For some fairly obvious reasons, football has become lashed at the hip to the idea of American patriotism. This is no doubt in part to many a coach’s misguided use of war as an analog for the sport—and vice versa. Fighter jet flyovers and platoons of soldiers waving oversized flags on the field are de rigueur for NFL and college games alike. More troubling, though, is the near-ubiquitous effort across the football landscape to pay overt and uncritical tribute to the military—the annual circus to Honor the Troops.™
Such empty gestures are dangerous, and need to stop.
Nearly a half century has passed since President Nixon signed the all-volunteer military into law. In that time, America has fought the longest war in our nation’s history—a war so long that it will soon be fought by soldiers where were not yet born on 9/11. Over those same 45 years, more than 7,500 Americans have died in combat theaters around the globe. None of these conflicts has been declared a war by Congress.
These are the uncomfortable realities of a country cowed into submission by the ghosts of Vietnam. Many are the tales of soldiers “getting spit on” and “being called baby killers” after returning home from Southeast Asia to an America in turmoil. Of course, actual evidence of such horrors is nigh on impossible to come by. The story always happened to your dad’s buddy, or your aunt’s third cousin, or the nice neighbor kid your mom used to know. As with all great cultural fables, the myth of America’s mistreatment of Vietnam veterans casts a long shadow—one that spans generations with surprising durability.
Americans have been browbeaten into fearful reverence of the military-industrial machine. Thanking military service members has gone from an odd pleasantry to a social requirement. Studios have printed fortunes by cashing in on the popular infatuation with a mythical “good war” from a bygone era (where color was always just a tad muted). Failing to support the troops in visible fashion is now tantamount to sedition. As comedian Bill Burr remarked, we’ve gone from a country that supposedly despised its veterans to one that offers a standing ovation to every private flying home to Denver for Easter. Worse yet, adding “and our first responders” to these tired platitudes is the new standard.
Even the Kaepernick kneeling controversy—as simultaneously immortal and threadbare as it’s become—has been attacked with the cudgel of “RESPECTING OUR VETERANS WHO DIED FER YEW!” Framing the issue as a crass affront to our beloved men and women who “defend our freedom” is the simpleton’s trump card.
You’re disrespecting our soldiers who are defending our freedom against ISIS! Or the Taliban. Or somebody in Africa. We think. We’re pretty sure anyway. Honestly, we don’t even know or care who we’re fighting now or where, but man that Kaepernick guy really pisses. us. off.
Honoring the troops takes various forms in the college football sphere, nearly all of them familiar by now. There are special uniforms—often festooned with garish attempts at stylish camouflage. Fighters blaze overhead for a few glorious seconds. Service members march onto the field at media breaks to take part in the kabuki theatrics of public thanks. Occasionally, some soldier or airman who’s secretly returned early from a deployment dresses as the mascot to surprise his son who’s been tricked into a halftime contest to facilitate the tearful reunion. (The family naturally plays along as though there’s some element of true surprise left to these things.)
It’s not that I believe these efforts have any ill intent. By and large, they are the result of an athletic department’s attempt to marry the stated values of an academic institution with football programs that often seem to exist a world apart. And of course, there is the desire to court the sensibilities of the fans. This is especially true in the Big Ten and the SEC—two footprints that provide a massive amount of manpower and materiel to the military.
The flaw in these rituals of adoration is that they give fans, players, and universities a cheap pass. They are an insidious placebo in the maintenance of our democracy—a democracy still struggling with the ramifications of fully voluntary military service and the social chasm it created. Honoring the troops with this sterilized, prepackaged, hot-dogs-and-apple-pie brand of reverence allows everyone involved to feel as though something meaningful has occurred. These displays of gratitude provide us the cheap comfort of believing we have both bridged the civil-military divide and come to some deeper understanding.
In reality, such spectacles only reinforce the notion that the military is part of the great “them”—that group of faceless citizens who exist far outside the sphere of our lives and who should be seen and heard only at arm’s length (and only for a few hours on a Saturday each fall).
An afternoon spent “honoring the troops” is a day spent admiring the shiny tin soldiers and their fancy toys in a way that fails to deliver any real closeness or any sense of a shared burden. Despite the warm handshakes and the smiles, these fleeting interactions often only underscore the fact that for 99% of the crowd, the American military is an implacable force that ships some else’s kids places we’d rather not think about. Places where those same kids lose limbs and lives or, often enough, whoever else they might have been. Places where they do things they will never answer for, and things they’ll never forget.
Honoring the troops with some weekend glad-handing and some special hoodies leaves Americans free to be disengaged from the real questions a civil society should be asking about its military. It’s easy to believe that these acts of collective genuflecting check the box on our civic duty—specifically the duty to know our military’s power and to hold those who wield it accountable.
By socializing America to cheer for the fighter jets and the waving soldiers and the casual jingoism of camouflage receiver gloves, we crowd out real conversation. What’s happening in Kabul Province? Why did a father of seven just die there last week? Why are we still doing this 17 years later? Whose kid will be the last to die in Afghanistan? Why are Americans dying in Yemen? Who are we killing? And why?
In a perfect world, we would retire the pseudo-military regalia and honor the troops in ways that actually honor them:
Fans would honor them by being better citizens, not by visiting them for a day at the human zoo.
Universities would honor them by improving the quality of education offered to service members (Penn State does a wonderful job of this through its Global Campus) and in aiding student veterans who are looking for a new life.
Leaders on both sides would honor them by treating our all-volunteer military like a mighty yet fragile tool of the American experiment, and not as a token of political expediency.
Perhaps, until such time, we can at least agree that some special uniforms aren't getting it done.
The author served 13 years in the US Army. He hates Michigan.