Friday, August 17, 2007

Military "innocents" and chickenhawks

Geoffrey Wheatcroft in yesterday’s Guardian raises an intriguing question: why it is the case that those with no military experience, who have not seen war at first hand, are often so gung-ho about going to war? Blair – a “military virgin” – is an obvious example. Bush, as is well known, had Daddy pull strings so that he could spend the Vietnam War in Texas (even as he urged others to go to Vietnam). This is the same Bush whose reaction to 9/11 was to cower in an underground bunker until his aides thought it safe to come out. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove are also notable chickenhawks. In the case of Thatcher (which, oddly, Wheatcroft fails to mention) she was actually old enough towards the end of the war to enlist in one of the women’s auxiliary services, but patriotically choose not to do so (her career came first). Yet her thirst for war far outstripped that of those who actually saw action during the war e.g. Heath (Royal Artillery) and Healey (beach commander at Anzio). What are the psychological roots of the chickenhawk phenomenon? Is it jealousy, or an inferiority complex, a need for vicarious safe-at-a-distance excitement, or a need to compensate for not having military experience? There is no doubt that Blair hugely enjoyed strutting on the White House lawn besides Bush; so much more exciting than the tedious detail of tax-credits. Or is it just simple ignorance: do they think war is like the movies? Or is it a Master of the Universe arrogance: sure the little people will suffer but of what consequence are they (especially if their skin is brown and they speak another language/practice another religion)? Or do they have a more idealised view of war, having never seen it close-up? John Campbell suggests this in his biography of Thatcher: “She could have joined one of the women’s services when she left school, which would have got her into uniform and closer to the action; but she could never have gained that first-hand experience of combat which left such a deep and lasting impression on practically all of the young men who became her rivals and colleagues in the years ahead…emotionally but not physically involved in the conflict she was able to preserve a more idealised view of war than those who fought in it”. Wheatcroft also points to another feature of modern war: the off-loading of risk onto civilians: “When the western armies were reluctant to commit ground forces in Kosovo, as opposed to bombing from a safe height, there were rumblings from older military men about a generation of soldiers willing to fight but not willing to die, and one French general was quoted as asking whether we had reached the age of wars in which only civilians are killed”. Wheatcroft concludes (not entirely seriously, I think) that MP’s should not be allowed to vote for war unless they have “heard the proverbial shot fired in anger”. (This is, of course, silly if for no other reason than that it would rule out the great majority of MP’s and applied to the population as a whole most voters would also be disqualified…but still…I know what he means).


Blogger skipper said...

David Owen gives an angle on all this in his Hubris Syndrome- surprisingly, it's pretty interesting.

7:58 pm  

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