Chickenhawk a la Mode

A chickenhawk, dear readers, is one of two things: either a voting-age pedophile, or a warmonger who has never gone to war. It’s an unattractive word.

I have little to say about the Man/Boy Love crowd, just as I have little to say about the habits of cannibal chimpanzees. But there is much to be said about the other chickenhawks, the kind that can’t wait to send someone else off to fight. Particularly as there’s a bunch of them in Washington hell-bent on starting a war with Iraq, even as we speak.

When a war comes along, the civilian President, who is also Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, must figuratively lead our nation into battle-whether or not he’s been in combat, or the military, or even worn a garment with epaulettes. Abraham Lincoln, who invented the log, served in the Blackhawk war, long before the Blackhawks started making helicopters. Lincoln never saw a moment’s combat, but did a lot of marching, and gained an appreciation for the price of war- he saw folks without scalps during a time when you were considered naked without a hat. When the Civil War broke out, President Lincoln wanted no part of it. But he listened to his generals, conducted the Northern campaign with diligence, and in a bond which has lasted some six score and eight years cemented our nation back together.

George W. Bush couldn’t cement the handle back on a shaving mug. He served some of a tour of duty defending Alabama from the Viet Cong, but the only scalp he ever saw was firmly affixed to George McGovern’s head. Yet Bush has a hunger for war (or at least Karl Rumsfeld does, which amounts to the same thing, as Rumsfeld rents the basement apartment in Bush’s head). The war in Afghanistan doesn’t count as a chickenhawk action, because we didn’t pick the fight, it picked us. It was a defensive action, like burning a forest down because there’s a beehive in it. But this war on Iraq is a chickenhawk’s war, through-and-through. It’s all about rattling sabers and being a Big Man (forget about the oil- let’s do).

Chickenhawks are all of a type. They have money and privilege, often inherited. They’re white and aging and deeply invested in power. Most of today’s chickenhawks not only haven’t been to war, but studiously avoided it by any means available. The excuses range from the embarrassing (Rush “Anal Cysts” Limbaugh) to the evasive (Dick “I Had Other Priorities In The 60’s Than Military Service” Cheney). Donald Rumsfeld, like Bush, flew fighter jets, but missed both Korea and Vietnam due to poor scheduling. He did some wrestling, but all-torso Greco-Roman is not the same as grenades and bayonets.

What psychological aberration addicts a man to war when he’s never even smoked one? Let’s look at the inward motivations for a chickenhawk to initiate hostilities with Iraq. Power is a big factor, and the opportunity to amass more wealth; war as a distraction from domestic matters is also in play. There are natural resources to be had, and a vast scheme for realigning the Middle East through ‘regime change’ (a bloodless term for a nasty business, as “abattoir” is to “slaughter house”). There is even a small chance that self-defense, in a ‘Minority Report’ kind of way, is at work. All of these points have been cried from the housetops by fierce orators declaiming across the dismal alleys of American discourse, and in my opinion they dignify with statecraft what is ultimately a sordid personal problem: chickenhawks have never entered manhood.

What we’re talking about is an inferiority complex crashing up against megalomania on a global scale.

In aboriginal cultures, there is a ritual ascendancy from child to adult. Ask any Yanomami. You’re 13 years old, minding your own business, and all of a sudden the shaman takes you off behind the shed and subjects you to ritual death, from which you emerge transformed and never really see eye-to-eye with Mom again. You are handed a spear and an obscene-looking wood shaving to affix over your genitals, or in the case of the more serious cultures some portion of your genitals is removed. I own a Maasai circumcision knife, and I assure you anyone who survives an encounter with that thing is more of a man than me. Assuming the wounds heal properly. Then you go off and hunt some dangerous animal, manly fashion.

