, of course, the whole matter became political and the Guard became sensitive …  

My [baseball] career was going nowhere because of injuries, was moving every few months to different parts of the country, and I had zero interest in “participating” in the hopelessly juvenile antics of the guard. A knee surgery accorded me the opportunity to exit that organization gracefully.

Harvard Institute of Politics GFK-Knowledge Panel  survey, as reported on NPR.


In case you missed it when it appeared last week, let me highlight this graph, created by Katie Park of NPR from data collected by the Harvard Institute of Politics GFK-Knowledge Panel (and used by NPR here). It sums up many of the themes we’ve been covering in this Chickenhawk thread.

The small print accompanying the graph shows that among Americans ages 18 to 29 who were surveyed, some 60% believe the United States should commit ground forces to fight the Islamic state. And among the same sample group, 62% say they “would definitely not” enlist to join the fight themselves, and another 23% said they “would probably not.”

As they say in the cable-TV news-talk business, “We’ll leave it there.” Thanks to Jordan Steves of the Chautauqua Institution for the pointer to this story (which he did with the subject line, “Chickenhawk Nation, quantified.”)

There are lots of threads to follow, but I will be offline again for several more days on a big print-magazine project. If the image above seems too discouraging to leave in this space in the meantime, I can offer instead a more encouraging recent panel by Berkeley Breathed of the revived Bloom County 2015. I’ve written asking to copy it but haven’t heard back yet. You can see it at his site here.

Predator drone, first line of defense  (Wikipedia)

After President Obama’s speech on ISIS last night, I argued that he was making a least-bad, sane, shrewd case about a long-term U.S. strategy, notwithstanding cable-news scolding about his “distance” and “dispassion.”

Now two reader responses worth noting. First from a partner at a major law firm on the East Coast. He argues that as long as the United States relies on a drone-strike strategy, it cannot be surprised if people who lack conventional military strength react with the tools available to them. Namely, retail-level terrorism.

Additionally this reader says that the era of San Bernardino-scale terrorism may bring the Chickenhawk Nation era to its logical culmination. Only a tiny handful of Americans will ever see the battlefield, but larger and larger numbers could feel exposed to the blowback effects of their nation’s wars. Over to the reader:

It is the policy of the United States that it may kill anyone it wants in certain areas of the Middle East; the executive branch decides and kills. The claimed entitlement to kill includes not just those targeted but also anyone who happens to be nearby. The United States seeks to minimize this “collateral damage,” but accepts however much of it is necessary to achieve its killing objectives.

As a result, everyone in the affected areas of the Middle East has for a long time lived in peril of a sudden deadly attack by the United States. Reports on how many we actually have killed vary, but the number appears certainly to be in the hundreds and likely to be in the thousands.

This policy comes with a cost: the people who are subject to it and their sympathizers will seek to retaliate by such means as are available, even as we would do if a foreign country’s drones were hovering over Connecticut and killing people in the same fashion. The idea that such retaliation can be willed or persuaded out of existence is a fantasy. Retaliation might be forestalled by resort to the level of force used against Germany and Japan in WWII, but our country is not prepared to do that or pay for it.

You don’t need me to tell you that Phil Klay’s Redeployment is worth your attention. Last year it won the National Book Award for Fiction. But I do want to highlight an Essay he read last night on the PBS Newshour, on the theme of what Klay would tell his young son about his service as a Marine in the Iraq war. The full four-minute version is embedded here; below I’ll mention the part that struck me.

Here is how Klay ends, on the “lessons” of his service. Emphasis added:

Following the books, TV shows, and movies mentioned here and here, a few more suggestions.

The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel. A reader writes:

I've been following your posts and book list, and have a recommendation: The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel.

Non-fiction (Finkel was an "embedded" reporter with a US Army battalion for 8 months between April 2007 and April 2008.) This is the All Quiet on the Western Front of the Iraq war.

A harrowing book- be prepared for that. I wanted to quit about 1/4 the way through. But I felt a duty to read it clear through- if the guys lived it and Finkel chronicled it, I could at least read to the end.

People need to know about this book.

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Best Picture winner, 1946 (Wikimedia)

What It’s Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes. Since its publication five years ago, I’ve often noted here the excellence of Matterhorn, a Vietnam novel by my longtime friend Karl Marlantes. A reader writes about Marlantes’s subsequent book:

Karl Marlantes’s  What it’s Like to Go to War  is a Viet Nam and postwar memoir that belongs on returning soldier reinstatement and chicken-hawk cautionary reading lists too.

When reading about the roadblock tragedy today in your first post about Afterwar, I thought of the similar scene in One Bullet Away….

When you read What it’s Like to Go to War, consider if any part of Marlantes’ suggestions for bringing veterans back whole into civil life remind you of scenes in the film The Best Years of Our Lives.  I was reminded of his book when I watched the film again recently with my kids.  The movie is old but not dated for this topic.

From another reader on the same topic:

You mentioned Karl Marlantes's harrowing Matterhorn, but an even better book for this topic is his follow-on non-fiction What it's like to go to war. He addresses these exact issues, not just from the standpoint of the trigger puller, but also from the viewpoint of the officer who orders artillery and air attacks that kill dozens.

