Reporter's Notebook

Chickenhawk Nation
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Below are notes by James Fallows and others about the modern relationship between the American public and its military, in response to his cover story  “The Tragedy of the American Military.”

Show 16 Newer Notes

How Remembrance Day Is Observed in Some Other Cultures

In response to this past week’s NFL observances of Veterans Day, including camouflage-themed clothing for coaches and sideline staff, a reader sends a comparative note on how pro sports teams elsewhere recognize this occasion:

You mentioned lapel poppies in the UK the other day. Worth noting that how the UK observes Remembrance Day is very different even at sporting events. Here is some fan-shot video from the proceedings at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in North London this past Saturday:

He adds:

In addition, every player had a poppy embroidered on their jersey. I find this way of marking the occasion far more meaningful than the overly jingoistic version that seems to predominate on our shores.

Veterans Day respects and gratitude to those who have sacrificed and served.


To spare effort by those getting ready to write in and explain this distinction: I do realize that the connotations of Remembrance Day, in England and elsewhere, are different from those of Veterans Day on the same November 11 date in the United States. Originally all these observances were Armistice Day, recognizing the end of World War I hostilities on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. As another world war began, the name was generally shifted to Remembrance Day, which in England serves the purpose Memorial Day does in the United States: that of recognizing those who died in the line of duty. (For more on the Civil War origins of American Memorial Day, see Deb Fallows’s item from Mississippi.) In the United States, Veterans Day is for those who have performed military service, living and dead.

This was the pre-kickoff scene for the Dolphins and Bills yesterday (AP photo, also used in Will Bardenwerper’s WaPo piece)

Will Bardenwerper, who joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks and served as an infantry officer in Iraq, has a very strong essay in the Washington Post just now on the hollowness of the “Salute to the Heroes!” rituals that have become part of professional sports, especially the NFL. The title gives you the idea: “How patriotic pageantry at sporting events lost its meaning.” Here is a sample:

I should appreciate these moments at professional sporting events. I did once, but not so much anymore. Neither do a surprising number of the men with whom I served…. These moments, after a decade and a half of continuous war, have become rote and perfunctory, unintentionally trivializing what began with the best of intentions.

And, more pointedly, about the scenes that might accompany the heartwarming videos of a service member being reunited with spouse and children:

When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like if, instead, the Jumbotron had carried live footage of a military “casualty notification” officer in his dress uniform approaching the door of a comfortable home in middle America, stepping across a carefully manicured lawn, knocking on the door, an American flag blowing lazily in the breeze overhead, and having a mother collapse in tears at the sight of him, before he even has a chance to tell her that her only son had been shot and killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Very much worth reading. Bardenwerper even has a “to do” suggestion at the end of his essay. Conceivably at some point the chickenhawk shamelessness of these spectacles will sink in.


Additionally, from a reader on the East Coast:

Yesterday at noon I posted on Facebook that, as a veteran, I was NOT “honored” when the NFL’s partners sell camo clothing.

I got 25 likes, and I only have 100 – 125 “friends”.

Midshipmen march into Navy's stadium before a game against South Alabama in 2013. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Here’s a strange story out of Annapolis that seems to fit within Fallows’s new thread on Chickenhawk Nation, or the tendency of the American public to express easy gestures of gratitude to the military without at the very least informing themselves about why servicemembers are deployed all over the world, let alone sacrificing anything themselves. (As the son of two retired Army officers, including a Vietnam vet, I’m a bit biased on this.) So here’s the story: Local fans of the Naval Academy’s football team have renewed a seemingly sweet but condescending habit of tossing candy to the brigade of about 4,400 midshipmen that traditionally marches into the stadium at every home game. Things have even gotten ugly:

Short-version background to this post: what I’m calling Chickenhawk Nation is a country whose troops are always at war, but whose people are mainly untouched by war, and that tries to paper over that difference with ritualized “Salute to the Heroes” ceremonies, like today’s throughout the NFL. You can read the long version of the background here, or in other messages on this thread.

Today’s installment: how to think about the popularity of military camo gear among people who have never dreamed of enlisting, and the additional role of flags. First, from a serial entrepreneur who now makes his living as a mariner:

One of the thing I've noticed is that homeless people now festoon their rigs with American flags. This was brought to mind by the fellow who roams our neighborhood in [XXX] with a shopping cart picking up scrap metal, but I've also seen it on shanty boats in the ICW [Intracoastal Waterway] and elsewhere. I'm pretty sure this is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but I think it's lingered because of the thin patriotism that Chickhawkism fosters.

(Wikimedia commons)

My theory is that by adorning their carts, tents, boats, etc with flags (the guy in our neighborhood has 4 or 5 on his shopping cart) these guys feels they are marginally less likely to get hassled by authorities. As someone who has been a vagrant here and their through my life, I know that being hassled by The Man is an ever-present burden that one is wise to take steps to blunt.

I could easily document this, but can't think of a way or reason to do it that doesn't further trample the dignity of these unfortunate fellow, so I just pass it along as something I've noticed in our current Cult of the Flag/ Chickenhawk times.


