Mark Shields: Correcting the record

An incorrect statement left uncorrected leads often to deception, disillusion and dishonesty. Take this hypothetical: I’ve agreed to speak at a local event, and the emcee, in her introduction, says something like, “Mark Shields went to the University of Notre Dame, where he played basketball.”

It’s true that Notre Dame is my alma mater and that I regularly played pickup games of basketball while there. But the misimpression would be created that I’d played  for  my school on the men’s basketball team. Before long, another imaginative emcee embellishes the intro to read, “Shields was a star college basketball player.” And error would take wing.

Recently, Jay Nordlinger (whom I do not know) of National Review wrote: “The term ‘chickenhawk’ was coined by Mark Shields, a Democratic operative, columnist, and pundit. He used it to tar Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney (et al.) … The rule was this: If you did not serve in combat, you could not advocate American military action. … Only combat veterans had the right to support military action.”

Nordlinger is wrong on virtually every count. Forget that I did not coin “chicken hawk,” which was used as early as 1967 by Rep. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., in a speech opposing the Vietnam War, some 12 years before I ever worked for a newspaper. Forget that I have not worked in politics for 36 years.

More importantly, he incorrectly defined terms. For the record, the disparaging term “chicken hawk” was reserved for those American men who during the Vietnam War, when all males 18 or older were subject to the military draft, employed a student deferment, a family contact, a contrived medical malady or even a calling to divinity school to avoid serving and who then later, as wounded and decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam Robert Timberg unforgettably wrote in the 1996 book “The Nightingale’s Song,” would reappear “loudly endorsing a confrontational stance with the Soviet Union, aid to the Nicaraguan guerillas, and military ventures into Lebanon, Grenada, and the Persian Gulf.” Chicken hawks, Timberg continued, were “men whose testosterone gland abruptly began pumping after age twenty-six, when they were no longer vulnerable to the draft.”

Yes, former Vice President Dick Cheney — with his five student deferments and with his under-oath explanation “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service” (when 58,303 Americans of his generation were giving their lives in Vietnam) — who appears since never to have seen a world trouble spot where he would not want to send American soldiers and Marines, qualifies as a chicken hawk.

The chicken hawk can be counted on to endorse a national policy of military escalation, as long as it involves no personal participation.

U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, after his successful leadership in the Gulf War, dispatched all the fawning flatterers this way: “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.” It would be irrational to say — and nobody I know has ever said it — that only Americans who have served in combat can advocate American military action. By that absurd standard, of the past 11 U.S. presidents since Harry Truman, only John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush would have been qualified to serve as commander in chief.

In the last analysis, character is destiny. Just as we would spurn the self-proclaimed tax reformer who turned out to be a tax evader, we refuse to honor the call to battle from those who, when summoned to defend their nation, went AWOL. The record is corrected.


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