Late last night I explained why I thought that Nancy Sherman’s Afterwar was an important non-fiction entry in the still-not-large-enough canon of works explaining our modern chickenhawk-era culture of war. I named a few related works, and this morning I find reminders from readers of others that certainly deserve mention too:

One view of the citizen-soldier relationship, from Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug (with permission)


In my “Tragedy of the American Military” article early this year and in many updates since then, I’ve referred to Ben Fountain’s great novella Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as the emblematic work of fiction for our Chickenhawk age. As a reminder: a chickenhawk nation is one willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously — in particular, thinking seriously about the wars to which it will be committed, and about what will happen to the troops when they return (except for halftime ceremonies at football games, like the one Billy Lynn portrays).

Now here’s a nonfiction complement: a very powerful slim book called Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers, by a Georgetown University professor of philosophy and ethics named Nancy Sherman.

A week ago I attended and had a small part in a session at Georgetown in which veterans of our modern wars talked about something usually missing from our talk about “saluting the heroes” or “boots on the ground.” That something was the effect on the troops of the decisions they had to make in combat and the “moral injuries” they inevitably incurred in even the most successful and “glorious” wars.

For instance, in a terrible real-world case described at the Georgetown session: During the occupation of Iraq a young U.S. officer, commanding a roadblock checkpoint, sees a car barreling toward his soldiers at night. He gives all the established “slow down” and “turn back” warning signals. By this point in the occupation the Iraqis knew how the checkpoints worked and what the rules were. But as the car continues to bear down, the young officer finally orders his men to do what the rules of engagement called for: to riddle the car with machine-gun bullets before it could get close enough to set off a bomb — if that is what it contained. Only when they go to inspect the wreckage do the Americans learn that they have just killed an Iraqi couple, with their young daughters, who had been hustling to the hospital so that the pregnant mother could deliver another child. The soldiers were doing their job; the Iraqi family suffered more than a “moral injury”; but those soldiers would also never be the same. Two of them later killed themselves.

The literature of war has long dealt with impossible choices and moral injuries. Just in semi-modern history we have works from Cold Mountain to the The Red Badge of Courage about the U.S. Civil War; All Quiet on the Western Front from the German side and the great war poets from the British side, about the first World War, and the non-comic parts of Catch-22 about the second; now-largely-forgotten works like The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Hunters about Korea; Matterhorn and others about Vietnam; and the dozen other titles that will come to mind.

The closest we’ve come for our modern wars would include The Hurt Locker, whose angle was that Jeremy Renner’s anti-IED specialist found meaning mainly in his recklessly dangerous work; or Homeland, whose angle is that Claire Danes’s CIA analyst has been driven crazy by the clues she missed; or maybe American Sniper, whose moral calculus involving Bradley Cooper’s sharpshooter I won’t try to untangle.

I am sure there are more, but for now my point is that Afterwar is a real step forward in assessing what America’s modern wars have done to — and also for — the one percent of America’s people who have fought them, and how the other 99% of the country should respond. For instance, it has an entire chapter on the tangles of that familiar phrase, “Thank you for  your service.” One veteran says to a civilian, “Don’t just tell me ‘thank you for your service.’ First say, ‘Please.’” Sherman explains why this means, “Don’t take for granted my service. Don’t be cavalier in a call to arms. Take greater responsibility for the wars that our country wages.”

If a video of last week’s session goes on line, I will mention it, because many of the veterans’ accounts were remarkable. For now I will strongly suggest that you get and read this book.

Tennessee Titans cheerleaders honoring the troops last week. (AP / James Kenney)


Let’s continue our saga of the professional sports-world’s embrace of military imagery, costuming, and honoring-our-heroes celebration. A reader points me to this piece by Dan Wetzel, in Yahoo, on why the coach of a team named the Patriots, who himself grew up in Annapolis where his father was a Naval Academy coach, refuses to wear the dress-up camouflage gear other NFL staffs and cheerleaders have displayed during this month’s “Salute to Service.” Wetzel writes:

Belichick's commitment to the cause [of respecting military service] can't be questioned. What can be questioned is the league demanding someone wear a camouflage hat. It is a mostly meaningless gesture and doesn't signify anything. It's a sort of forced, show-pony act that has become pervasive….

Maybe the league's intentions here were 100 percent noble. Considering its publicity-conscious way of doing business and that recent paid patriotism scandal though, it can also feel like this is more about what the military can do for the NFL than what the NFL can do for the military.

The reader adds:

Speaking of Belichick, do you think he's a Stoic i.e. a true follower of the teachings of Epitectus? Given the hysterical bed wetting many Americans are engaging in currently in the wake of the Paris attacks, I think we could all use a dose of stoicism.

Short answer: Yes. I am agnostic in most of the passionate debates about whether Belichick’s Patriots symbolize good or evil. (I like the sheer efficiency with which they win, and their amazing years-long sequence of little-guy receiver and running-back stars. But because I’m not from Boston it would feel phony to make them “my” team.) I will say that I like the Stoic style.

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From a reader who grew up in the United States but has lived and worked for many years in Japan:  

It is this extraordinary report, by Brian Castner, published today in Motherboard. It is called “One Degree of Separation in the Forever War,” and I promise you will find it worth the time, and later reflection.

I would like everyone thinking about, or voting on, American foreign and military policy also to read and absorb this essay. Readers owe thanks to Brian Castner for writing it. The public owes deep respect to the Hines brothers whom it describes.

Opening of the piece on Motherboard. Please read it.