Further on the NFL-and-military connection, from a reader in Seattle:

TV screenshot sent in by a reader, November 8, 2015.

In the context of this past week’s “Paid Patriotism” report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, about the way the Pentagon has been paying pro sports teams for patriotic on-field displays, a reader sends a screenshot from one of today’s games:

Sorry for the interruption, but I had to send this from the game on now. All of the coaches are dressed in camouflage!

Yes it's Veterans Day Wednesday, but during the years when I lived in England, where people really know about the horrors of war, no one would even think of dressing up like that. If you wanted to honor vets you wore a red poppy.

And of course red poppies on the lapel are very widespread Remembrance Day tributes in the U.K., Canada, Australia, etc. It’s worth noting that the camo theme in today’s U.S. football games applies not simply to the caps but even to the Bose headsets, as you see here.

The significant point, I think, is that the American public has seen things like this so often that we barely notice any more. The re-themed Bose headsets are another detail that Ben Fountain might have worked into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, though perhaps he was worried about making the satire a little too broad.


Update Thanks to a reader for pointing out that in a special salute to the troops, the NFL’s online shop is offering a full 15% off list price to veterans and service members.

Pro football looms large in modern America’s consciousness in all ways, but notably so in what we’ve been discussing as Chickenhawk Paid Patriotism. Ben Fountain’s wonderful novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, builds its whole plot around a halftime “Salute to the Heroes!” at a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys game. And NFL teams were prominently featured in the Sen. McCain/Sen. Flake exposé on the Pentagon’s underwriting of pro-veteran and pro-troop displays at sports events.

U.S. troops before kickoff at this year’s Superbowl (Reuters)

A reader writes about why he objects in particular to the NFL:

Just wanted to say it has long bothered me that the National Football League foists "tributes to the military" during its games.  (Other leagues might bother me just as much, but I pay less attention to them).

I can think of no demographic group in the United States that has a lower rate of service in the US military than the players, owners, and coaches of the National Football League.  For members of the NFL, it is virtually always “my career over my country.”  I am almost 60 years old, and a lifelong fan of football, but of the  thousands of players who have played in the NFL in my lifetime, I can recall only two players—Roger Staubach and Pat Tillman—who have served in the US military.  [JF note: I am sure there are more, but like the reader I don’t immediately think of them. I checked the NFL’s site for players/coaches with military connections. The list is here, and it’s mainly “father served in Vietnam,” “brother is in the Reserves” etc.]

Plus, the NFL as an organization does all it can to avoid paying taxes to support those who do serve.  And its owners generally have their nose in the trough to gather up as many tax dollars as they can to subsidize their profit-seeking enterprises.

In terms of real military service and support, it would be difficult to find a more concentrated cluster of physical and economic wimpiness than the National Football League.


On the more substantive questions of the real respect and accommodation for troops, veterans, and their families, a reader with a military background writes:

Tiger Woods, while a Marine holds the flag at a PGA event.

A retired Air Force officer, who still does some contracting work with the Pentagon, writes about the news that the Defense Department was underwriting “salute to the heroes!” pageants at pro sports games:

A couple of thoughts:

1. Don’t be so quick to give some recognition to the Washington sports teams for not receiving money from the Pentagon. [JF: I pointed out that the Nationals, Caps, Wizards, and Redskins were not on the pay-for-celebrating-troops list.] I believe that the fawning to veterans at these settings is underwritten by Defense contractors, rather than the Pentagon itself. General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc.  

I am truly split at what makes me more sick—DoD underwriting it, or the purveyors of weapon system underwriting it, who help to lobby for using their weapons. Particularly sickening for me at Nats games where we often see so many wounded from Walter Reed there.

2. Another item to make you sick: Watching a Marine at formal parade rest while pampered golfers eye up their putts. [See above.]

I am a retired AF officer, and I get the need for recruitment budgets. But for multi-million (billion) dollar for-profit sports enterprises who benefit so greatly from other forms of DoD support (flyovers, security, sports-loving soldiers, etc) to also take money for this stuff ...

We have lost all connection with the military. [The people cooking up these plans] should be pilloried, but the public really won’t care. Hell, leading presidential candidates can insult prisoners-of-war and their numbers go up.

In this new Thread I will revive a string of reader commentary, plus news updates (F-35, A-10, budgets and strategy, veterans’ welfare, future strategy), on the themes I dealt with in my Chickenhawk Nation article early this year. The article’s official title was “The Tragedy of the American Military.” Early this year, before the introduction of our Notes and Threads, I ran more than 20 installments of reader response to it. You can find a compendium of them here, and eventually I’ll try to migrate them to this page as well.


Let’s begin: There is simply no other place to revive this series than with the new report by Arizona’s two U.S. Senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, called “Paid Patriotism.” That’s the cover, below. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.  

Cover of the McCain-Flake “Paid Patriotism” report, released this week.

The surprise value of this report, for me, was that neither I, nor Ben Fountain, had been anywhere near cynical enough.