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Why Chickenhawks Matter | The Nation

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Why Chickenhawks Matter

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During the run-up to the Iraq war, it was impossible not to notice that those most gung-ho for the adventure were, by and large, virgins when it came to the actual battlefield. George W. ("I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes") Bush; Dick ("I had other priorities") Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Tom DeLay, Elliott Abrams--to a man, all found better things to do than join the armed forces during Vietnam, a war most of them supported.

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Eric Alterman
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Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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During the war debate, this issue was confused by the casual tossing of the epithet "chickenhawk." This discussion was actually promoted by the war party itself--together with its punditocracy cheerleaders--as it allowed its members to wrap themselves in the flag of free speech. It also appealed to the media, few of whose denizens had seen the inside of a military uniform either. But the point was not--or should not have been--to question the right of those who never served in the military to make military policy, which, after all, is intelligently enshrined in the Constitution. Rather it was a matter of judgment: Knowing nothing of war from firsthand experience, these men (and women) were more likely to have a romantic view of what war could accomplish.

The results of this foolish faith are all around us. While Bush prefers to avoid the many unpleasant aspects of the war--allowing no photographing of returning coffins and attending no funerals of fallen soldiers--he waxes rhapsodic about the alleged democratic benefits the Arab world will one day reap from this botched operation. Meanwhile, as Don Van Natta Jr. and Desmond Butler reported in the New York Times, "Across Europe and the Middle East, young militant Muslim men are answering a call issued by Osama bin Laden and other extremists, and leaving home to join the fight against the American-led occupation in Iraq." The net result, according to Uri Dromi, director of International Outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, is that Iraq appears to be turning into America's "Lebanon." In that conflict, in which Israel attempted to address a political problem with blunt force, it succeeded only in bleeding itself dry, creating more hatred and hence more terrorism, and ultimately decreasing the security of its citizens before leaving in ignominy and humiliation.

What makes this catastrophe all the more infuriating is how predictable it was--except, of course, by those blinded by ideology and unwilling to listen to more experienced voices. If only the Administration had not turned a deaf ear when those former military men not under "color" contract to the networks spoke candidly about the proposed war. None did so with greater force or credibility than Maj. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who headed the US Central Command from 1997 to 2000 and was later George W. Bush's special envoy to the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations.

Just over a year ago, Zinni gave talks, one to the Middle East Institute in Washington, in which he predicted many problems now facing US occupation authorities. Among Zinni's warnings:

The war party itself: "It's pretty interesting that all the generals see it the same way, and all the others, who have never fired a shot and are hot to go to war, see it another.... We are about to...ignite a fuse in this region...we will rue the day we ever started."

Is this a liberation? What comes next? "If it's short with minimal destruction, there will be the initial euphoria of change. It's always what comes next that is tough. I went in with the first troops that went into Somalia. We were greeted as heroes on the street.... [After] about a month...a group of prominent Somalis...wanted to talk to me. I met with them. The first question out of their mouths was that we'd been there a month, hadn't started a jobs program, and when were we going to fix the economy? Well, I didn't know it was my Marine unit's responsibility to do that. Expectations grow rapidly.... It's not whether you're greeted in the streets as a hero; it's whether you're still greeted as a hero when you come back a year from now."

Is Iraq likely to become a democracy? "If we think there is a fast solution to changing the governance of Iraq, then we don't understand history, the nature of the country, the divisions, or the underneath suppressed passions that could rise up.... If you think it's going to be easy to impose a government or install one from the outside, I think that you're further sadly mistaken."

What are (were) the alternatives? "If I were to give you my priority of things that can change for the better in this region, it is first and foremost the Middle East peace process and getting it back on track. Second, it is insuring that Iran's reformation or moderation continues on track and trying to help and support the people who are trying to make that change in the best way we can.... The third is to make sure those countries to which we have now committed ourselves to change, like Afghanistan and those in Central Asia, we invest what we need to in the way of resources there to make that change happen. Fourth is to patch up these relationships that have become strained, and fifth is to reconnect to the people. We are talking past each other.... We have based this in things that are tough to compromise on, like religion and politics, and we need to reconnect in a different way.

"I would take those priorities before this one [deposing Saddam]. My personal view, and this is just personal, is that I think this isn't number one. It's maybe six or seven, and the affordability line may be drawn around five."

General Zinni is a brave and patriotic soldier. After he made those remarks, he was informed by Bush Administration officials that he "will never be used by the White House again." Compare that with the kid-glove treatment given General ("My God is bigger than your God") Boykin. Like his fellow former soldier, John McCain, Zinni hears echoes in the rhetoric of the Bush team that must give him nightmares. "It reminds me of Vietnam. Here we have some strategic thinkers who have long wanted to invade Iraq. They saw an opportunity, and they used the imminence of the threat and the association with terrorism and the 9/11 emotions as a catalyst and justification. It's another Gulf of Tonkin."

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