chickenhawk nation

Last night I read an amazingly insightful, thoughtful and well-argued essay from James Fallows in the Atlantic. Fallows's article, the cover story of the current issue, is titled "The Tragedy of the American Military." The writer characterizes the typical American attitude toward the military as one that is "reverent but disengaged." As serving in the military becomes more and more rare, we tend to shower appreciation on those who serve without any real knowledge of what they are doing. (I posted last month about another writer who had made a similar point in the Boston Globe.) This leads to a situation in which veneration of the military is de rigueur and meaningful assessment or criticism of the institution is all but impossible.

Falllows characterizes the contemporary United States as a "chickenhawk nation," made up of those "eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going." This tendency harms the nation, our fighting forces, and the soldiers and veterans who serve. We have so much confidence in our armed forces that we commit them to missions without thinking through the consequences should they lose. Politicians treat the Pentagon budget as a "bipartisan stimulus program" for generating jobs and protecting seats in as many Congressional districts as possible, which leads to overspending, a lack of accountability and troops frequently lacking the best tools to accomplish their jobs. Meanwhile, Americans who find themselves increasingly distant from the military itself are content to pay little attention to it. Since matters of war and peace are among the most important that any government will take up, this dynamic can contribute to an erosion of our democracy. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game," Fallows quotes Andrew Bacevich observing, "they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”

The article is substantive and somewhat lengthy, but it is also fascinating and engaging. Fallows is, as always, perceptive in his assessment of American attitudes and powerful in articulating the potential consequences of them. Moreover, the piece seems to have struck a nerve: since the current issue of the tlantic hit the newsstands, Fallows has engaged eleven separate sets of responses (as of this writing) to his essay on the magazine's website. Hopefully his insights will help Americans confront our chickenhawk ways and reassess what we expect from and owe to the U.S. military.