Thank You for Your Service, Whoever You Are

Opponents of the NFL protests have reduced “the troops” to a monolithic prop. The truth is a lot more complicated.

Military with American Flag before Football Game
Service members hold the flag prior to an NFL game on Sept. 11, 2016, in Baltimore.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

On Sunday, dozens of NFL players took a knee and locked arms during the national anthem, a silent but powerful peaceful protest of the criminal justice system in the United States, as well as a rebuke of President Donald Trump’s crude comments and exhortations to fire players who had chosen to protest. While many expressed solidarity with the players’ choice to exercise their First Amendment rights and raise the stature of a deeply troubling issue, others were outraged and offended, viewing the gesture as a sign of disrespect toward the flag, America itself, and in particular, the American military.

Since Colin Kaepernick first made headlines with this form of protest, many news outlets have run with comments from prominent retired military officers, veterans groups, or simply veterans willing to comment on the record, suggesting that these gestures are insulting to those who have fought to defend the country, represented by the flag and the anthem. Here’s the problem, though: The political beliefs of veterans run the spectrum and vary between different services, different ranks, and different demographics. Veterans are people, too.

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.

Furthermore, the assumption that all veterans are opposed to the protest also suggests veterans would not themselves be concerned enough with police brutality to kneel. But as one former Green Beret wrote on Facebook, the unifying cause his family fought against in three generations of service was the stifling of free speech.  He argued that the players’ decision to protest is actively patriotic, embodying the peaceful disagreement the military fights on behalf of. The military as a whole is incredibly diverse, and many veterans have undoubtedly themselves experienced the sort of discrimination these gestures are meant to protest. But the services have also struggled to reflect that diversity in the upper echelons of leadership, perhaps leading many to believe that racism is an issue left on the sidelines in the armed forces.

Veterans’ views are also often much more nuanced than they are given credit for.  Former Army Ranger and Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva left the locker room to stand for the national anthem before Sunday’s game, while the rest of the team remained indoors. Yet, when asked about the issue, he told Fox News, “I will be the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something about the way minorities are being treated in the United States, the injustice that is happening with police brutality, the justice system, inequalities in pay. … You can’t do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country.”

The isolation of the military to a few small communities has made it easier than ever to co-opt military service, when so few Americans are connected enough to veterans to contradict this tendency. Claiming the mantle of patriotism and the support of the veteran community is also good politics, as Trump has notoriously exploited in his speeches. Veterans have also historically been portrayed as conservative, though this trend has been shown to be changing over time. As political scientist Jason Dempsey found in his book, Our Army, the spectrum of political views in the military largely reflects that of the U.S. population as a whole.

Are there veterans who vehemently object to this form of protest? Absolutely. Are there veterans who would kneel in solidarity if given the chance? Absolutely. Veterans, and Americans, will likely remain divided on the manner of this protest, even if most support the players’ First Amendment right to do so. At the end of the day, the American public isn’t connected enough to the military to understand whether these characterizations are fair or accurate or that two service members with an identical military record may vehemently disagree on any number of things.

That the military has become the center of a national debate about protesting before football games is doubly unfortunate given the conversations that the public too often avoids. There’s plenty of room on the airwaves for more discussion over how to reintegrate veterans in society after service, encouraging a broader cross-section of America to serve, funding the military at a level that makes it safe to train and deploy, and perhaps even what we’re doing in Afghanistan and whether this country thinks its worth the blood and treasure we continue to spend.

The efforts of those arguing on behalf of veterans that these protests are offensive, unpatriotic, and disrespectful might be better served to advocate for veterans as people rather than as symbols.