My dad likes a quote that is often attributed to Churchill: if you’re not a liberal in your twenties, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative in your thirties, you have no brain.
“Uh oh,” I said on the phone with him this weekend. “I’m almost 30. You’d better convince me soon.”
One of the things that we argue about lately is protests that involve patriotic symbolism. My dad reveres his parents’ generation, particularly the sacrifices they made during World War II. From his perspective, taking a knee before the flag is a grievous disrespect to the legacy we’ve all inherited as Americans – especially the sacrifices that fuel the freedoms we enjoy and, sometimes, take for granted. My dad is grateful almost beyond words for all the hardships his parents endured to give him a better life. It is a very touching message. It inspires me to follow his example and venerate my parents more.
I think I understand his perspective. But what bothers me is when people say that protesting the anthem is disrespectful to veterans specifically. It seems like civilians tend to invoke the armed forces as a sort of moral rallying cry. I think this is for two reasons:
- They recognize that they have done nothing to sacrifice specifically on behalf of their country, and
- They want to make it known that we ought to venerate those who do.
This seems to manifest as feel-good displays of public adoration, big in style but small in results. A recent article in The Atlantic, “The Plunging Morale of America’s Service Members,” says,
Our military is a major part of who we are as a country; it is the force that has undergirded the post–World War II international order. Being an American means being deeply implicated in that, for good or for ill. But… the solution to our current dead end doesn’t lie within the military itself. The military can’t set its own goals, can’t determine its own budget or which ideals it fights and dies for, and can’t decide how its losses will be honored, dishonored, or appropriated after the fact. So while America as a whole chooses to express its love for its military in gooey, substance-free displays, our military waits, perhaps hopelessly, for a coherent national policy that takes the country’s wars seriously.
What would such a thing look like? It would probably look like rescinding the open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force and making the president regularly go before Congress to explain where and why he was putting troops in harm’s way, what resources the mission required, and what the terms of success were. It would look like every member of Congress carrying out his or her constitutionally mandated duty to provide oversight of our military adventures by debating and then voting on that plan. It would look like average Americans taking part in that debate, and scorning anyone who tried to tell them they couldn’t. It would look like average Americans rolling their eyes in disgust when our leaders tell us we’re not at war while American troops are risking their lives overseas, or claim that Americans must support the wars their country engages in if they want to support the troops, or when a press secretary argues that anyone who questions the success of a military raid in which a service member died “owes an apology” to that fallen soldier. It would look like our politicians letting the fallen rest in peace, rather than propping up their corpses for political cover. And when service members die overseas in unexpected places, such as the four killed in Niger last year, it would look like us eschewing the easy symbolic debates about whether our president is disrespecting our troops by inartfully offering condolences or whether liberals are disrespecting our troops by seizing upon those inartful condolences for political gain. It would look like us instead having a longer and harder conversation about the mission we are asking soldiers to perform, and whether we are doing them the honor of making sure it’s achievable.
In short, it would look like Americans as a whole doling out a lot fewer cheap, sentimental displays of love for our troops, and doubling down on something closer to Gunny Maxwell’s “tough love”—a love that means zeroing in on our country’s faults and failures.
The essay is worth reading in full. It describes why service and sacrifice don’t exist in a vacuum – they are only as good as the mission, “one that is achievable, moral, and in keeping with the values of the society they represent and whose flag they wear on their uniform.”
“I’m willing to listen,” my dad said, after we had argued back and forth about what it means to kneel before the flag. “Give me something to read and maybe I’ll change my mind.”
So here we are. This brings us to Colin Kaepernick and the NFL.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and Syria, and Yemen, and Pakistan, and Somalia, and Libya, and… – drag on, morale and recruitment are down. The military is visibly, painfully scrambling to keep people in the service and to get them to actually deploy.
Someone over at the Pentagon must have realized that direct advertising wasn’t working. The branches could show commercials until they bled dry and no one would pay attention – at least, not beyond a vague mushy feeling about The Troops™. No, what the Department of Defense needed was to inspire Americans, to appeal to their love of country, to motivate them to action – to join the fight, to continue funding the fight, to keep seeing the fight as relevant and necessary. Instead of promoting the military specifically, they would instead commercialize patriotism itself. At the very least, it would encourage Americans to continue to support the ongoing – endless – wars overseas. At best, more desperately-needed bodies in the war machine.
