The noble hawk

A recent conversation on Facebook with an old friend got me thinking about that most maligned of political beasts. The one we blame for all the world’s ills (sit down at the back, Dawkins, we’re not talking about religion this time). The one whose world-view seems totally incomprehensible and whose extinction would surely usher in a new age of global peace and understanding. The Hawk.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Hawks breed war and hatred. Where war and hatred already exist, they stand directly in the path of peace by polarising populations, exploiting historical divisions and fears for the future. If there were no hawks, there would be no war.

Well, even though that last statement may actually be true, it ain’t gonna happen. The hawks are everywhere, in every conflict, from the sprawling thousand-year enmity to the petty family feud. They’re there, even if they’re not (yet) running things, they’re lurking in the background, ready to step in the moment they see a weakening from the people at the top. Hawks at the top are usually only there because there are hawks below them, a bureaucracy, an aristocracy, a theocracy, a democracy of hawks. A parliament of angry fowls. Cut off the beak and a new one will take its place.

But sometimes, the hawk at the top isn’t quite what he seems, either. Sure, he’s usually a warmonger with no sense of the damage his war is doing to everyone else. But not always. Sometimes, he’s just what’s needed to bring that war to an end.

A bit of realpolitik now. Wars don’t just end because suddenly everyone likes everyone else. There’s no sudden surge of magnanimity on both sides, no spontaneous burying of still-bloody hatchets. Wars end because it makes sense for them to end, because winning looks impossible or the cost looks too high. Even hawks, if they’re sane, might not want to keep on fighting and dying if they can’t see a happy ending, might want to stop where they are and grab whatever they can.

And to do that they need, at the very least, two things.
They need to be able to convince their enemies that it’s worth taking the chance of peace. The other side will have hawks in it, too; almost every conflict does, or they’d be over before they got started and the hawks would rule the world (some say they do, but that’s another story). The other side need to be afraid, need to think that if they don’t accept the olive branch, they’ll be dead themselves, before long, or lose people or ground or allies or resources. Who’s the other side going to be afraid of, though? Who’s the other side going to believe, walking towards them, waving that olive branch, and saying: these are my terms, take them, or lose? The hawk? Maybe. The dove? They’ll laugh in his face, most likely, and demand more than anyone’s prepared to give.

And more importantly, they need to be able to do precisely the same thing to their own side, and the other hawks in it. They need to come home holding a piece of paper (yes, I know, and the example only proves the point) and saying: this is what we’ve got. We can accept it, and start to live normal lives, or we can carry on fighting, but if we do that, we’ll lose. Again, who are these people going to believe? The hawk? Maybe. The dove? They’ll tell him he doesn’t understand fighting, doesn’t know how to win, doesn’t have the stomach for it, and they’ll have him dethroned, usurped, impeached, beheaded or off to the Gulag before he can ask for another chance.

There are exceptions, or course. Sometimes, people on both sides are so fed up with conflict that a pair of doves can bring it to an end. But that coincidence is all too rare; the hard, sad fact is that to make peace, you’ve got to have already shown both sides that you can make war. The examples are legion. The late Margaret Thatcher, initiating secret talks with the IRA. Mohamed Morsi, a man whose history has established his anti-Israel credentials domestically in Egypt, but who helped broker the ceasefire in Gaza and pulled off the incredible feat of winning praise from Hamas (“Egypt did not sell out the resistance”), the US (tribute to his “personal leadership”), and, startlingly for a man who had recently referred to Jews as the descendants of “apes and pigs”, from Israel (a “nice surprise”, who should be judged on his actions, not his words). Uribe, detested by so many in Columbia but who needed to bring FARC to its knees before it would talk sensibly. Ariel Sharon – who else could have managed the withdrawal from Gaza? You can hate any or all these people as much as you want; I’m not here to defend them, or anything else they did, or to say that these achievements outweigh their other deeds; just that it took these people, or people like them, to achieve even that much.

The thing is, we all say we hate war, and most of us do, but nine times out of ten, it takes a man of war to end it.


If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.


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