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Leave Veterans and Soldiers Out of the Anthem Debate

We're not monolithic tools to be used for your free speech or liberty arguments.

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:

  • Do not hide behind the flag, an anthem, or the plight of the soldiery to construct an indestructible barrier around your arguments.
  • Quit equating the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan with the defense of American rights and freedoms. This isn’t World War II, it is a – probably failing – global war foolishly waged against a tactic (terrorism). Sixteen indecisive years of conflict ought to at least spur more consequential debate than the old liberty -versus-tyranny tropes.
  • 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.

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. His work regularly appears in TomDispatch,The Nation, and Huffington Post Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. His views are his own and not of the U.S. Military.



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