The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How empty displays of sports patriotism allow Americans to forget the troops

Commemorations like this weekend’s patch on baseball uniforms have become rote

The Los Angeles Dodgers wore camouflage hats in support of Military Appreciation Day during a game against the Reds on May 18, 2019, in Cincinnati. (Aaron Doster/AP)
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President Dwight D. Eisenhower once reportedly proclaimed, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war.”

Today, Ike might have amended that claim, slightly more cynically: The true mission of American sports is to remind the nation that it remains ever at war. Since the 9/11 attacks, professional leagues have pursued that mission single-mindedly. Yet while the military has become ubiquitous within stadiums and arenas across the United States, their deployments seem to be given far less national attention — even as civilian leadership cavalierly contemplates committing 120,000 troops to counter Iran.

Major League Baseball has now put this oversight into words. On Memorial Day weekend, teams will forgo their usual camouflage-speckled special uniforms worn in years past in favor of a stark patch inscription: “Lest we forget.” (They still wore the camouflage caps, though, just a week earlier, for a weekend-long “Armed Forces Day” celebration.)

Like the symbolic poppy that the patch will be stitched onto, the message is emblematic. From surprise homecomings to veteran salutes to enlistment inductions to fighter jet flyovers to remote feeds of soldiers at overseas bases, sporting events have become America’s great sanitized way of remembering the troops. And then, as quickly as the Blue Angels can speed over the stadium, everyone goes right back to forgetting about the military’s sacrifice.

That term itself — sacrifice — seems somehow stripped of context and redeployed for gauzy emotion rather than the sober duties of democratic citizenship that Americans have otherwise abdicated: We feel for service members and families’ burden (how can one not?), but we seem to have collectively, politically, decided not to think much about the open-ended commitments they have been assigned to that require it. Fetishizing “freedom,” however generically rendered, mirrors a foreign policy on autopilot.

Sports were already politicized. And sports culture is deeply conservative.

The platitudes will arrive easily from sports media: “It’s the least we can do,” an announcer may feign humbly when narrating troop honors. But, frankly, such rote cliche might well speak on behalf of American society. The mission drift and endless deployments over the course of two decades of prosecuting the “war on terror” have drained military engagement from the forefront of our mediated consciousness.

At this point, nearly half of Americans believe the United States has mostly failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan — grinding on after 17 years there in our nation’s longest war — and a healthy majority of Americans support bringing those troops home. (Military personnel, in fact, apparently support withdrawal even more than the general population.) Astoundingly, 1 in 5 Americans did not even know the nation remained at war in Afghanistan.

That’s because in the post-draft era, it’s increasingly become sacrifice borne by someone else’s kids. The United States has nearly a quarter-million troops stationed across 172 countries and territories, yet less than 1 percent of the population serves, unlike in earlier eras, when conscription made participation widespread, the costs shared and attentiveness incentivized.

The Pentagon surely recognizes this disconnect. Why else would it have spent nearly $7 million to sports teams over the years to honor service members in what seemed like (free) heartwarming displays but turned out to be propaganda budget line items? Paid patriotism helps “buy” war. And though recruiting was the obvious aim, sports culture has long delivered far more than that — voluntarily and misguidedly so.

The way that we talk about sports routinely serves to “fuse and confuse” rightful distinctions between on-field aggression and battlefield destruction. What with its vocabulary of blitzes, long bombs, advance scouts, and men in the trenches, football is especially guilty of masquerading as the “war game.” All this linguistic sleight of hand helps valorize, rationalize and desensitize us to the violent reality of battle, and it makes games seem more consequential than they really are.

Similarly, those special camouflage uniforms that dress up players as soldiers feel fashion-deep — cheapening the commitment of the latter to mere performance and play, when their occupation is anything but. Indeed, the entire spectacle seems to want to channel our patriotic fervor into contests with unambiguous outcomes and no untimely casualties.

Neither the invasion of Afghanistan nor Iraq, nor any of the other indefinite, backpage-news, quasi-war missions the United States has pursued globally since then, could ultimately deliver on those promises, so sports spectacle has been enlisted over the past two decades to airbrush the narrative. And the appropriation of individual soldiers as the rightfully empathetic faces of that militaristic inertia winds up occluding broader strategic questions about the wisdom of wars we have shipped them off to. Sports foregrounds the actors of war but circumscribes the context and consequences of their action.

Any set of political interests whose annual budget runs north of $600 billion — as the United States allocates to defense — clearly needs to buy that allegiance and goodwill. And some research evidence suggests that sports might just do the trick.

A decade ago, one survey found that sports fandom powerfully associated with support for the Iraq invasion and the Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes. More recently, as part of a national survey on which I collaborated, we found that sports fans were more likely to support increased defense spending, believe that peace is ensured through military strength, and affirm the necessity of maintaining robust armed forces.

Correlation is not causation, of course, but if that’s what the Pentagon was paying for with its troop salutes, it would seem to be getting its money’s worth.

It’s not that American soldiers’ sacrifice is undeserving of that fan applause at games where they are feted; it’s that they’re deserving of a national conversation about why they’re still making it. Let’s stop allowing sports spectacle to substitute for that.

Parts of this article were adapted from “The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture.”

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