The Blog

The Rise of the Neo-Chickenhawks

Sorely under-used today, chickenhawk was a popular expression during Vietnam. It describes an individual, often a politician, who clamours for war while avoiding military service. George W. Bush is a prime example.

Americanisms jar with me and I don't love the post-modern tendency to prefix old things with 'Neo' as if imperialism, colonialism and fascism are fundamentally different today from what they were in the past. That said, as a combination of an Americanism and 'neo', the term neo-chickenhawk has some mileage.

Sorely under-used today, chickenhawk was a popular expression during Vietnam. It describes an individual, often a politician, who clamours for war while avoiding military service. George W. Bush is a prime example. I use 'neo', because the current brand is distinct. The neo-chickenhawk does do that old stuff, but he's had to learn to be media savvy - to make the right noises in public.

I crossed paths with my first neo-chickenhawk in Afghanistan. David Cameron peered out from a tight herd of military bodyguards and PR people. He looked at us as only a man who did PPE at Oxford can and walked away without a word. A news report quoted the man as saying he was in Afghanistan: "listening, learning and showing our support for what is being done".

In honesty, we were certainly snubbed but probably not robbed - I've heard him speak since - and that almost-meeting hints at how politically useful the soldier is to the neo-chickenhawk. Tapping into that magic soldier stuff is vital and the urge to be seen near soldiers is a political necessity, not an indicator of concern for Tommy Atkins.

By contrast, the models Lucy Pinder and Michelle Marsh were better received when they visited us in Afghanistan - and, if you'll forgive me, it was not merely because their khaki short-shorts were of a more compelling cut than David's cords. Compared to Dave, who in 50+ degrees looked like the Lurpak trombonist melting, the two models came across as intelligent, sensible and rather politic. They even asked about the conditions on operations and if we missed home.

Not to be out-chickenhawked, the Labour Party - famously cautious in matters of war - has Jim Murphy MP, their shadow defence secretary. It is in Murphy that we find the archetypal modern war-talker. He has recently called for streets to be renamed after dead soldiers. Naturally, this effort is accompanied with stock claims about respecting "heroes" who have "fallen" in "the brave service of our nation".

Was there ever so hackneyed a sentiment as this stuff about dying for some vaguely-defined 'us'? How about calling the renaming campaign a process of recognizing that "perfectly normal people, who you'd probably find good terms with in a pub have died, often horribly, because of Labour's penchant for neo-chickenhawkery". I'd also suggest restyling Downing Street: "Fallujah Alley".

Having served there, the notion that occupying Afghanistan somehow services our nation seems incredible to me - I view it as a man who did PPE at Oxford views a common soldier. It seems to me only three categories of people peddle that idea and of these only these first two are honest: the politically naïve, perhaps bereaved families trying make sense of things, and hawks, naturally.

Murphy recently spoke at the Henry Jackson Society on Labour's new interventionism. Marketed as a think-tank, the society appears to be more of a think-shed, albeit a bespoke shed with the lettered Douglas Murray riding cowboy on the roof. The thrust of Murphy's address seemed to be that intervention is still very much in, but we need occupy people's countries sensitively so the natives don't get emotional.

I thought his emphasise on learning the lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan was one of more wholesome aspects of his speech, until I checked on YouGov, and discovered that Mr Murphy voted "Very Strongly" against an investigation into the Iraq war. Further examination revealed he voted just as strongly for the war to be prosecuted.

Murphy has also campaigned for laws to be created which make anything construed as abusive to soldiers, a hate crime. Not a bad call in the abstract. But if we intervene sensitively in that dusty country named context, might this defender of soldiers consider extending his Murphy's Law to prosecute MP's - like himself - who voted to send soldiers to an illegal war in Iraq? Surely this is the ultimate abuse to which a soldier can be subjected - by his own side that is, though the concept of 'sides' is precarious post 9/11. Being called a "baby-killer" in the street may chafe, but roadside bombs will ruin you.

John Bryant, formerly of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, is not a chickenhawk, and subsequently he is less hyperbolic about the commitment of our government to its soldiers. He is currently trying to rebuild his life after war and homelessness. He offered some political analysis which seemed to me somewhat in advance of anything I've heard from think-tanks or neo-chickenhawks. "They're quick enough to get you to sign on the dotted line, give your oath of allegiance to the Queen..." He said "...we help the Government and the country and the country won't help us back".