The term is meant to indicate that the person in question is cowardly or hypocritical for personally avoiding combat in the past while advocating that others go to war in the present. Generally, the implication is that "chickenhawks" lack the experience, judgment, or moral standing to make decisions about going to war.
The term was first applied to vocal supporters of military action who were perceived to have used family connections or college deferments to avoid serving in previous wars, particularly the Vietnam War. In current usage, the label is used almost exclusively to describe ardent supporters of the Iraq War who have themselves never been in combat; it is seldom if ever used with respect to supporters of the (more broadly supported) war in Afghanistan as such. The label is not usually applied to women (who were historically, in most countries, barred by law from serving in combat). People who use the term have not necessarily been in the military themselves; people labeled "chickenhawks" have sometimes served in the military, but have not seen combat. Although it is possible to have a military career and never be at war, the term is often used in the context of someone who has been in the military in time of war but make efforts to steer clear of combat, such as George W. Bush's military records showing he wrote "do not volunteer" on being requested if he would consider a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Previously, the term war wimp was sometimes used, coined during the Vietnam War by Congressman Andrew Jacobs (Democrat–Indiana), a Marine veteran of the Korean War. Jacobs defined a war wimp as "someone who is all too willing to send others to war, but never got 'round to going himself". This example has often been attached to current Vice President Richard Cheney, who in his youth received five draft notices but sought deferment to all of them claiming he had "more important business". Another term used in military circles, also occasionally referring to out-of-touch generals, is "armchair warrior".
A much lesser used term is "eagle dove", implying someone who has been in the military who later advocated a dovish position. This may not necessarily mean someone is an absolute pacifist, but one who may state that war is not always the answer, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact they personally have a service record.
Another related term sometimes used is "chickendove" which has an unclear meaning.
In the 1992 presidential campaign, conservative critics of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton questioned the way in which he had avoided service in the Vietnam War. They charged that while Quayle had at least served honorably in uniform, they argued that Clinton had been a "draft dodger" and was thus not suitable to become commander-in-chief. This criticism continued throughout Clinton's presidency, particularly on right-wing talk radio. Liberals countered with the argument that many of Clinton's conservative critics were "chickenhawks" who had themselves avoided being sent to fight in Vietnam while still maintaining a hawkish perspective, whereas Clinton was openly against the war that he did not serve in.
A notable example of this response was liberal satirist Al Franken's 1996 book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, which included a chapter called "Operation Chickenhawk." The story details the exploits of a fictional Vietnam War squad made up of Quayle, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Clarence Thomas, and George Will—all conservative Republicans who were of draft age during the Vietnam era yet did not serve in the conflict. In the story, the cowardly and incompetent squad bungles a surprise attack on a North Vietnamese Army company and ultimately extricates itself from the battle by fragging its gung-ho lieutenant, Oliver North (a conservative Republican veteran of the war).
Usage of the term continued into the 2000 U.S. Presidential election. Vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, who avoided the Vietnam War through the use of college and marriage deferments, was often labeled a chickenhawk. Presidential candidate George W. Bush, who had served in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War but did not go overseas, was also called a chickenhawk. It is incorrect, however, to make the accusation that Bush the Younger "never wore a uniform in his entire life", as National Guard forces are uniformed and considered part of the US military. For example, in a November 15, 2000 article in the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper criticized what he regarded as Bush's "chickenhawk stance on the Vietnam War.
Subsequently, in the 2004 campaign, Vice President Cheney criticized the voting record of Democratic nominee John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, suggesting that Kerry's positions on national defense made him unsuitable to be commander-in-chief. Democrats responded by highlighting Cheney's comment that he himself had not served in the military because he had had "other priorities," with Senator Frank Lautenberg calling Cheney "the lead chickenhawk" in criticizing Kerry.
Since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, numerous conservative and neoconservative supporters of the war have been labeled "chickenhawks" by opponents of the war. For example, the online edition of the alternative, liberal newspaper The New Hampshire Gazette maintains a "Chickenhawk Database", which they describe as "detailing the means by which various right-wing politicians and personalities avoided military service." The database accuses numerous supporters of the war (all or almost all Republicans) of being "chickenhawks," including Bill O'Reilly and William Kristol.
In May 2006, a group of pro-war bloggers began using the "chickenhawk" label in an ironic (and positive) fashion, describing themselves as the "101st Fighting Keyboardists" with the motto "We Eat Chickens for Lunch".
In July 2006, blogger Glenn Greenwald used a narrower definition of the term:
Something more than mere support for a war without fighting in it is required to earn the "chicken hawk" label. Chicken-hawkism is the belief that advocating a war from afar is a sign of personal courage and strength, and that opposing a war from afar is a sign of personal cowardice and weakness. A "chicken hawk" is someone who not merely advocates a war, but believes that their advocacy is proof of the courage which those who will actually fight the war in combat require.
In August 2007, a blog entry on Daily Kos featured several YouTube videos of chickenhawks under 30, including one in which the American journalist Matthew Continetti is criticized on C-SPAN by a call-in viewer for his support of the Iraq war. Continetti in turn claims that such criticism is unconstitutional, without ever saying why he is unwilling to serve.The other videos are of Jason Mattera, Ben Ferguson, and Chris Bucovich.
Generation Chickenhawk was a documentary by Max Blumenthal that was filmed at the 2007 College Republican National Convention in Washington, D.C. This film featured interviews with convention attendees, focusing on why they, as Iraq War supporters, had not enlisted in the armed services.
The phrase was used in the movie American History X as an insult directed towards a neo-Nazi sympathizer who recruits Nazi wannabes to do his bidding, yet never engages in violence himself. Bill Maher covered the topic in a segment of his television program, Real Time.
Advocates of the term:
Critics of the term: