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Leave Veterans and Soldiers Out of the Anthem Debate

As the earth warms, storms surge, soldiers deploy, and bombs drop, America finds itself riven over…football.

The litany of arguments and absurd social media posts fervently attacking or lionizing Colin Kaepernick and other kneeling NFL players are simply exhausting. What is much more difficult to countenance is the recurring appropriation of American soldiers and their sacrifices to bolster their arguments: American soldiers fought and died for the right to protest the national anthem, or conversely, American soldiers fought and died for this country, so dishonoring the national anthem is dishonoring them.

We—the vets of Iraq and Afghanistan—are not simple tools in an argumentative arsenal. To use us this way is to reduce the service and deaths of a generation of soldiers to mere political instruments in an incredibly divisive dispute. Whether you are a self-styled “conservative,” “liberal,” or “patriot,” you don’t own—and should not simplify— the veteran experience. Period. Full stop.

First, for those insisting on standing during the national anthem: This sort of insistence on conformity is little more than an authoritarian application of social control. Cloaking one’s self in martial symbolism is an old, exhausted method used by reactionaries to enforce orthodoxy generation after generation. 

As a child of the 1980s, even I can remember a time, not so long ago, when such patriotic pomp and circumstance was limited to Veterans’ and Memorial Day celebrations. Were two days really insufficient?  Since when has overt, pre-game, hyper-nationalism become obligatory at sporting events?  One doubts that such displays augur well for the health of the republic.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, to simplify and reduce recent and ongoing wars to a defense of liberty and/or the Bill of Rights does a disservice to millions of post-9/11 vets. It seems rather reductive and ingenuous to assert that I, for example, occupied Iraq (in 2006) or Afghanistan (in 2011) to protect Americans’ freedom of speech. Neither Saddam Hussein nor the Taliban were sailing across the Atlantic to squelch American liberty. The sundry motivations for enduring war in the Greater Middle East include, but are not limited to: fear, democracy-promotion, oil, revenge, human rights, deceit, and miscalculation—depending on your point of view. When it comes to America’s thorny wars of the 21st century, well…it’s complicated. That’s a fact, even if it’s inconvenient for some to admit.

Many of the veterans I know fought for their mates, their unit, often their very lives. The country, or liberty, as is so often the case, came after. So it is indeed a stretch to parade military service in a series of convoluted, complex wars in the Middle East as appreciably related to the First Amendment, freedom, or even national defense. Leave it to the historians to parse out the rights or wrongs of the “Global War on Terror,” but a betting man is likely to find America’s recent interventions ripe for criticism. Either way, it’s past time to drop the delusion that equates counterinsurgency in Iraq or combat-advising in Syria with the decisions of a backup quarterback in the National Football League. It’s a bridge too far, it’s distasteful, and, worst of all it, eradicates nuance.

How about people on both sides of this dispute demonstrate some intellectual maturity and craft sound, coherent arguments whilst leaving the veterans out? In that vein, here are a few modest requests:


In other words, when you attack the First Amendment rights of NFL players, or defend those same liberties, do us a favor: Leave veterans out of it! 

Major Danny Sjursen, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of the memoir Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge [1]. His work regularly appears in TomDispatch [2],The Nation, and Huffington Post Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet [3]. His views are his own and not of the U.S. Military.

39 Comments (Open | Close)

39 Comments To "Leave Veterans and Soldiers Out of the Anthem Debate"

#1 Comment By ZGler On September 26, 2017 @ 11:03 pm


#2 Comment By DJ Tanyan On September 27, 2017 @ 12:46 am

Well done sir.

#3 Comment By Patrick Bardamu On September 27, 2017 @ 1:15 am

His point is well taken. People shouldn’t use soldiers as props in their arguments. But…

1- Many people don’t like the kneeing because it’s obvious leftwing showboating and they feel its disrespectful to the country as a whole, not the military in particular. Bringing in soldiers may be a “recurring” argument but the idea of the kneeing being disrespecting to the flag in general seems more prevalent. It’s almost like civilians are fully American too and can discuss patriotism without bringing in the military.

2- You can’t really “leave veterans out”. If people weren’t using them as props in this argument we’d have similarly condescending articles but from the other point of view. We’d hear how we had forgotten the troops. We would be told that they are the only people who really understand patriotism and the flag for reasons that we will pretend are convincing because the person making the argument is from the military and we respect them.

3- There’s nothing wrong with publishing articles implying that words like “orthodoxy” and “reactionary” are negative. I mean, if your magazine has the word “conservative” in it, it might be a bit weird….

4. “Period. Full stop” need to stop appearing in articles and in spoken language (unless you are teaching a language class). It makes people sound arrogant, especially so in any article that presumes to tell us how to argue. Again, because of widespread respect for the military attempts to police our discourse are often accepted if the source is a veteran.

And finally, all appropriate respect to the troops. God bless.

#4 Comment By Christian Chuba On September 27, 2017 @ 7:08 am

Thanks for a realistic assessment, especially …

Quit equating the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan with the defense of American rights and freedoms. This isn’t World War II
No one but a vet could say this without it being called heresy of the worst order. This should not be confused as a condemnation of military action, it just frames it in a less cartoonish light.

#5 Comment By J Harlan On September 27, 2017 @ 8:30 am

Agreed but if you’re at a ceremony the polite and adult thing to do is not make a spectacle of yourself. If you’re in church even though you’re an atheist chatting on your cell phone during the service isn’t on even if it’s your constitutional right. If a funeral procession passes it’s your right to do a jig but you shouldn’t.

The NFL kneeling/ hugging fad is just another example of the two major qualities of our celebrity culture- lack of dignity combined with narcissism. “Look at me! I’m being rude!”.

#6 Comment By Lex Rossano On September 27, 2017 @ 8:38 am

As a Vet I say Thank You. You put vague notions that were in my head into sharp and concise words.

#7 Comment By connecticut farmer On September 27, 2017 @ 8:52 am

A bit turgid but, point taken nonetheless–and spot-on! I have long since become weary of ritual displays of patriotism as a prelude to beer-guzzling, chip dipping and obscenity-filled epithets for or against some sports team.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On September 27, 2017 @ 11:23 am

First, for those insisting on standing during the national anthem: This sort of insistence on conformity is little more than an authoritarian application of social control. ”
It’s more about social etiquette. A civil society agrees upon norms for courteous behavior. One certainly has a right in a free country to reject the accepted, respectful posture taken before a flag or national anthem. But in doing that to publicize a certain cause, you slight the greater cause which these symbols represent. And slight the Americans past present or future who sacrificed to protect it.
Those may not be the intentions, we can’t read hearts, but that’s the visual effect produced.

#9 Comment By Duncan On September 27, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

J Harlan: You might have a valid point if jingoes didn’t abominate all dissent and protest (except, of course, protest against Obama). You’re also ignoring Sjursen’s argument that football games are not an appropriate place for displays of “patriotism” in the first place, let alone as places where one’s status as an American is can be questioned for failing to go along with the ritual.

I’m an atheist. If for some reason I do attend a church service I do not pray, I do not take Communion. I’m not there as a participant, I’m there as a visitor. Football games are not the same sort of thing. If I went to a football game, I’d be there to watch the game, not militarist infomercials intended to sucker young people into joining the Armed Forces.

ditto for mrscracker. There’s no reason why people should be expected to participate in jingoist, militarist rituals at a football game in the first place — and these rituals are a recent development anyway, as part of a Pentagon promotion to attract gullible young recruits.

#10 Comment By mrscracker On September 27, 2017 @ 2:34 pm

You of course have that right in a free society & any number of folks have died to protect that right. But unlike visiting a church service, no American citizen is a visitor before their flag or national anthem.
Just my thoughts.
God bless!

#11 Comment By Fabian On September 27, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

Good post.

#12 Comment By Isabel Tifft On September 27, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

Excellent piece.
Personally, I’m confused about the “disrespect” of kneeling. Since when is kneeling disrespectful? Last I checked, it showed a greater level of reverence than standing does.
I took the #takeaknee gesture as a physically eloquent demonstration of “I love my country too much to let it fail.” Imagine my shock, yet lack of surprise, to find our Ignoramus In Chief getting het up over it.

#13 Comment By Ellimist000 On September 27, 2017 @ 4:18 pm

J Harlan, and others crowing about rudeness,

Let me know when you are willing to complain about the rudeness of every protest or agitation from the Boston Tea Party to the modern one.

If you cant except people quietly kneeling for a minute and then going about thier business then you do want any knind of protest at all.

Why don’t you all just admit that you want a ban on all protest by people you don’t like and save us the trouble…

#14 Comment By Squeaks On September 27, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

Soldiers are forgettable and disposable props in wartime, veterans are forgettable and disposable props on the homefront. Sad.

#15 Comment By tzx4 On September 27, 2017 @ 4:58 pm

@J Harlan:

“The NFL kneeling/ hugging fad is just another example of the two major qualities of our celebrity culture- lack of dignity combined with narcissism. “Look at me! I’m being rude!”.

With all due respect, can you see this very same thing in the President’s behavior? Most certainly I do.

#16 Comment By Wiffle On September 27, 2017 @ 5:33 pm

I appreciate those saying that it isn’t polite to make a spectacle of yourself. When has polite protesting ever worked? The point of protesting is drawing attention to a cause, and being polite never, ever draws attention.

That said, I agree entirely, and using veterans and soldiers as a monolith to pet causes, of any importance, on either side, is completely asinine and disrespectful if it isn’t directly related to them. I think I’ll start kneeling to support veterans in their cause of no longer being used in causes!

#17 Comment By Ronald On September 27, 2017 @ 7:50 pm

Thank you for demonstrating the “American Conservative” is neither American nor Conservative.

#18 Comment By David On September 27, 2017 @ 10:43 pm

Goodbye NFL, it’s been fun, well mostly-

#19 Comment By BILL On September 27, 2017 @ 11:39 pm

I know for a fact that my veteran military buddies think it an insult to kneel during the playing of National anthem. Ask any of us here at 3 cots and a hot. I know for a fact that the men and women who lost there limbs to protect America against all enemies foreign and domestic think it’s wrong and treason to kneel during the playing of the national anthem. Ask any of us veterans at Tuscaloosa mental healthcare and rehabilitation center.

#20 Comment By Dillon On September 28, 2017 @ 12:01 am

Could not disagree more. The whole subject of this story is asinine. Anytime a discussion based on anything resembling American rights, freedoms or ideals is brought up you cannot ignore the fact that those things are a reality because men stood up for or against something. I am a USMC VETERAN. I served my COUNTRY. I am not brainwashed or the like. I realize that although there is not a goofy-mustached maniac parading around Europe with tanks and the like that there aree still many groups of people who want to offensively destroy my way of life… I prefer to destroy their life and idea that they can take mine at their door…not at mine. Why don’t you ask survivors of 9/11 how they feel? Think their loved ones just died? No. They were killed. Murdered. Like it or not it is a war. Standing for the National Anthem is not about conformity. The fact that you are relating the two seriously makes me question your actual patriotism. Standing for the National Anthem is about respect to those who are serving. Who have served. Those who will never serve again. Standing for our National Anthem pays homage to men who stood for what they believe in. Finally standing for OUR National Anthem is UNITY! AMERICANS together, enjoying a NATIONAL past time. Not about division. Not about the I wants or I’m offendeds. Annnddddd finally at the end of the day most of us dont care about a celebrities’ political view. I watch football for the game, not political and societal insight. I watch movies for the entertainment not because I’m super interested in Megan Fox’s political or societal insights. This is the wrong place and the wrong time. Kap wants to tell everyone how he feels during an interview or on Instagram, Facebook Twitter, a blog, a website, podcast etc go for it! But don’t disrespect my Flag, my COUNTRY or my Anthem. It means more to me than your opinion ever could.

#21 Comment By Dan On September 28, 2017 @ 1:57 am

Looking in from outside (I’m a Brit) the strangeness isn’t that a few people, (before POTUS got involved it was about 10) were quietly using the opportunity to protest, the oddity was the patriotic pomp and circumstance in the first place.

