The Pentagon has been writing checks to NFL teams for staging heartstring-plucking paeans to our military. It’s shocking -- although not because it’s an unlawfully undisclosed ad campaign.
Mind you, it surely is that. The Federal Trade Commission has been very clear and consistent that paid promotional messages must be identified as such. There is no Department of Defense exemption. Yet as first reported in the Bergen Record, the Pentagon has paid millions to 14 teams for gushing tributes to our men and women in uniform.
But again, the stealth of the mission is utterly unsurprising. Operation Payola Freedom, in the history of Pentagon misfeasance and misdirection, is trivial. (See: the Dominican Republic, the Pentagon Papers, Grenada, Abu Ghraib, Pvt. Jessica Lynch, the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman, "mission accomplished" and -- who knows, if Seymour Hersh is right -- maybe even the death of Osama bin Laden).
No -- what is stunning about this scandal is that the U.S. government found it necessary to pay for oleaginous tributes to our troops. That’s like paying teenagers to sulk. That’s like taking tanning beds to the Sahara. That’s like drilling for dirt. In the past 15 years, sporting events have become ground zero in the nation’s cult of military. Totally free of charge.
You know the gist. Play-by-play man: “Let’s take a moment to recognize the heroes putting everything on the line to defend our freedom.” Color commentator: “No question. The reason we can enjoy a football game is because of the sacrifices these brave men and women make every day.”
Then the fighter-jet flyover. Then a returning hero on the 50-yard-line, whether or not he ever got further forward than a Kuwait supply depot.
Remember when the “Star Spangled Banner” was sung before sporting contests and that fulfilled the day’s quota of patriotic outpouring? Those were from the olden times, when America evidently was exactly half as patriotic as it is now. Because now sports fans also belt out “God Bless America,” usually around the fourth inning.
If al Qaeda, the Taliban or ISIS create much more mischief, we’ll all be humming “Onward Christian Soldiers” straight through batting practice.
It’s not that we shouldn’t support our troops; of course we should. But that does not mean deifying them -- as presidents, garden-variety politicians and sideline reporters do now. We have surely come a long way from hippies shouting “Baby killer!”
Some believe the pendulum had fully swung at the end of the first Gulf War, when a victory parade in Washington, DC -- heavy armor and advanced weaponry on full display along with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and the legions of triumphant semi-victors -- seemed to exorcise the demons of Vietnam. But the real transformation to jingoist military worship truly manifested on 9/11.
Evil had been visited upon us, and our military would risk everything to protect us.
Such as in a ruinous, bloody, invented war. Yet for years the second Iraq fiasco was off limits for criticism, because any question about its premise, its strategy, its tactics, its reverses or its horrors was taken as a slur against our troops. We must support our troops, even by putting them unnecessarily, criminally in harm’s way over a lie.
If we truly cared about our soldiers, we’d insist they were not cannon fodder for the Messianic ambitions of a reckless cabal. But that’s what happens when songs in stadiums are conflated with patriotism. Love of country doesn’t reside in the biggest American flag, or lapel pins or bumper stickers, or for that matter, anthems. It resides in embracing the enduring values of the nation.
Those might include civil liberties, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights; rule of law, applicable to everyone, without fear or favor, immigration, as in “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and the American Way, the unique balance of individual freedom, individual responsibility and (Libertarians take note) individual interests subordinated to the commonweal.
Notably, patriotism does not mean blind fealty to anyone or anything, except possibly truth. One of the quirks about the National Guard pay-to-play scandal is that the whistleblower was not a bleeding-heart Democrat but Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He’s furious that the NFL teams were pretending to be generous in their sentiments, but now are exposed as manipulative, pandering opportunists.