As an avid sports fan, I listen to sports talk on radio almost daily. And at this time of year - Veterans Day - one certainly gets one's fill of paeans to our men and women in uniform. It has been true since long before 9/11 that, during times of war, our major organized sports - college and professional - have wanted to demonstrate their patriotic bonafides. Some sports, like football, are especially eager to promote the connection between themselves and the symbols of militarism.
But over the past few years, there have been more determined efforts from entities like the NFL, Major League Baseball and ESPN to pay homage to our armed forces. Whether it's ESPN's Sports Center going on location in Kuwait, Mike and Mike broadcasting from the newly commissioned battleship, the USS New York (whose hull was built from the wreckage of the twin towers), fighter-jet flyovers at Super Bowls and other major sporting events, the pro-militaristic bent of American sports seems as great as ever (and, conversely, the vilification of those few athletes who, in some public way, dissent from these displays- such as Carlos Delgado and Toni Smith).
There's nothing surprising about this, but there is one aspect of it in particular that I find especially disturbing - the way in which all of these celebrations of the military perpetuate the worst propaganda about why we're fighting the wars we're currently engaged in. It's embedded in a variant of a simple statement that I have heard countless times from sports casters, athletes and other sports official since 2003 - that we should "thank" the men and women in uniform for "preserving our freedom," for sacrificing their lives so that we may continue to enjoy the unthinking privilege that is the right of every American. Even when it's not explicitly stated, the implication is that we are free to live the lives we do because of the soldiers currently fighting overseas, whether it's Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.
Even stalwart proponents of the war would have a hard time squaring the circle between our presence in Iraq and the protection of our freedoms at home. The idea that had the counter-factual prevailed - that we had never toppled Saddam Hussein - we would be, somehow, unfree today is absurd on its face. Whatever justifications one can think for our 2003 invasion of Iraq, protecting our freedoms cannot possibly be one of them (whether we did it for oil, as Alan Greenspan says was obviously true, and therefore to preserve our "way of life" more broadly is a somewhat separate question).
And whatever justification we had for toppling the Taliban eight years ago, it cannot reasonably be asserted that a decision to withdraw from there now would pose an imminent threat to our freedoms. Al Qaeda's global viability, many experts on the subject agree, is not dependent on the Taliban re-taking control of Afghanistan.
And all of this grants a premise - that fighting wars, in general, preserves freedom. But hasn't our war-fighting often meant the opposite - a crackdown on civil liberties and an expansion of government surveillance and other abuses of power? To take recent history, haven't Americans, in the past eight years, lost individual freedom to an increasingly secretive and expansive government-surveillance apparatus? And how has our war-fighting mitigated those developments?
So, there's no misunderstanding here, this is not a post about Americans in uniform. As members of the armed forces, they go where their told and do what they're commanded to do. Quite a number of them have developed serious doubts about the purpose of our recent wars. What's striking, though, is the degree to which the sports world, with rare exception, has adopted the most unthinking, uncritical and extreme neo-conservative rationale for "supporting our troops" - that Americans' own freedom would be imperiled were we not at constant war overseas.
Isn't there a way to express support for troops that doesn't require proffering such propaganda?
Update: Not long after I wrote this, I learned that at today's UNC home football game against Miami, there would be an F-18 flyover.
Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, is just out from Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com