This post touches upon some of the connections in American society between football, military service, and violence. Special thanks to Vietnam-era veteran Arlin Buyert (USN) for permission to reprint his poems “Big Brother” and “‘Oh Say Can You See’.”
God bless Mack Brown, the former head football coach at the University of Texas. His sixteen-year tenure exuded victories on the field and classiness off it. He, by all appearances, treated players the right way; there won’t be any legit “tell all” books coming out anytime soon exposing a dark side of the Brown era. He shepherded a minority of his players on to the NFL, while maintaining during the last half of his tenure a 70 percent plus graduation rate – pretty good for a major college football program. Part CEO, PR master, and recruiting glad-hander – he eventually was done in by his own success. Longhorn partisans took umbrage at his 30-21 record during the final four years of his reign, and it was time for him to go.
I’m not the only commentator to have noticed the increasingly cozy relationship, in the past few years, between football (major college and professional) and the military. Fighter plane flyovers at the beginning of games have been around for a while, but ceremonies honoring service men and women at games – in large part due to the fact the US military has been at war since 2001 – are now commonplace. The tragic death of Arizona Cardinals football player and US Army Ranger Pat Tillman in 2004 cemented this relationship in our current day. And this relationship is a natural one; scholars have argued for years that football is not only an extension of military combat, but a good substitute for war. [Michael Mandelbaum’s The Meaning of Sports, Public Affairs Books (2004) is especially noteworthy.]
Since I live in Austin and pay some attention to football, I heard Mack Brown many years of his tenure proclaim – mostly during rushed twenty-second halftime interviews – “We support the troops,” “Thanks to the troops,” or “God bless the troops.” Yes, yes, and yes. Mack Brown wasn’t and isn’t the only football coach to say so, conveniently, during the weekend games on or around November 11. But, wait a minute. The troops and their plight deserve much more than passing or canned accolades as the coach runs to the locker room. Coach Brown no doubt meant what he said, but it was also part of the PR recruiting show intended for millions on national TV. How deeply do we support the troops? Numerous veterans hear “Thanks for your service” as the four quickest words of patronization, wondering if the ones uttering said gratitude have the remotest clue about the fragmented shards of a soldier’s soul that are ripped out and left for dead in a war zone. As a nation, we are undoubtedly guilty for the way we casually accept war and inadequately treat the PTSD many of the troops develop and bring home as result of combat situations.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Wood calls attention to PTSD and something else he calls “moral injury” (originally coined by clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay working with Vietnam vets some twenty years ago). To be clear: Wood claims, in describing moral injury, that troops in battle have not necessarily committed a wrong. Moral injury “is a relatively new concept that seems to describe what many feel: a sense that their fundamental understanding of right and wrong has been violated, and the grief, numbness or guilt that often ensues.” Wood calls moral injury the signature wound that Afghanistan and Iraq veterans deal with – a “bruise on the soul” that has lasting impact on the individual and his or her family.
Arlin Buyert’s poem Big Brother, dealing with a war two generations previous, poignantly describes some of the angst and brutal consequence of moral injury.
I was ten years old
when we took Bobbie
to the courthouse in Orange City.
Dad and Mom wept
as he boarded the Greyhound
bound for boot camp.
After graduation, Korea,
Third Infantry Division.
Two years later
someone else came home:
quiet and brittle as a dead tree,
non-stop Old Gold cigarettes,
quivering fingers, drunk
in his 1949 Ford, in the ditch,
a ditch that held him forever.
Mom cried again,
Suicide, tragically, among military personnel (active duty and veterans) is near double the general population rate. Twenty military personnel per day take their own lives, according to 2014 data. Ray Rice, the former NFL running back, was initially given a slap on the wrist for slugging to unconsciousness his then fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer; later he was both suspended and scapegoated by a league that cashes in on a level of violence, although regulated, raw and primitive. Colleges and universities with football programs have higher rates of sexual assault on campus than those without. Military institutions are plagued with misogyny and the mistreatment of women; both institutions are guilty of not taking proper care of all of their veterans (both use the same term for retired participants) – especially those injured in action. Both institutions target recruits that are young, able, and not yet risk-averse – the pre-frontal cortex in the human brain, inhibiting risk-taking, is not fully developed until the bearer of that young brain reaches twenty-five years of age.
I don’t write this piece to ridicule either institution; the military is necessary in a diverse and conflicted world, and football is a loved diversion – and, again – a desired substitute over actual war. If you’ve not read Chris Hedges’s War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, 2002), I urge you to do so. Hedges worked as a journalist, covering wars from Central America to the Balkans, and he famously describes war as a drug – potent, lethal, and exhilaratingly addictive. War, he claims, gives us meaningful purpose in a world besieged by seemingly insignificant pursuits. It can be, however, a seductive purpose. “Each generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment – often at a terrible price.”
Of course we support the troops. Yet in gratitude for their sacrifice and service, perhaps it better we purse our lips, remembering that we have been endowed with two ears and only one mouth. Two ears to listen; two eyes with which to see and better understand the experiences of our fellow brothers and sisters. There are no easy answers. But there are experiences that instruct and inform. We need to pay better attention – Wood’s piece on moral injury is must reading.
War has been around a lot longer than football. Whereas football is derived in part from war and its battle scenarios, we risk confusion when we look to football as being instructive or indicative of war. War is not like football, a bigger and badder version. To the contrary, war is burdened with much more gravitas, obviously, than football ever will be. We Americans invest a lot of time, effort, and energy into our teams following their travails and successes. The least we can do to respect the troops: put in just as much if not more time, energy, and effort learning about the realities of war, and how those who fight our wars are affected by them.
“OH SAY CAN YOU SEE”
As preamble to high school basketball games
it felt fine.
As highlight of Memorial Day at cemetery,
it roused my youthful joy.
As crown jewel of Saturday parades in boot camp,
it drummed shivers through my blood.
As “bombs bursting in air” became my bombs bursting a village in Vietnam –
I can sing no more.
I saw too much.*
* “Oh Say Can You See” – War Poems by Arlin Buyert
Chapbook, 39 pages.
Buyert Books, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
Order directly from Arlin Buyert, $10 (no charge for shipping) by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This blog post was originally published on this website November 18, 2014.
Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).