Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On being a pacifist sports fan

This past weekend, several networks showing NFL games used the broadcast as an opportunity to pay tribute to U.S. soldiers currently occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. I've been struggling to articulate why I find these tributes unsettling, and I realized, why even have a little-read blog if not to explore one's own thoughts through writing?

Consider this, then, one pacifist's attempt to explain to himself why these tributes to the troops disturb him.

The "Thank You" contains implicit support of the current wars
Many of the statements of thanks to the soldiers are couched in conventional language: thanks for keeping us safe, thanks for protecting our freedoms, etc. But to thank soldiers currently occupying Iraq and Afghanistan for keeping us safe/protecting our freedoms implicitly assumes that their current mission is necessary to keep us safe/protect our freedoms, and is therefore "good." Such statements of thanks, then, become more commercials for waging these wars.

Perpetual tributes for a state of perpetual warfare
Tributes to serving soldiers have been going on during NFL broadcasts at least since Thanksgiving 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. That means that for eight years, NFL broadcasts during special occasions (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Veterans Day, etc.) have been used to pay tribute to soldiers currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've understood a need to pay regular tribute because we've accepted that U.S. soldiers will be occupying foreign countries for a long time.

The normalization of militarism in culture
Like toy soldiers, military video games, and wearing camouflage for style and fashion, the fusion of military tributes with our sports entertainment just further makes militarism and military values a normal, everyday part of our culture. We accept shows of military virtue as something that is ensconced in all parts of our lives--and thus we perpetuate a culture that supports military violence.

Relevant reading
Last March, Nathan Schneider at The Row Boat suggested that

"There must be a way to honor such sacrifices as war brings out in people while abhorring the pointless insanity that occasioned it, abhorring it so completely that it can never possibly happen again."

I shared my doubts, which I think are relevant to the issue I'm exploring here:

I’m not sure. I’ve been increasingly influenced by the work of John Howard Yoder and other Christian pacifists, and I feel no need to “honor” militarism. I am compelled to abhor violence; I don’t know if I can abhor the large-scale war while honoring those carrying out the war (at any level). It seems an inconsistent position: to commit to a life of peace, yet to “honor” those who participate in the violence of war. “Honor” comes too close to glorification (whether or not that is true in the realm of ideas, it is too often true in actual practice). I think it possible that continuing to honor the people who participate in war is a significant part of perpetuating a militaristic culture, and thus goes against the desire to abhor war “so completely that it can never possibly happen again.” Stopping the honor of militarism might be a significant step toward stopping war.

So not “honor.” But sadness, sympathy, empathy, and love. Perhaps another word entirely. For those who sacrifice much, for those who lose much without ever having the choice.

And at Salon, Glenn Greenwald exposes in David Brooks a common disconnect: cheerleading in support of war while calling others who commit violence "evil."


  1. Not sure it supports war to tahnk the troopps for their service. Maybe it just shows we appreciate what theya re doing. Might be that not all troops love being gone. I am sure the National Guard people probably felt they were going to do some domestic service, floods, etc.

  2. I've come to believe that thanking soldiers for what they do contains implicit approval of what they do. Here's why.

    If I believe the wars are morally and practically wrong, how do I thank the people who are carrying out those wars? What am I thanking them for? I'm thanking them for doing something I don't want them to do and don't think they should be doing.

    I suppose I can thank them for the sacrifices they make and are willing to make, even if I disapprove of the action itself. And yet, as a pacifist committed to nonviolence, I cannot thank them for their willingness to commit violence. I fundamentally oppose and disapprove of military violence, and so find it difficult to thank those who carry it out.

    And yet I do not mean to dismiss or ignore what soldiers go through. I can try to offer empathy for their suffering, and try politically to support and act for policies that bring them home, out of the countries they are currently occupying.

    However, thanking the soldiers implicitly assumes that what they are doing is a good thing, and the "support the troops" statements are too often used to prop up support for what the troops are being asked to do.

    I know this view is far from the mainstream in America, and that it is, to borrow a phrase from John Fowles, the "unquestioned assumption of one's age" that the soldiers are heroes for what they do. But as I so strongly oppose what they do, I have difficulty thanking them for doing it.