We don’t have any such ritual in our culture, unless you include the Bar Mitzvah, which can be pretty tough if the band is no good. American males remain like children until their late teens or early twenties; sons of privilege who go to grad school are pushing thirty before they properly leave the nest. George W. Bush was one of these. This late entrance into manhood is one of the reasons our teenagers are such a pain in the toches. In the aboriginal cultures, there are no teenagers. Only very short men with acne and high-pitched voices. Where is the crucible which molds today’s man? When does he become a man, leaving the child behind? And don’t say it’s when he gets his driver’s license. That’s when he leaves his parents behind, in the driveway. But the child remains.

In George W. Bush’s case, maybe the cathartic ascent to manhood came when he stopped drinking at age 40, or when he executed his first Texan, Clifton Russell Jr., in 1995. Bush was 49 then. Maybe it was when he graduated from Harvard in 1975 (age 29), or when he was arrested for DUI in 1976 (age 14). Actually I don’t think he ever became a man. I suspect he’s still waiting for that moment to come, and I think all the chickenhawks suffer from this, whether like Rumsfeld they just missed the chance to go on that first hunt or like Richard Perle they chickened out and hid in the palmettos. So they’re eager to fight war, if not personally. They want to be men at last. War is manly stuff. Genghis Khan, the Mongol conqueror who made “Look, mommy, a pony!” the most frightening cry of the 12th Century, remarked:

“The greatest joy you can know is to vanquish your enemies and drive them before you, to ride their horses and seize their possessions, to see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in your arms.”

Nobody called old Genghis “Pooty-Poot”, I guarantee you that. He may have been a little rough on Central Europe, but Genghis at least knew what he was talking about: he rode his own horse into battle, and they were rinsing the bloodstains out of his hat well into the 13th Century. He was no chickenhawk. He also said, “violence never settles anything,” which is a sentiment pretty typical of war veterans throughout history. Men who have never been to war lack the perspective which only comes with experience. Like grandma said, there’s nothing like wading through a quagmire of blood and guts to get your head screwed on straight. The problem with today’s chickenhawks is that they’re so used to having everything done for them, they think by sending other people off to war, they will make themselves into men by proxy.

If this seems like a tenuous idea, consider how much your own childhood shaped who you are. These men were boys once, and for a lot longer than most of us. George W. Bush’s Daddy, George Senior, was 20 years old when he flew a raid on Chichi Jima during WWII. You want to talk about catharsis, this guy’s plane was crippled but he kept on fighting and crashed in the sea in as heroic a manner as can be imagined. After a distinguished public career, same Daddy became President the old-fashioned way, by getting elected. That’s a tough act to follow, and it may explain George Junior’s obsession with defeating Saddam Hussein better than all of the geopolitical rationales in the world. Because as tough a warrior as he was, George Sr. never caught Saddam. This is Junior’s big chance to show up his Pops. He’s had all of life’s rewards handed to him: wealth, power, baseball teams, the Presidency: just this once he wants to win one for himself. I get the feeling the same can be said for all the chickenhawks, at some level. They’re a bunch of insecure, angry children, sliding inexorably into old age without having tasted real manhood for themselves. No matter what they achieve, no matter what rewards, it is all consumed by the tapeworm of self-doubt. It’s the rest of us who have to suffer and die while their endless initiation ceremony grinds on.

So here’s my suggestion. Let’s get all of them together one night on a small tropical island, light a bonfire, break out the jug liquor and get a little noisy. Beat on some drums, dance around in masks, you know the effect I’m going for. Get them good and scared. Then the ceremony begins, with George Junior and Cheney and Perle and Rumsfeld and DeLay and Limbaugh and Kemp and Lott and all the rest dressed up in school uniforms, forming a writhing conga line, maybe with pacifiers in their mouths so they can channel their bottled-up boyhoods. They dance and weep as the drums throb toward an urgent crescendo, the fire leaping like an angry god–the moment is here: these old boys will at last become men! And then we run like hell for the boats while a battalion of the other variety of chickenhawk, released from prison for this purpose, descends upon the circle of ancient children.

C’est la guerre.

BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter. He can be reached at:


Ben Tripp is America’s leading pseudo-intellectual. His most recent book is The Fifth House of the Heart.