Saturday, August 05, 2006

"Grief and Sacrifice": The Death of Phillip Baucus and the Cliche of Congressional Chickenhawks

Marine Corps Corporal Phillip Baucus, the nephew of Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana, was killed during combat operations last week in Iraq. His death has rekindled some attention to the patterns of military service among the families of Members of Congress.

In recent American politics, one of the more reprehensible attacks on the Bush administration and Congress has been the "chicken hawk" argument, denouncing public officials who send middle-Americans boys to war but who don't send their own. This thesis received vocal airplay in Michael Moore's film "
Fahrenheit 9/11," the political documentary of the Bush administration's post-September 11 foreign policy (and a movie Christopher Hitchens argued was symtomatic of all that is wrong with the left in American politics).

But the chicken hawk attack is really just a nasty stereotype used by opponents of the war to cast aspersion on the legitimacy of government officials sending soldiers off to fight. It's an attack, of course, that gains only limited support from the historical record,
as this New York Times article on the congressional grief following Corporal Baucus' death indicates:

Since the Vietnam War era, it has been common to say that wars are begun by powerful men whose sons stay home, while the sons of men and women with calluses on their hands and dirt under their nails cross oceans to fight, and perhaps to die.

In his scathing 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,”
Michael Moore said that only one of the 535 members of Congress had an enlisted son in Iraq. He was referring to Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, whose son Brooks served with the Army in Bosnia, Kosovo, South Korea and Afghanistan as well as Iraq before coming home.

Mr. Moore’s assertion may have been true at the time, especially since he referred to enlisted troops as opposed to officers. But the recent words of the senior senator from Montana, a Democrat who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, showed how grief can invade the halls of Congress as well as the living rooms of Main Street.

And while the cliché about who goes to war and who does not holds some truth, there have always been notable exceptions, on Capitol Hill as elsewhere.

Lt. Sam Bond of the Marines has just returned from Iraq “much to his father’s relief,” as an aide to the father put it on Wednesday. Lieutenant Bond saw combat in Fallujah. His relieved father is Senator Christopher S. Bond, Republican of Missouri.

Another relieved father is Representative Duncan Hunter,
a Republican of California who heads the House Armed Services Committee and who served in the Army in Vietnam. His son, Lt. Duncan Duane Hunter, served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.

Alan Wilson, the oldest son of Representative Joe Wilson, spent a year in Iraq as a captain in the Army National Guard. The congressman, a South Carolina Republican, also has a son who graduated from
United States Naval Academy, another in the Army National Guard and still another who will join the R.O.T.C. when he enters Clemson University this fall, Kim Olive, an aide to Mr. Wilson, said Wednesday.

Lt. Perry Akin served a year in Iraq as a combat engineer in the Marines, returning to the United States last fall. His father is Representative Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri.

And Maj. William Bunning, an Air Force electronics-warfare officer who is one of nine children of Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, served in Afghanistan as well as in the first Persian Gulf war.

During World War II, Senator Leverett Saltonstall, Republican of Massachusetts; Gov. Herbert Lehman of New York, a Democrat; Joseph P. Kennedy, the former ambassador to Britain; and Harry Hopkins, one of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s closest advisers, had a son die in the war.

A White House aide, who requested anonymity because his information was preliminary, said Wednesday that he knew of no top Bush administration official who had a relative who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For generations, it has been common for the children of generals and admirals to follow their parents into service. That was true for Senator
John McCain, Republican of Arizona, whose father and grandfather were admirals.

Mr. McCain, who was a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War and spent more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese after being shot down, has been a strong supporter of the Iraq campaign. The choice, he has said, is simple: “Withdrawal and fail, or commit and succeed.”

Mr. McCain’s youngest son, Jimmy, who is 18, has just joined the Marine Corps. “I’m obviously very proud of my son,” the senator told Time magazine, “but also understandably a little nervous.”

For my earlier post citing Jeff Jacoby's thrashing of the chicken hawk argument, click here. My condolences go out to the wife and family of Corporal Baucus.

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