A Note Regarding Bankrupt Language

The many derogatory terms casually bandied about in the ideological struggle over the war seem to fall in two major classes. First are terms that, however extreme or offensive, may be supported or refuted by specific recourse to fact and historical record. Examples: Traitor, imperialist, racist.

Second are terms which, by their very construction, cannot be refuted. They are not used to advance debate or to call attention to those deserving of scorn, but rather to deny entirely the moral authority of the person so addressed. The arguments behind such a denial appear reasonable, yet often are ultimately flawed and dishonest. Such language is used to whip up emotions in lieu of reasoned discussion, usually because those who employ such language cannot back up their arguments with reason.

Of these, the term that has always filled me with the most fury has been "chickenhawk."

The theory behind the term is as follows:

It is very easy to speak of going to war when you yourself are not the one going. To bluster about war is trivial when you are comfortably at home, less so if you actually back up your words with deeds and join the army. Therefore, when discussing the necessity of a given war, more weight should perhaps be given to the views of those in the military.

So far so good, though already we are running into logical problems. While a soldier has a clear understanding of the costs of war, there is no guarantee that he will understand the costs of inaction, or be able to balance one against the other. In the end, what we have here is an argument from authority; statements for or against any position, war among them, should ultimately be judged by their truth and reason, not by who stated them—though the experts in a subject will often make the most cogent arguments.

But the "chickenhawk" meme takes this much further. Those who favor war, say the chickenhawkers, are suddenly under the obligation to join the army to carry it out. Moreover, those who support the war yet stay out of the army—chickenhawks—are hypocrites for doing so. Being hypocrites, they have no right to send the "authentic" men and women of the military to fight and die on their behalf. Finally, not only are they hypocrites but cowards as well for avoiding combat, hence the "chicken" in "chickenhawk."

The requirements for being a chickenhawk are apparently quite fluid. Often, President Bush, Sec. Rumsfeld, and others in the administration are addressed thusly; their detractors seem not to care about the principle of civilian control of the military. Former military personnel often receive this epithet; apparently, your service in previous wars is irrelevant, only your lack of participation in this one. Even Charles Krauthammer is not immune—never mind that he is wheelchair-bound and could not join the military in any case.

One would imagine, furthermore, that those who employ such language would pay more attention to the views of active-duty soldiers. Alas, one would be wrong. Such people simply ignore the inconvenient truth that the overwhelming majority of those soldiers, especially those stationed in Iraq, and particularly those on combat duty, support the war and would see it prosecuted to the end. Suddenly, these "authentic" warriors become mere peons, brainwashed by a corrupt military structure and incapable of having a single independent thought in their heads (unless they should happen to oppose the war, of course).

"Chickenhawk," then, is less an expression of honor and gratitude towards our warriors than a craven attempt to ridicule those who support the war under the perfidious banner of authenticity. At once it is a terrible insult and an instant debate-stopper.

I do not serve in the military, and in all likelihood will never serve. Shall I then hang up my keyboard, bewailing my hypocrisy, and leave the field to the enlightened supporters of peace and brotherhood, who only act for the sake of all mankind (and never out of terror that they might be drafted, of course), all because of this one potent word? Never. I believe utterly in our presence in Iraq, and I would do anything I can to perpetuate it until it is no longer necessary. If I would withhold my small contributions entirely because I do not wear a uniform, I would be complicit in the very evils I despise, through my inaction. To know a thing is wrong, and not to oppose it where you can, is contemptible.

On the bright side, such bankrupt language has the value of clearly identifying its users as intellectually lazy or dishonest. There seems to be quite a few of those these days.


Rusticus said...

Well said.

Dunno if you read this: http://www.nationalreview.com/lowry/lowry200508260811.asp
But Lowry takes on the same topic.

Asher Litwin said...

This issue of dismissing someone's opinion as invalid simply due to lack of direct involvement in the subject at hand is hardly limited. It is a sad thing when even those who are close to us will dismiss my opinion of such a thing like health care simply because I do not yet pay my own, and thus cannot understand the hardship that it places on a person.
True, it is not the usage of the word such as chickenhawk. But it is along the same vein, and people must realize that by using such arguments, you don't win anyone over to any point of view, you merely alienate them because of the implicit attack.