March 20, 2006

Chickenhawks and me

from - RSA

More long-windedness on the politics of Iraq: I have a question for any readers who might be thinking more clearly than I am about the war in Iraq. For some time it's been common for lefty bloggers to refer to some right-wing bloggers as chickenhawks, in that they support the war in Iraq, they are able-bodied and of the right age, and yet they do not enlist. I believe that on the right this is considered pure name-calling, a slur on the patriotism of a war supporter.

My impression, however, is that there's a well-founded rule in ethics, along the lines of the Golden Rule, that says, "Don't ask someone to do something that you wouldn't be willing to do yourself." Does such a generally accepted rule exist? It's easy to think of analogies: I wouldn't say to someone, "Could you go grab my knapsack over there on the ground? It might be sitting on quicksand, and I don't want to get sucked in." Or "Could you grab these two wires? The electricity might still be on, and I don't want to get electrocuted." (As a side note, it's always struck me as a bit incongruous to talk about our leaders in modern warfare: they don't lead their troops into battle, the way that the heroes in classical Greece did; instead they lead from the safety of the back lines, or even thousands of miles away. Exempted are those who started in the trenches, so to speak, like Kennedy, Bush I, Rumsfeld, Kerry, and others. They put their lives on the line when it counted. W. and Cheney, not so much.)

One common answer is that there is no such rule in ethics, and that an analogy to police officers, firefighters, and Secret Service agents is appropriate. We don't think of ourselves as cowards simply because we rely on others for protection. We all certainly respect the men and women who take on those jobs. Chickenhawks might simply say that, in general, soldiers play a similar role, and that there is no shame in relying on soldiers for protection. I don't find this analogy especially compelling--but why?

Originally I'd hoped to write a brief, high-minded philosophical discussion of general ethical issues related to chickenhawkery, but unfortunately I don't have the background or inclination to do this. In the end, I think my opinions of the chickenhawks are based more on distrust than anything else. Consider Person A who says, "It's absolutely essential that someone do X. (It happens that this someone is not me, but it could equally well be me under other circumstances, and I'd be willing to do it then.)" Person B says, "It's absolutely essential that someone do X. (I don't care who it is, as long as it's not me.)" Is there anything that can distinguish Person A from Person B if their parenthetical statements are switched? Basically, Person A is willing to put his money where his mouth is, in principle, while Person B is not. We respect Person A, again in principle, while we say Person B is a scoundrel (old-fashioned words are sometimes best for old-fashioned moral failings).

Now, I'm not distrustful of all war supporters. Military veterans, for example, have demonstrated, by their actions, their status as Person A. What might incline me to distrust the rest? Perhaps a focus on ideals such as democracy and freedom combined with a refusal to consider that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people (mostly faceless foreigners) might die in pursuit of those ideals. Perhaps talk about compassion and shared sacrifice, along with support of policies that involve a good amount of sacrifice but little compassion and no sharing. Perhaps the support of leaders who sought draft deferrals during a past war. Perhaps the support of politicians who let others do their dirty work in political campaigns. Perhaps a rejection of the possibility that the failure in Iraq might be due to its poor execution, its poor planning, and its poor initial conception.

Or maybe I'm just not trusting enough.


Posted by RSA at March 20, 2006 10:04 AM
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