So the Department of Defense start paying millions of dollars to promote America, the brand. Fly-overs. Service members in uniform. A giant, billowing flag. And, of course, the anthem, our most favorite and sacred song. The government paid millions of dollars to sports organizations to dial the ‘MERICA up to eleven. And somewhere along the way, these patriotic displays went from a sentimental salute to government-sponsored marketing to untouchable and holy – something mandatory.
Known liberal softie who has never experienced the terror of war John McCain (may he rest in peace) wrote,
“Americans across the country should be deeply disappointed that many of the ceremonies honoring troops at professional sporting events are not actually being conducted out of a sense of patriotism, but for profit in the form of millions in taxpayer dollars going from the Department of Defense to wealthy pro sports franchises… Fans should have confidence that their hometown heroes are being honored because of their honorable military service, not as a marketing ploy.” (NPR)
Pentagon paid sports teams millions for patriotic events (USA Today)
NFL’s tangled ties with national anthem don’t run deep (CBS)
This is our starting point. This is, actually, my reference point. I am a white woman. I have never experienced the sort of discrimination highlighted by Kaepernick and many others. I believe he is right and should be listened to, and there is plenty of evidence to back him up. But the point I’m trying to make here is not whether or not Kaepernick’s protest is a valid one; it’s whether or not taking a knee is disrespectful to the idea of America, symbolized by the flag and anthem and, because it seems like we’re always dragged in when it’s politically convenient, veterans.
What idea of America, though? Whose idea of America? Not my dad’s, certainly – the idea of the greatest generation storming the beach at Normandy, raising the flag at Iwo Jima, returning homes as heroes from a just and popular war. That is something terribly idyllic.
Kaepernick and people of color in general have a vastly different experience of America than my dad did – or, despite being Kaepernick’s age, than I did. I am capable of believing that different people have different experiences, and some of those experiences are rooted in other people’s unjust perceptions of them. Surely we have all been in a position where someone treated us badly for something beyond our control. And what is more beyond one’s control than the color of their skin?
Political protest is as old as our country itself. Our country was founded on political protest, and the right to do so is guaranteed in our Bill of Rights. But there is this idea that kneeling for the flag is an abuse of those rights, and moreover, a slap in the face to those who have made sacrifices to uphold them. Who else? It is disrespectful toward the military.
When Colin Kaepernick began his protest of the national anthem in 2016, he started by sitting. But before 2009, teams stayed in the locker room while the anthem played.* A former Green Beret turned short-time Seattle Seahawk named Nate Boyer wrote Kaepernick an open letter, in which he says, “During college football games, both teams usually wait in the locker room until after the national anthem. That always bothered me. Leading the team out of the tunnel while carrying the American flag meant a lot, but I still regretted not being out there to stand for that song.” He describes the pride he felt during his first NFL game, when he was allowed to demonstrate his patriotism. “As I ran out of the tunnel with the American flag I could feel myself swelling with pride, and as I stood on the sideline with my hand on my heart as the anthem began, that swelling burst into tears.”
( * With the NFL’s recent ruling that protesting players must remain in the locker room during the anthem – a return to the previous norm – President Trump said, “Isn’t that worse than not standing?… I actually think in many ways it’s worse.”)
What’s most impressive about Boyer’s letter, though, is the absence of condemnation of Kaepernick’s protests, despite these patriotic symbols holding so much personal significance to him.
Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it… I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem.
Boyer had listened and tried to understand. Kaepernick listened, too. He got in touch with Boyer and together they came to a compromise:
We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.
Kaepernick asked Boyer to kneel beside him. Boyer declined, but he said he would stand alongside Kaepernick – showing solidarity while still staying true to his own ideals.
Listening. Understanding. Compromise. This is the my generation’s version of the idyllic America – different people with different opinions coming together and supporting one another’s rights.
In an interview with NPR, Boyer said something very beautiful about the act of kneeling.
