John McCain reflects contemporary war hawk rhetoric, most recently over the Arab Spring in Libya and the escalation of civil war in Syria. Official government photo courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Postmodern War Hawks

The term war hawks is still used today to characterize those advocating war as an appropriate response in conflict situations. The contemporary Arab Spring, for example, continues to elicit American responses in terms of military intervention. This was true in Libya and is true in the current Syrian civil war. Senators like South Carolina Lindsey Graham and Arizona Senator John McCain have been labeled war hawks by colleagues and critics.

Grace Wyler, writing in the May 18, 2013 Business Insider, refers to McCain as “a staunch foreign policy hawk.” A similar observation was made by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul during his recent filibuster concerning drone warfare. Drone warfare, along with cruise missiles, may be the perfect replacement for “boots on the ground.” Hawks have always been used in hunting and, ironically, a new drone under development in Germany by Northrop Grumman is dubbed “Euro Hawk.”

War Hawks Prey on Reality

War with Britain in 1812 was caused, in part, by the words and actions of war hawks like Clay and Calhoun despite lack of national spirit or preparation. The previous Jefferson administration had cut defense spending, leaving Madison to rely on the militia and a few seasoned officers. Historian Page Smith comments, “It is a gross error to fight a new war with the heroes of an older one.”

Ultimately, the war changed no boundaries, left the new nation deep in debt, and exacerbated sectional disunity. The nation’s capital, Washington City, was a smoldering ruins. Clay and Calhoun, however, emerged on a path that would make them among the most celebrated politicians in the pre-Civil War years.

In 1812, war hawks used both political ends and popular opinion to achieve their results. Whether an appeal to nationalism, the so-called “romance” of a war fought for a good cause, or the postmodern impersonal nature of conflicts as characterized by drones, war hawks compromise diplomacy, hardly viewing militarism as a last resort and as the last necessary part of an overall grand strategy. If 1812 is a case study, then how many other wars might have been avoided by means other than military action?


Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. (1989). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Smith, Page. The Shaping of America: A People’s History of the Young Republic. (1980). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Wyler, Grace. IT‘S WAR: John McCain and Lindsey Graham Just Ripped Into Rand Paul On The Senate Floor. (March 7, 2013). Business Insider. Accessed May 18, 2013.

  • Susan Ozmore

    Interesting. One of the things I found so interesting in David McCullough’s book about the Panama Canal was the information about yellow fever. I also just started reading The American Plague by Crosby last night, so finding your post was timely. I had no idea that it was still such a problem. Thanks for the info.