October 29, 2006

Chicken Hawks and Virtu

Over the last three years there have been some intriguing developments in American as opposed to English politics about the Iraq War. In both countries the war provoked huge opposition on the left of the political spectrum- from figures like Russ Feingold in America and Ming Campbell in Britain. Yet the terms of the opposition were subtlely different and one of those ways that opposition has been different deserves much more highlighting than it is getting.

In America, democrat after democrat led by Markos Moulitsas and John Kerry in different ways, has claimed that they are the party of the army. Kos in particular has gone on again and again about the antithesis between what he calls Fighting Dems and Chickenhawks on the Republican Side- men like Cheney, Wolfowitz and Bush. Partly obviously this is the influence of a key strand in American politics- Vietnam and its related traumas- your poster for instance found himself sitting at a dinner in Cambridge between an eminent history proffessor from Harvard and another American academic discussing how both had been lucky enough to miss the draft to Vietnam. In Kos's case the personal effects of Desert Storm are obviously there throughout his blog and I don't think he would deny them- but even so there is something here that requires explanation.

The British mythology of the second World War for example is unabashedly civilian- despite the recent series of adverts on the tube about the sufferings of servicemen- the British tend to see the war through the eyes of the Londoners or Coventry men and women sheltering from the blitz. Unlike the first war, the second war's literature is all about evacuation and evacuees. This tendency builds upon the British civilian experience of war which America doesn't have but it also reflects an older and perhaps interesting aspect to this discussion.

For British men and women are not citizens and have no real cult of citizendry to draw upon- they are subjects to the crown and to a peculiar crown which has maintained through chance the last of the early modern composite states into the era of nationalisms. Whereas Americans are citizens, or in particular to quote Ira Rosencratz, they are 'citizen-soldiers'. When one looks at a film like Michael Moore's Farhenheit 911 Moore seeks to dramatise the inequalities of America by looking at the inequality between mostly Black servicemen and middle class civilians- the rhetorical point is fascinating as though Moore is binding together enfranchisment and claims for it with military service. This idea of Citizen-Soldiers has a long history- stretching back to Machiavelli who attacked the idea of militias because he beleived in a citizen army. It also influences other aspects of life in the US from belief in Gun Control to Rightwing militias- but it also highlights how different some in the American left are from their European counterpartners. Blair's war record is much less of an issue than Bush's and the phrase Chickenhawk has never to my knowledge been used by a leftwinger in Britain in a major publication.

There are other factors around obviously- personal and political- but this is one distinction between the way that the anti-Iraq war argument has been made that throws an interesting light on the differences between two arguably similar political cultures.

6 comments:

edmund said...

I think you have a point but tactics matter a lot and this is a tactic anti-war/ sceptical democrats have been endevouring touse this as a tactic-it's not the same in UK partl y because it is less of a partians or idelogical issue-becasue a Labour government went to war

the recent generals remarks though I think had something of a UK equivilenat

Gracchi said...

Yeah I agree and I've overplayed it somewhat but I do think that it is a distinctive feature- the fact that noone in the UK has made the same point is fascinating.

Political Umpire said...

I was struck by two points in a recent trip to America. The first is the number of times one reads and hears the words 'America' or 'American' during the course of the day, be it on television, advertising hordings, shops, whatever. Their sense of patriotism is far in excess of cynical British phlegm.

Secondly, that patriotism finds a focal point in the armed forces. The trailer park trash that forms the bottom feeders of the US armed forces are despised when citizens but, as soldiers, are national heroes in a way that no British squaddies are. Health services and other support networks for wounded GIs far exceeds the dismal nonsense that British troops suffer. Partly this is due to America's greater resources, but also due to the fact that a failure to be seen properly treating soldiers would be political suicide for American politicians, yet in the UK the treasury always sees the armed forces' budget as the first port of call when seeking to tighten the purse strings.

Gracchi said...

Political Umpire, yes I'm glad you say that because that is precisely the sense I was trying to capture and I think its to do with being a republic and not a monarchy- that is a thought I'll expand on no doubt but there is a sense if you look at the kind of ideas that the idea of America sprang out of that the value of a citizen soldier stands at the core of them.

rawprawn said...

perhaps military service is so essential for citzenship in US because is was born in revolution.
also, the US is the last surviving nation born on the Enlightenment age of revolutions.
by the way, whats the difference between a citizen army and a militia? if there were TWO citizen armies, for example, they would be called militia.

Gracchi said...

Rawprawn I think you are right about revolution though I think the particular time of revolution helped it happen in that way- if you read say John Pocock you find that the American revolution was deeply affected by English and Italian republicanism which lay this stress on the link between citizenship and arms.

You are right about the militia point- indeed that word is used in transalations of Machiavelli I've read for these citizen armies. Part of the argument is that citizen soldier is self reliant for his own force- government exists under the constraint of citizens not the other way round the same idea is often found in the US.