For a long time now–especially since September 11, 2001, but even before that–sports fans attending games in person have been treated to (or, depending upon your perspective, endured) all sorts of hyper-patriotic displays before and even during the games. Often, the display takes the form of honoring some returning veteran, giving everyone a chance to applaud a member of the services for his or her sacrifice. Just as often, the event takes the form of a “flyover,” a pass over the stadium by some form of military transport–a small helicopter group, a C130, maybe even a buzz over the park by a formation of fighter jets.
I’ve personally been uncomfortable with many of these displays. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, such shows of respect for military members (who were sure to be putting their lives immediately on the line in the days following the attacks) were fine and proper. But having these bits of military glitz highlighting your average Saturday afternoon ballgame often struck me as gratuitous; patriotism is often, as Orwell once said, the last refuge of the scoundrel. One of the reasons our country has its strong military is precisely so that we do not have to be ancient Sparta, so our society as a whole can relax a bit and celebrate some of the other aspects of life. Having these military displays shoehorned into a sports presentation–particularly back in the early days of this habit, at games I attended back in the ’80s and ’90s–felt more like propaganda than genuine shows of pride in the nation’s military.
That’s why it’s both disappointing and disturbing to read that many of those flag-waving displays were in fact exactly that: propaganda for the military, paid for by the DoD and related organizations. Those of us in the stands were being shown a giant, field-covering flag, or a tearful family reunion, or a roaring fly-by of fighter jets, as a form of indoctrination, an exercise in creating a frame of mind among members of the public favorable to a more militarized society.
This is a problem, folks. Our nation was founded on principles of democratic republican ideals–and the subjugation of the military to the civilian authority was always foremost among those ideals. Members of Washington’s Continental Army idealized the Roman Cincinnatus, who served as the ancient city’s leader during a time of war, then returned to his farm after the battle was won. That concept–military service when necessary, civilian life when not–lived throughout this nation’s history; it was one of the reasons the United States had little in the way of standing armies prior to World War II. (Part of the nation’s early struggles during that war grew out of the immediate imperative to create sufficient armed forces–almost out of nothing–to fight the Axis regimes.) Not being overly worshipful of our military was always seen as one of this nation’s most essential forms of protection for democracy.
That notion of respect, but not acquiescence, to the military seems to be crumbling around us, with perilous consequences for the country’s future if these trends continue. The fact that this trend is not mere happenstance, but a carefully crafted campaign built to serve some people’s philosophy, should give us all pause. And the fact that our favorite sports are being used as tools against our own better judgment? That shouldn’t just be disappointing; it should make us angry, too.
I’m sure some will object that these characterizations are unpatriotic and damaging to the military and its members, but that thinking is a symptom of the same problem. We can have a military, and respect our military, without it dominating our lives. Remember back in the day, when we used to laugh at the Soviet Union for its seemingly endless parades of military hardware? We would snicker about their long lines of tanks and missiles, because we knew those parades meant that the Russians didn’t have anything else–no food, no goods, no freedom. When an F-14 flies over a ballpark today, seemingly every time there’s the slightest reason for it (and many times when there’s not), what does it say about us?
We’re supposed to be better than that. We don’t need to make constant shows of our strength, because we know we have it; we shouldn’t be so insecure. And service members and their families should not be props in a staged and choreographed presentation to make everyone in the stands applaud (and maybe stay quiet when someone decides to start the next war, and send more of those folks away from their families).
When I buy a ticket, I expect to see a good ball game–not Triumph of the Will Part 2.