The recent uproar over NFL athletes who choose to #TakeaKnee during the National Anthem has led me to a very simple question: Why?
Why do we care so much about full grown men who toss a ball around for a living? Those who are most outraged by “the kneeling” say that their ire is not racially motived; that seems debatable, but for now I’ll take their word for it. The only other answer that makes sense to me is that the American people have become so detached from military service that they have fused and conflated it with professional football.
So how did this happen, and who is to blame?
In many ways, we can’t completely blame the public. If one of the few opportunities I had to contemplate what it means to be an American was during football games, I, too, would place an outsized weight on the sanctity of our National Anthem. And don’t get me wrong, every Sunday you’ll find me cheering on my Kansas City Chiefs with reckless abandon.
But as a soldier, I’ve had many opportunities to think about our country, my oath to protect and defend the Constitution, the many freedoms we enjoy, and our military’s role in our lives. I believe the blame starts with our leaders in government and the cynical and disconnected way we now fight wars. A historical perspective will help illustrate the evolution of our military and definition of patriotism.
It hasn’t always been like this. During the early stages of our country, the Founding Fathers abhorred the idea of a professional/standing army. While addressing the Continental Congress, James Madison expressed his deep concerns of what a standing army would mean for freedom. He said, “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.”
The idea was that armies are to be created from the citizenry for specific wars. In times of peace the army should stand down. It was thought that an army without a war would find something to do. That’s the way it was for more than 100 years: citizen armies were raised to fight wars and were dismantled after the conflict. I’m simplifying here, of course, to keep us out of the weeds, but that’s the way it was until World War II. In 1940, President Roosevelt implemented the first Selective Service and the military stopped being a volunteer force.
WWII was a turning point in Americans’ relationship with their military. Nearly everyone served in some capacity in the war effort. Nearly everyone had lost something or someone. The public had never been so close to understanding the consequences of war and the importance of service. On the international front, the United States and the U.S.S.R. emerged as the last two heavyweights left standing, and our leaders’ thinking about the need for a standing military changed. It was thought that the threat from the Soviets was so great that we needed to match their military might bullet-for-bullet (and they weren’t wrong).
A curious side-effect of having a military was the need to use it; President Eisenhower warned us of the dangers of the growing “Military Industrial Complex.” General Curtis LeMay chided President Kennedy for not using “the bomb” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both the Korean War and the Vietnam War were conflicts fought under the auspices of containing Communism. Both drafted soldiers, and each cost the US public dearly. Vietnam was the last time the draft was used in the US. Our military leaders came to understand that a public who too closely felt the pain of war wouldn’t grant them a blank check. So the Gulf War was a return to an all-volunteer (standing) military. And then 9/11…
After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration made some very deliberate decisions about how the next war will be fought (and the public’s involvement in that war). One of the first statements from then-President Bush was for Americans to return to normal life. “Go shopping!”, he said, encouraging us to go back to our routines, and in turn, keep our eyes turned from the horror we’d all just endured.
Then came the bumper stickers “Support the Troops”, which suggested that the people fighting the war are not us, but are somewhere out there in need of our support. Then the Bush tax cuts. I remember Sen. John McCain being horrified of the idea of a tax cut during a time of war. Where was the “war effort” – the rationing, war bonds, and public sacrifice?
Finally, since the draft put the public too close to the action, the cynical decision was made to use contractors whenever and wherever possible…resulting in the final evolution of warfare. From no standing military with citizen soldiers, to standing military plus a draft, to all-volunteer/standing, and finally to outsourcing to contractors; the disconnect from the US public was complete. During this time, the NFL and many college teams, did their part to opportunistically coopt our pride in the military: fly-overs, military appreciation days, and even camo uniforms! The faith and pride we placed in our fighting heroes was transferred to athletic men playing a game. A new breed of hero emerged.
Fast forward 16 years and here we are: a public disconnected from the longest war in American history, people who think standing for a flag is proof patriotism, a corporate football league happy to use military personal and equipment as props, and a government relieved that nobody seems to be asking the tough questions. We currently spend $700 BILLION a year on our military without batting an eye because we’ve been conditioned to “Support the Troops” without asking what that means. We are all complicit in this farce.
The reason that much of the American public cannot separate troops from the flag and from the sport is because we’ve all hidden the ball. Patriotism means more than being outraged at a football player not standing during the National Anthem. When our grandparents marched to war in WWII, everyone pitched in, everyone suffered, everyone sacrificed, and we learned what war really is. Now war is reduced to bumper stickers, slogans, and football. Maybe that’s the reason we care more about football players than the wars we send our troops into. And maybe, just maybe, it’s the reason we don’t really “win” wars anymore.