The American public’s apparent compulsion to demonstrate “support for our troops” in ways that are emotionally satisfying but ultimately meaningless has been described by Andrew Bacevich as the central tenet of our nation’s “civic religion.” It has rightly been noted that the best way to support soldiers, sailors, and Marines would be to bring them home. Bumper sticker sentiments telling the guys and girls that we love them do the opposite, permitting us to avoid any possible guilty conscience or introspection over why young Americans are fighting and dying in a seemingly interminable series of wars. Nowhere is the tendency towards monetizing meaningless bromides about national security more evident than in professional sports, particularly the National Football League.
I confess that once upon a time I enjoyed watching football. In the fifties and sixties, the pro players were pretty much homebodies and sometimes even part-timers, selling cars and real estate in the offseason. We used to see an all-pro starting defensive back for the New York Giants eating at a pizzeria in my hometown in New Jersey, and his brother went to my high school. Most teams were owned by folks who had grown up in football. Now “franchises” are billion dollar businesses sold to the highest bidder with the intention of turning a good profit. Players rarely stay with one team and have become commodities loyal only to their paychecks in a slickly packaged product.
What actually happens on and around the gridiron is epitomized by general cheesiness, faux patriotism, and crass and unrelenting commercialism catering to the human race’s most basic instincts. Many of the advertisements that continually interrupt play are paid for by the NFL to sell you on the product you are currently watching, while others from the networks attempt to tempt you into the dreck they show when football isn’t on. The rest of the offering comes from breweries, violent video games, and an occasional excursion into addressing erectile dysfunction, complete with a warning to seek medical help if the cure proves more persistent than the ailment.
Inevitably, as part of the American Experience, the NFL has also led the way in unquestioning support for our military. Announcers at every game mumble their way through some version of “This broadcast is going out to 1,100 military bases and ships at sea. We cannot describe what you all do for us to make us safe. Thank you from all Americans.”
The gratitude of the NFL encompasses the flyovers of military planes, met by a hoo-hah roar from the crowd, and the enormous flag unrolled on the field by platoons of men and women in uniform. At the Giants-Raiders game on November 10th, the flag was actually bigger than the playing field, filling the end zones and sidelines, and as it was the day before Veterans Day, there were several special treats in store. On the sidelines the players’ towels were neither white, their usual color, nor the pink of October. They were camouflage pattern. Such a sight was profoundly ridiculous, but exceeded by the halftime display when the fans were asked to hold up colored cardboard signs that they were given while filing into their seats. When all the cardboard squares were held up they spelled out “Thank You Military” in huge block letters. This took place in nearly every NFL stadium, and I know whom to blame—the USAA Insurance Company, which, unfortunately, is my own insurer.
The NFL announcers also mentioned that money would be contributed to the Pat Tillman Foundation for every point scored over Veterans Day weekend. Pat was a star NFL player who abandoned his career in sports to join the Army after 9/11. He became an Army Ranger and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, resulting in a major Pentagon cover-up operation to conceal that embarrassing fact. The Foundation, which is a very worthy cause overseen by Tillman’s widow that provides scholarships for returning veterans, notes on its website that he died by “fratricide.” Again, the Tillman legacy would be best served by bringing the troops home to avoid more Tillman-like tragedies, but the NFL instead feeds off his name recognition to baptize its game in patriotic display.
I don’t wish to speak for current veterans who certainly have the ability to express the views of their own generation. They have done so very articulately, noting inter alia that their participation in an all-professional military has set them apart from the civilian world, unlike the citizen soldiers of previous generations who always thought of themselves as civilians on loan to the government. Today’s soldiers frequently find the faux deference from civilians they encounter amusing. Books including Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk precisely and hilariously skewer the phony relationship linking the big money worlds of the military and professional football as well as, by extension, the public that finds it difficult to see through the cynical mutual interests that bind the two together.
But as a Vietnam-era veteran I find the feel-good patriotism of American sports behemoths dismaying, largely because it is a marketing gimmick rather than reflecting any real concern about what happens to soldiers, sailors, and Marines. What is a camouflage towel supposed to mean, and why should it matter if a lot of drunken louts are holding up signs that spell out “thank you”? If the NFL actually cared beyond the bumper stickers, it might get serious about coordinating efforts to pressure Congress to improve medical care for returning veterans. I see no evidence that the NFL actually matches its publicity with real benefits to the soldiers it so lauds.
When I was in uniform back in 1968 through 1971, no one ever came up to me and thanked me for my service, which is just as well as I wouldn’t have known how to respond. Servicing what? I was drafted. And I cannot recall anyone ever calling a returning Vietnam vet a “hero” or a “warrior.” If someone had he or she would have been met either with a blank look or hostility, the comment being judged to be sarcastic. Fighting a war in Vietnam that was so obviously completely screwed up, making no sense to anyone involved, was hard to rationalize. Service currently in Afghanistan or previously in Iraq has also created a sense of cynicism among those actually called on to do the fighting. The NFL announcers claim that the troops are making America safer, but it would be difficult to imagine that anyone on the ground in Afghanistan actually believes that, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the slogans are little more than pablum being fed to the American television audience to make everyone feel comfortable about America’s wars. One recent vet has noted that the “word hero is tossed around and abused to the point of banality.”
No one wants to believe that they have been at war for nothing, risking life and limb and killing those on the other side who are doing likewise. The inability to reconcile the frequently stated humanitarian aims of America’s overseas wars with the realities of military service would be enough to unhinge many participants, and has done so increasingly if one goes by suicide rates and the prevalence of PTSD. And the same civilians who cheer the troops on at halftime frequently avoid hiring them when they return home because of fears over their “instability.”
Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy” noted the civilian-military divide in Victorian England, with the eponymous Tommy Atkins observing that “We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too, But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you.” Yes, soldiers are remarkably like the rest of us, and it is perhaps time to drop the “civic religion” nonsense extolling heroes and warriors that sustains the politically motivated narrative about keeping the nation safe in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers know it is all a large dose of bull, and it is time that the public and the corporate sponsors of the national security myth wake up and smell the roses. They should begin to listen to what the returning troops themselves have to say about their lack of jobs and opportunity after returning from overseas, and remember the 6,800 young Americans who will not be returning. That is the reality, not flyovers, flag waving, or special commemorations at football game halftimes.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.