The climactic scene of Ben Fountain’s excellent novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes place in the middle of a Dallas Cowboys football game. Billy and the rest of his platoon, fresh from vicious combat in Iraq and being put on display around the country as war heroes, march out onto the field as the cheerleaders bounce and fireworks boom overhead. It’s a bewildering and traumatic experience for the combat veteran Billy Lynn.
Fountain’s book was published in May 2012, and he likely had no idea how close his art meshed with reality. The year before, the Department of Defense had begun paying NFL teams to stage patriotic tributes, on-field color guards, grandstands for wounded warriors and returning troops, and more. I’m not sure if the DoD paid the Dallas Cowboys to display veterans during their games, but all told the NFL and other professional sports teams reportedly took in $5.4 million in taxpayer money for military boosterism. After Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake published a report on what they called “paid patriotism,” the NFL stopped and returned some $720,000 back to the DoD.
It’s not the first time, of course, that veterans have been used as props for patriotism. Franklin Roosevelt personally selected the famous photo of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima for his 7th Bond Tour in 1945, and the six servicemen in that iconic image—five Marines and a corpsman—were whisked back from the war in the Pacific to appear before huge crowds in baseball stadiums and city plazas. They raised $24 billion for the war effort.
It’s been a little over a year since Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers first took a knee during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality against people of color. He initially sat during the anthem for his protest, but started kneeling after Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer counseled him on a better way. Kaepernick and Boyer determined that kneeling would show respect for veterans, but still make a statement about social justice.
Kaepernick’s solemn, silent gesture was taken up by a handful of other NFL players. Although the chorus of condemnation never got too loud, Kaepernick’s free speech cost him his job. The quarterback who set passing records in college and took his team to the Super Bowl has not since been signed by a team.
Of course, what had become a quiet protest kept up by a handful of NFL players erupted after Donald Trump called the kneeling NFL players “sons of bitches” during a meandering speech in Louisiana. The following Sunday, practically every NFL player across the country took a knee, linked arms, or remained in the locker room during the anthem—often with coaches and owners joining them. It was a stunning, nationwide rebuke by the players of America’s quintessential sport.
There’s a qualitative difference between using Billy Lynn in a patriotic halftime pageant and the president attacking NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem. Billy Lynn is put on display to fire up the crowds; the White House is whipping up indignation by claiming a kneeling football player is “disrespecting” veterans. (Vice President Pence tweeted this explicitly after his recent stunt at a 49ers-Colts game.)
American veterans have been elevated to a sacrosanct status since 9/11. That makes them even more vulnerable to being used for political ends—forced to be moral arbiters and paragons of nobility. On the last episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert’s guest was Phil Klay, an Iraq veteran and winner of the 2014 National Book Award. “I support veterans,” says Colbert, speaking in character. “So I can use them as a political cudgel against my enemies.”
It’s too bad vets aren’t asked to speak for themselves. Politicians like to paint them as a homogeneous group, bundling them up in assigned virtues and putting words into their mouths. Although they all may have worn the same uniform, they’re individuals with diverse politics. I know vets who campaigned for Bernie Sanders. I know vets who wear red Trump hats or are devout libertarians.
Regarding the football players and the national anthem, indeed some vets burn with anger when they perceive a civilian being callous toward the flag. I suspect for many of these veterans, the symbol of the flag is intimately connected to the fierce grief they carry for brothers who came home in coffins. But I also know plenty of vets who do not feel disrespected when a football player takes a knee. In fact, veterans often say they went to war to defend the cherished American value of free speech. Now that they’re back from war, I hope we hear more veterans exercise their free speech rights here at home.
Jeb Wyman is the editor of What They Signed Up For: True Stories by Ordinary Soldiers, published by Blue Ear Books.