The integrity of those rattling their sabers deserves consideration, especially since war is their preferred solution and at the expense of the lives of others.

In the American political lexicon, the term hawk refers to one’s aggressive willingness to use military force to solve international problems. Its roots date back to Thomas Jefferson’s reference to “war hawks” in 1798.

A chickenhawk, on the other hand, is a relatively new term. It currently refers to those baby-boomer politicians, pundits and preachers who steered clear of Vietnam but push for war in Iraq.

As the debate between hawks and chickenhawks sharpens, some are fingering Vice President Cheney as the nation’s leading chickenhawk, in part because he presses relentlessly for war.

Unlike President Clinton, who sought to evade the draft, Cheney did register for the draft. He also maintained a student deferment for six years. After graduating from college in 1965 and becoming eligible for induction, he entered graduate school and retained his deferment. When his wife became pregnant, Cheney’s draft status changed and exempted him from any possibility of military service.

According to the NewRepublic, Cheney once told a reporter that he “had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”

Other leading Bush Administration chickenhawks, who were eligible but escaped service in Vietnam, include Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, and Richard Perle, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board.

Add to that list still other chickenhawks: Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Majority Whip Tom Delay, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Minority Whip Don Nickles, Senator Phil Graham and Attorney General John Ashcroft, as well as White House politicos Andrew Card and Karl Rove. All these war advocates passed up military service.

Add even more chickenhawks, including media types like Bill Kristol, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

Be sure to add the preachers who beat the war drums and thump the Bible. A leading Southern Baptist fundamentalist wants war now but skipped his chance to go to Vietnam.

The hypocrisy of the chickenhawks surfaced earlier this year when senatorial candidate Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., attacked the patriotism of Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga. Cleland, a triple amputee, was decorated for his service in Vietnam. Chambliss avoided Vietnam because of a “bad knee.”

In contrast to the chickenhawks are those with military experience. One who questions the war in Iraq is Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a recipient of two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam.

Hagel said, “Many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war,” according to Newsweek.

“They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off,” Hagel said. “I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit.”

The New York Times reported that Hagel criticized Perle, a staunch war advocate. Hagel said, “Maybe Mr. Pearle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad.”

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni also noted the lack of military experience of those who want war, according to the Tampa Tribune.

Speaking to the Economic Club of Florida, Zinni, the White House special envoy to the Middle East, listed three prominent generals who have reservations about an American attack against Saddam Hussein.

“It’s pretty interesting that all the generals see it the same way,” Zinni said, “and all the others who have never fired a shot and are hot to go to war see it another way.”

Those who are eager for war accuse those who out the chickenhawks of making an ad hominem anti-war argument. An ad hominem argument focuses on an opponent’s character instead of the content of the argument, as if the two can be clearly severed.

Defenders of the chickenhawks say that the chickenhawks’ lack of credentials does not disqualify them from policy deliberations and does not negate their war arguments. Of course, the chickenhawk defenders are right. The chickenhawks do have the right to make their argument, despite the lack of experience.

Personal experience is only one form of knowledge, one avenue to truth. One does not have to experience discrimination to oppose discrimination. Neither does one have to live in an alcoholic home to know the dangers of alcohol.

At the same time, character is critical. President Bush rightly says character counts. And character is forged through “longstanding habit.”

We evaluate others with a “walk-the-talk” measuring rod. The talk is more trustworthy if it’s backed up with the walk. The lack of the walk does not invalidate the value of talk. The walk simply gives more credibility to the talk.

Similarly, we cannot sever public policy integrity from personal integrity. Too often, as in Vietnam, Watergate and Monicagate, leaders said one thing when they knew another to be true. Their lack of personal integrity impacted their public policy leadership.

Character and intellectual arguments are not split screens, totally separate realities. They are wired together.

The integrity of those rattling their sabers deserves consideration, especially since war is their preferred solution and at the expense of the lives of others.

The call to practice discernment means that we think broadly before leaping quickly. And the Christian community needs to think carefully about war making and peacemaking in the Middle East.

Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.   

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