In my opinions and in my experience, kneeling’s never been in our history really seen as a disrespectful act. I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray… So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful.
Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees (Washington Post)
Tim Tebow not happy about ‘Tebowing’ being brought into national anthem protests debate (USA Today)
It’s worth mentioning that there are many veterans who disagree with Kaepernick and, by extension, Boyer. Boyer wrote a follow-up letter that echoes these concerns. I think many veterans, fighting increasingly unpopular wars on behalf of population who doesn’t care about them, neglected by the government when they come home, feel like their service is being taken for granted. This is a real and true feeling. They need their sacrifices – the deaths and trauma, the missed birthdays and weddings, the time away from family and friends – to mean something. When we see those coffins come home draped with the flag, we have to believe the flag was worth it. I get it.
But this isn’t about the military. It never was. We keep getting foisted into the conversation because we have the deepest link to these symbols. It’s hard not to take even perceived disrespect very personally. But despite the jets and bunting and songs and confetti, none of this was ever about us or our service or our sacrifice.
It’s about everyone else back home.
SOLDIERS SPEAK OUT ON KAEPERNICK: His protest ‘makes him more American than anyone’ (Business Insider)
Minorities in the Military Open Up About the N.F.L., Kaepernick and Nike (NYT)
(Both of these articles are worth reading. They contain some pretty spicy Hot Takes on racism and civilians selectively caring about veterans.)
One Army veteran is quoted in the NYT article above,
As a black man and former service member with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, the sad reality is that statistically speaking, I was more likely to be killed by a police officer at home in New York City than by the Taliban or an armed combatant in a far-off land. I have parted ways and broken ties with former comrades who I went to war with because of their foolhardy and abhorrent views on unarmed black people being wrongfully killed and their complete misconstruing of the Kaepernick protest.
These men want complacence and silence, even though we fought for and had friends who died for the right of citizens to speak freely against injustice and inequity. I realized that these same white comrades, even after sharing the bond of service, ultimately only judge and value me in the same way as their favorite black athletes: as a commodity.
But what good does it do? If kneeling causes so much offense and controversy, is it really fixing anything? Isn’t it making it worse? Tearing us apart as a nation?
NFL players occasionally wear pink for breast cancer awareness. Pink doesn’t cure cancer, but it draws attention to a terrible disease and the hope for a cure. After all, wasn’t that the point of paying the NFL to make these patriotic overtures to begin with – to raise visibility of service members?
“It starts the conversation about social issues,” I told my dad. “He has a platform. He is getting people to acknowledge a problem.”
“But he’s being paid millions of dollars to play football,” my dad said. (He was. Now, blacklisted from the NFL, Kaepernick has a contract with Nike.) Why isn’t he protesting on his own time? (See above: platform, conversation.) Why isn’t he taking actual steps to address these issues?
It’s a little unfair to expect Colin Kaepernick to fix racism. But he is still trying to make a positive impact. This must have been such a frequent but inaccurate criticism of Kaepernick that Sports Illustrated did a substantial profile on his charitable work – and awarded him the 2017 Muhammad Ali Legacy Award “for his steadfastness in the fight for social justice, for his adherence to his beliefs no matter the cost.”
Images courtesy of the Sports Illustrated profile – which is already a little bit dated and doesn’t include Kaepernick’s most recent charitable endeavors (see below). It is long but worth reading; it emphasizes how Kaepernick uses his money as investments toward social change rather than as simple fire-and-forget donations.
If all athletes took such a specific, targeted approach to their charitable endeavors, [Adam Jackson, the CEO of a grassroots Baltimore-based think tank] says, they could affect immediate structural change in their communities. “They all tweet, they talk, they wear T-shirts—and that’s cool,” he says. “But that’s cultural. And cultural change can go but so far.
“The purpose of protest is to change the environment that gives everyone else permission not to care about these issues. If there were 100 Colin Kaepernick’s—or 2,000!—then you’d be talking about a real social movement.
“Just kneeling,” he says, “is a cop-out.”