It was understandable that the first game as the leagues restarted after 9/11 there was some form of patriotic ceremony bringing the country together, but somehow that became EVERY game. The NFL owners are not paying an armed forces band to entertain the fans or USAF to fly over to entertain the fans they are now charging he Pentagon for the privilege to put on an event at their stadiums.

The first game this weekend was at Wembley in England, as NFL try’s to win fans overseas, not all the players are American most of the spectators would not have been American, the US anthem was played because……

National patriotism is important in some circumstances but are you all sure Football is the right venue?

#22 Comment By J Harlan On September 28, 2017 @ 10:07 am

For the record the POTUS behaviour is also lamentable. It also is wrong for fans to be yelling out things at players during the anthem. They should stand still and be quiet as well.

I’d be happy if all the patriotic hooey was removed from sporting events. I avoid church but if I’m at a church I conform to normal standards of behavior. That’s what adults do.

NFL players kneeling during the anthem is seen as insulting by many fans. For that reason alone they should stop it. The obvious harm to their employer’s business is secondary.

#23 Comment By BradD On September 28, 2017 @ 2:43 pm


Seems you missed the point entirely.

First, this was written by a current military members.

Second, the article was how there is no monolithic response from the military. I am certain I can find a military vet that believes the earth is flat and they are using chemtrails to make the frogs gay.

The fact that you want to question someone patriotism troubles me. This is a fellow military member and you want to check his patriotism card?

Why is the national anthem what we play before a football game? I mean, they only started playing it before football games in the 40s. It wasn’t even the national anthem till the 30s. Seems pretty arbitrary to me.

Also, football is the national past time? Last time I checked that was baseballs.

#24 Comment By mrscracker On September 28, 2017 @ 3:02 pm

“National patriotism is important in some circumstances but are you all sure Football is the right venue?”
That’s a good point. Maybe not, but common courtesy & etiquette should still be observed if the flag or national anthem are presented.
And that’s really up to the team owners/managers to enforce. They have standard rules of team behavior for other aspects of the game & enforce those. This should be no different if it’s a feature of every game.

#25 Comment By mrscracker On September 28, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

Dillon ,
Thank you for your service & I basically agree with you. We can’t read what’s in any NFL team player’s heart & I don’t believe they all mean disrespect, but that’s the ultimate visual effect the public receives.
And I know, like me, you believe the flag & national anthem symbolize something greater than any one particular cause. However important a cause may be, the flag represents all Americans, all just causes, & all sacrifices from our very beginning.

#26 Comment By Nippon uerbis cuits’ On September 28, 2017 @ 3:49 pm

So who died and made you king of all Iraq and Afghanistan warriors who served? I know several and they don’t share your same plight. To say you speak for everyone of them is pretentious and delusional.

#27 Comment By S On September 28, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

Pretty odd and telling that neither this article nor the comments seem to be interested in discussing the actual issue the protests originally meant to bring to light, police brutality against black Americans. Kap didn’t bring veterans into it, the people calling him disrespectful did.

#28 Comment By Daniel (not Larrison) On September 28, 2017 @ 10:00 pm

Nippon wrote:

So who died and made you king of all Iraq and Afghanistan warriors who served? I know several and they don’t share your same plight. To say you speak for everyone of them is pretentious and delusional.

I guess this part went a bit over your head:

Stop treating servicemembers as imaginary monoliths with singular opinions that (surprise, surprise) cohere with your feelings. Vets are individuals, complete with the agency and worth to develop discrete thoughts and standpoints.

#29 Comment By J Harlan On September 28, 2017 @ 10:15 pm

Just be keep things straight no US soldier has died “for our freedoms”. They’ve died for business, revenge, expansion, empire and “balance of power” but US freedoms have never be threatened. Even if the revolution had been unsuccessful the result would have eventually been Canada.

WRT the question of “is the NFL anthem about the military”. Originally no but DOD has basically bought the ceremony so anything that deviates from the accepted script can be taken as a slight on the military. It apparently only requires about 1 in 10 fans to believe it does to make a difference.

