Unless you were living under a rock this weekend you are aware of the hullabaloo surrounding President Trump’s call to boycott the NFL if its players chose to kneel during the national anthem. There’s no need to rehash that here. But it is worth discussing the role of the military in this controversy.
Since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the national anthem to protest racial inequality and disproportionate police violence against black people in America, critics have been equating his actions with an attack on the U.S. military service members and veterans. The tactic was useful in demonizing Kaepernick and allowing people to avoid grappling with the substance of his protest. But supporters of the quarterback’s actions have also appealed to veterans as a way to legitimate his protest.
Both sides of the debate can find examples of service members and veterans who support their positions. Both sides will use these examples as a trump card (no pun intended) to silence those with whom they disagree. In doing so, both sides are using the military to sanctify their political opinions.
Amy Schafer of the Center for a New American Security—who has done excellent research on what it means that a shrinking percentage of Americans serving in the military—has a piece at Slate on why this is a problem:
The willingness to treat veterans as a single constituency not only does a disservice to veterans as individuals, but it continues to isolate the military from the civilian population, even after they have finished serving. Veterans have over time become a much smaller subsection of the country, facing a “thank you for your service” culture that avoids grappling with the issue of how we as a nation use military force. The desire to disproportionately weight veterans’ opinions on this, or any, issue reflects a broader trend of ceding them moral authority, in exchange for ignorance and detachment from the wars they have been asked to fight.
Veterans are similarly valued for their credibility—from the deployment of veterans as stage props during political campaigns to Trump’s reliance on retired flag officers in his administration, neatly nicknamed “my generals.” Democrats are no less guilty than Republicans of trotting out veterans to back their policy positions. In the arms race of military support, it’s never all that difficult to find a retired flag officer or combat veteran who will agree with any particular political position. That’s because “veterans” as a whole aren’t monolithic, and neither are their views.
In recent days, some veterans have been circulating a graphic on social media that says, “I served, I stand.” Others have posted photos of themselves kneeling in solidarity with the players, including a 97-year-old World War II veteran photographed kneeling by his grandson, quoted as saying, “Those kids have every right to protest.” On Twitter veterans used the hashtag #VeteransforKaepernick and #TakeAKnee to show support. While it may seem respectful on the surface to invoke the military in voicing one’s objection to this protest or other political issues, it’s a false flag for engaging in real debate and allowing veterans to engage in that debate as well.
The entire piece is worth reading here.
It is unhealthy in a liberal democracy for the military as an institution, or its members, to be considered the arbiter of legitimate of political opinion. And the problem will only get worse as our leaders politicize the military in an effort to tie themselves to one of the few institutions in which the American public still has confidence.