The article also observes the “hypocrisy in NFL teams and fan bases that want players to appear charitable—visiting sick children in hospitals, for instance, or cutting ribbons at community center openings—but not actually jump into the fray themselves, especially on thornier issues.” Kaepernick, by contrast, isn’t trumpeting his efforts, but letting the actions speak for themselves. And these actions are making waves in small communities.
And, of course, we always have to circle back to the military. We’re going to be part of the conversation whether we want to or not.
When Kaepernick first took a knee, he clearly (and later frequently) noted the reason for his protest: to draw attention to police brutality and the need for reform. That act meant even more to Collette Flanagan, [mother of a young black man shot dead by a Dallas police officer], than did the $25,000 he donated to Mothers Against Police Brutality, the organization she started in her son’s honor. It has pained her to see Trump and other detractors misrepresent the quarterback’s initial intentions, to see the meaning of his kneeling shift beneath him. Kaepernick’s protest was never about the military or the flag, as the President has suggested. It was always about injustice, specifically young black men being killed. Men like her son.
Colin Kaepernick Not Stopping, Donations Roll Past $1 Million (Forbes)
Colin Kaepernick jerseys to raise money for charity sell out hours after going on sale (CBS Sports)
My mom, my gentle, patient, affectionate mother, suddenly really likes war movies. Maybe it helps her appreciate the horrors that other Americans have endured for the sake of her freedom. Maybe it helps her relate to the military more, and by extension, me. But when I started having panic attacks as a result of a trauma I experienced while in the military, she said – not out of malice, but helplessness and misunderstanding – that happened a long time ago. Shouldn’t you be over it by now?
But it was only four years ago. Sometimes trauma lasts centuries, spans whole generations, disappears and reemerges, and takes on different forms, like severing the head off the Hydra.
Sometimes we think that time and social progress are correlated, that as we grow in knowledge we will also grow in justice. As a general trend, I want to believe it is true. As an American, I want to be proud of our way of life. As a veteran, I want to trust in the good intentions of the civilian population and lawmakers in particular. When someone thanks me for my service, I want to believe that I represent something worth the gratitude. But the march of time is not a guarantee of positive human development. Believing such a fallacy makes us morally lazy at best and, at worst, cruel or indifferent to the plight of others.
My dad is allowed to object to Kaepernick’s protest. That’s his right as an American, and I will support him. The philosophical underpinnings of those rights are worth fighting for. But he has to find a justification for his indignation beyond his appreciation for the sacrifice of the military. I won’t let my service be used as a political prop to be waved around when convenient. I made an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America” – not the anthem, not the flag, not some symbol, but our actual, written rights. Even if that means challenging my most sacred ideas of what America is all about. Even if that means challenging my dad, who I love very much, and who raised me to be as argumentative as I inevitably became. Our differences in opinion keep us both sharp and passionate. Sometimes we even listen to one another.
When I was in SERE training, one of our last experiences was listening to the prison guards go on a tirade about how awful America is while tearing up and burning an American flag. The officers in our group, kneeling in front of the formation, turned around, putting their backs to our tormentors in silent protest. We enlisted immediately followed suit. We couldn’t stop the enemy from disrespecting the flag (and before anyone gets upset, no flags were harmed in the making of this training – it was torn up in the correct, ceremonial method, but we were all so delirious with hunger and exhaustion that we didn’t realize it), but we didn’t want to acknowledge it, either. It was an extremely moving, unifying moment of defiance. I cried then, linking arms with the sailors beside me. I still get choked up whenever I talk about it in person.
It was emotionally compelling. But it was also the completely wrong thing to do.
Our instructors – those people who were preparing us for the very worst experiences of war – explained later that the flag is just a symbol. It doesn’t mean anything on its own, only the meaning we give to it. America, they said, is who we are. It is what we carry in our hearts, and the reasons that we choose to fight. The flag is just a piece of cloth that can be torn up and destroyed (and, if you’ve invested so much into it emotionally, enemies will use that against you). But America is an idea, and ideas are unkillable.
I’ll end with this: an excerpt from The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a brilliant literary work describing the destruction caused by totalitarian regimes and Soviet communism in particular.
At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly — but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them? The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…Then after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.
That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of his interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:
“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”