The picture above is of Iraq War vet and anti-war activist Rory Fanning. Fanning appeared at Lewis in October 2015 as a speaker in the Arts and Ideas Program. Many in the audience were members of my class “The Iraq War in Literature and Film.” Fanning was a platoon mate of Pat Tillman, the Phoenix Cardinal football player who suspended his career to enlist. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, but his death became more noteworthy because the Pentagon, hoping to get good publicity from the death of a well-known American warrior, covered up his killing by friendly-fire. Fanning, eager to raise money for the Tillman Foundation, walked across America in 2008-2009 and provided an account of his journey in Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.
At a San Francisco 49ers pre-season football game, quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand during the playing of the National Anthem. In a post-game interview he stated that he found it hard to give his patriotic consent to a nation with a history of minority oppression. His conduct triggered a variety of hostile responses. Donald Trump’s was typical though not the most vitriolic; “He should find another country that works better for him.” Even those sympathetic to Kaepernick’s public protest wondered about the authenticity of such a sign coming from a very well-compensated professional athlete on whom fortune has shone its favor.
The focus on Kaepernick’s display – an act of courage or an act of disrespect and betrayal depending on where you sit – has obscured an underlying question about the whole affair: why is it that the National Anthem is most fully on display at and integrated into sporting events, especially professional games in modern stadiums that provide a full measure of theatricality for such moments. Can you think of other occasions when you hear Francis Scott Key’s rousing though difficult-to-sing anthem? Community 4th of July parades are often without a musical start to the procession of floats, bands, politicians and veterans. Compare these low key moments with the pre-game frenzy at The Chicago Stadium when the National Anthem is the culmination of the stroboscopic orgy that includes dramatic player introductions and writhing dancers.
There is no unassailable reason for the explicit fusion of patriotic fervor and athletic exhibitionism. [Those looking for the first occasion of the insertion of The National Anthem will find it in the wartime 1918 World Series that featured the Red Sox, led by Babe Ruth, and the Chicago Cubs.]
No reason unless, of course, you factor in the way that the military uses highly visible sporting contests as sites for its efforts to favorably brand the modern military, to recruit volunteers for its noble efforts, and, on occasion, to display very expensive military hardware. It should come as no surprise that the Pentagon has paid professional sports teams for the opportunity to fly jets over the stadium or to have a military band or chorus ring out the National Anthem. Even when the singular soldier-on-leave steps up to the foul line for public recognition between innings of a baseball game, the military has stage-managed the event. All part of a sophisticated ad campaign.
Perhaps these displays of military power coupled with the singing of the National Anthem is a way for the military to obscure the fact that America has a sorry record of winning wars since 1950 (on this Trump is right that “we don’t win anymore”) despite having a military budget that is twice the size of Russia and China combined and more than the first ten global military powers. Perhaps it is a way of saying that America’s combat in the Middle East is no more costly for the average citizen (other than saddling him with a tax bill close to half of which goes into the military budget) than is the soon-to-be-determined outcome of the contest between the home team and their division rivals (other than a few dollars lost in fantasy football).
No reason unless, of course, you factor in the ways in which professional sport wraps itself in a patriotic cloak to solidify further its place in American culture. Professional sports hardly need the alliance with the military and its request for patriotic participation to be popular. Eliminating the National Anthem from the pre-game ceremonies would have no effect on attendance or good feelings about the game. Nevertheless, it endures as a way to signal to our own and to foreigners that fit athletes are a sign of our fortitude and even our moral exceptionalism. It’s part and parcel of our national purpose and destiny. Few Americans have trouble with the sight of the flag-draped, gold-medal winning, 4×100 women’s relay team galloping around the track in Rio. Coming close on the heels of the final medal count in which the US outdistanced all other nations, Kaepernick’s sit-down lack of pride was bound to look petty to many. After her victories, Allison Felix, one of the four African-American members of the relay team, had no complaints about growing up middle-class in Southern California and was unapologetic about being a devout Christian and running for God. A far cry from the Black Power salute of 400 meter runners Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.
Undoubtedly, Kaepernick was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the ways in which some professional athletes have signaled their support. NBA stars James, Wade, Paul, and Anthony chose the “more appropriate” forum of the ESPY awards to raise consciousness.
Kaepernick might just as easily protested against the sports stadium appropriation of an anthem written to celebrate a victory in the War of 1812 and exploited since as a ratification of the nation’s military might and disposition as well as the decency of the American soldier.Thus, Kaepernick’s action was defined as an act of ingratitude, a snub to the courageous fighting men and women who secure our freedoms and defend our rights, even those of rich athletes to play a brutal game before idolatrous fans in publically financed stadiums on Sunday afternoons.
Yet I think we should be grateful to Kaepernick who has reminded us amidst our preoccupations with the health status of the backup quarterback and the defensive coordinator’s new scheme, that there is still a gap between the promise and the reality and that many Americans are neither free or brave. He has reminded us that our automatic, unreflective salute comes at a price no greater than the time it takes to tie a yellow ribbon on the parkway tree to show our support for the troops. He has reminded us that we should be more attentive to the words of the song that the quality of the performance of the celebrity-singer.
Ask many veterans like Fanning and they will tell you that they are not interested in being thanked; they know the brutality of war and the indifference of the citizenry too well to want it. They are disturbed by the valorization of war through the showcase celebration of heroism of the wounded veteran. They are troubled by the political exploitation of a dead marine, the son of Pakistani immigrants. These are the men and women who applaud Kaepernick, and, if they were in his position, would do the same.