#30 Comment By Robin Schmidt On September 28, 2017 @ 10:15 pm

It amazes me how everyone forgets the soldier kneeling for the lost.

#31 Comment By Bob Jones On September 29, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

“no American citizen is a visitor before their flag or national anthem”

True, they are not a vistor it is force upon them by others. Why should people like you dictate to the other when and where they have to salute a flag.

Oh and spare the died for the freedom crap. No one in the armed forces since 1783 has died for anyone’s freedom, they are dying for imperialism, land grabs, and the ability of big corporations to make more money by stealing natural resources from other parts of the world, thus the demand to turn public sporing events into disgusting pseudo patriotic displays of militarism. They need gullible government paid mercenaries to do their bidding.

It is funny how the very same people that on other blogs, i.e. you Cracker Lady, can call out universities for stifling free speech, but when one of your golden calves is being “disrespected” then obviously etiquette requires liberty be stifled, because you poor snowflakes are offended.

Spare us all the hypocrisy.

#32 Comment By Bob Jones On September 29, 2017 @ 5:33 pm


Yep. It was originally about the overreach of local police if dealing with American citizens, primarily related to police getting away with murder, but let’s not forget the government sanctioned theft that most police agencies are at the forefront of.

From the ridiculous fines and fees charged for minor violations that often result in bankruptcy and prison for citizens, often being incarcerated in private prisons, which represent a revenue stream for state and local government, to civil asset forfeiture, which allows local police agencies to steal your possessions, because they accused you of a crime and treat you as guilty unless you can prove otherwise.

If the militarists truly believe they are dying for freedom, why do they defacto support the expansion of the police state, and the bald faced theft perpetrated by the government on our fellow citizens through their police agencies.

#33 Comment By mrscracker On September 30, 2017 @ 6:50 am

Bob Jones,
Thank you so much for your comments.
It’s not so about free speech but about proper etiquette. You can’t dictate individual courtesy but team owners and managers are ultimately in charge of the rules affecting their teams as a whole.
And you know, the majority of my ancestors were actually Loyalists fighting honorably on the side against the American flag back in the day. They considered themselves conservatives, too.
The heart of the matter concerns
good manners, civility, and respect. No matter which nation or Empire you may be a citizen of.
God bless you.

#34 Comment By rick On September 30, 2017 @ 10:20 am

I don’t understand the claim that not standing is rude or isn’t following social etiquette. If the anthem is playing you’re supposed to be looking at the flag and what anybody else is doing shouldn’t concern you especially when they are being silent. If you want to participate in our jingoistic orgy that is up to you but those that choose not to certainly aren’t doing anything to interfere with you doing so. Oh, and I’m a vet.

#35 Comment By Whine Merchant On September 30, 2017 @ 10:10 pm

Many years ago, during the Vietnam war era, a few people in a Chicago baseball stadium refused to stand during the national anthem and caused a small riot. Another fellow later stood and sang the anthem, and continued to sing all the verses until the the removed by security for causing a disturbance.

Mike Royko wrote about it and suggested that he just chew peanuts and appear to sing, like most of the other fans in the stadium.

#36 Comment By Terry Mengle On October 3, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

Every veteran has the flag draped over their coffin. You cannot leave soldiers out of this debate because those who ‘gave all’ did it for the freedoms we enjoy and are blessed by. Young soldiers have not been taught fully about what it means to be a citizen of the USA.

#37 Comment By ElitecommInc. On October 6, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

― Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made
Lt., US Army, Veteran

#38 Comment By NICOLE WYNN On October 11, 2017 @ 11:26 am

WE aren’t using veterans. We are honoring them and those who have fallen and those who have serve. Because so many have a warped and incorrect perspective on why we stand for the pledge of allegiance– Commonality is what unites the UNITED. But if you are not with us, then it is regrettable to say that you are against us. Why can’t people just be courteous and respectful, like the values that make us GREAT?

#39 Comment By John Sheridan On October 16, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

Thank you Major Sjursen. As a veteran, I hate it when people who never put skin in the game speak for me. Excellent article. I hope you can contribute more.