Wrong question. Wrong questions get wrong answers.
-- Master Gregory, Seventh Son (2014)
As veteran, what do you think of the Collin Kaepernick controversy?
That was the question As a veteran, what do you think …
Readers often ask me about current events.
Well, because that’s what I do nowadays. That’s my job. I’m a political essayist, I write about the world, about politics, about war, about America.
But I used to be in the military. I spent most of my adult life there. I’m a retired US Navy Chief Warrant Officer. If you don’t know what that is, well, you’re in good company.
Regular readers know my background, or a bit of it anyway. As such, no one asks me “As a writer, what do you think?” As an artist. As a Michigander by way of Alaska trapped in the fetid swamps of the Florida Panhandle. Nobody asks me that. They want my opinion as a veteran.
And that condition changes things.
Let’s start with the National Anthem.
Guess what, Folks? The Star Spangled Banner doesn’t belong to veterans.
No, it doesn’t.
The national anthem is just that, the anthem of the nation.
This wasn’t some Memorial Day parade honoring the fallen. This wasn’t some Veteran’s Day ceremony upon the hallowed ground of Arlington. This was a sporting event and a preseason one at that. Look around that stadium, how many were talking on their phones? How many were texting? Or in line for hotdogs and beer? How many were watching Colin Kaepernick instead of the flag?
How many veterans were waiting for care in the lobby of some VA hospital while that anthem was playing?
How many veterans committed suicide in that same period, finally overcome by depression and despair and the weight of their service?
How many veterans were outside that stadium, sleeping in boxes on the street, digging in the trash for food, lost in the nightmares of PTSD and mental illness?
How many veterans were gunned down on the street while that anthem played?
How many veterans bills to address these issues passed the House and Senate while that song played?
And it’s a football player you’re angry about, because he didn’t stand for a song?
You want to make this about veterans? Then you’re starting in the wrong place.
This isn’t about veterans.
Veterans don’t own the song.
Veterans don’t own a song about a flag even if it is the Star Spangled Banner.
And that flag doesn’t belong to veterans either.
The song, the flag, those are symbols of a nation, the whole nation, not just one little subset of it.
At the moment, there are around 1.4 million people (not all of which are Americans) serving in the US armed forces. That’s less than half of 1% of the total US population. Now, there are a lot more former service members than there are those currently serving on active duty. Nobody is really sure exactly how many, but estimates put the number of veterans at about 22 million, based on VA data compiled from the Department of Defense, US Census Bureau, the IRS, and the Social Security Administration. Add up those numbers and you find only about 7.3% of the total US population have ever served in the military. About 13.4% of all American males have served. About 1.4% of American females are veterans. Some of those vets served only a few years. Some like me served nearly their entire adult life. Like me, some served honorably and retired, some served only a few years, and some were tossed out for various offenses or medical reasons or just for being shitty soldiers. Some like me loved the military, some hated every single goddamned terrible minute of it. Some like me volunteered, some were conscripted against their will. Like me, some served in war, and like me some served in peace. Some drove trucks, some pushed papers, some washed dishes, some pulled triggers. Some came home whole and some didn’t.
But no matter how you break it down, veterans are less than 8% of the total US population.
We don’t own the flag. We don’t own the song. Those symbols represent all Americans, vet and non-vet alike.
And this is by intent.
The people who designed this country made the military subordinate to the elected civilian leadership for a reason.
They put the military under control of a civilian president for a reason and made it answerable to the people.
And when the Framers wrote the Constitution, they purposely did not require military experience from those elected to office.
Because we are not Spartans.
We are not Romans. We are not Nazis. We are not some warrior culture bent to conquest that puts military service on a pedestal to be worshiped.
We’re supposed to be the good guys.
We’re supposed to fight only when we have to, out of dire necessity and because there are no other options and not for some goddamned glorious spectacle.
That’s who we’re supposed to be.
America isn’t just veterans. Veterans might have defended this country, but without the other 92% of the population there wouldn’t be an America to defend. America is veterans, but it’s also everybody else, bricklayers and dishwashers and road builders and firefighters and cops and engineers and scientists and doctors and teachers and students and librarians, rich and poor, young and old, hale and infirm, black, brown, white, yellow, red, straight, gay, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, short and tall, male and female, immigrant and natural-born, and whatever other variation you care to name.
That flag, that anthem, represents all of those people and all of their history.
And while a lot of that history is pretty spectacular, a lot of it isn’t. A lot of it is spattered in blood and begrimed with violence.
And while America itself is a pretty great place to be – despite what some politicians want you to believe – we’re far from perfect and there’s still a great deal of work to be done. Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it in endless cycle. The Founders knew this and they didn’t just crap out a finished product and sit back on their asses expecting it to work for everybody for all time. The idea was a more perfect nation, not a perfect one. They did the best they could with what they had. They knew it wasn’t finished so they installed mechanisms into the fabric of our country that would allow for update and refinement – see Amendments to the Constitution et al.
We’re still working on that.
America clunks along pretty well for a lot of us. But not for everybody. Not yet. And because of that history and because we are human and because we each have the freedom to see the world as we will, the process of making America work for all of us is messy and fraught with endless setbacks. And it will never be done, it’s an ongoing job so long as time passes and the nation endures.
And that means the flag, the anthem, represent different things to different Americans – and some of you are just going to have to get used to that idea.
Next, let’s talk about the oath.
The oath all military members swear.
Enlisted personnel swear the following oath:
"I, (state your full name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."
Officers take a similar oath with some crucial differences:
“I, (state your full name), having been appointed an officer in the (service branch) of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of (rank) do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God."
Enlisted personnel can be drafted against their will, which means they might take the oath with more than a bit of mental reservation. A lot of conscripted guys going off to Vietnam had serious reservations regarding their enlistment. Don’t take my word for it, ask them.
Officers on the other hand can’t be drafted.
An officer must take the oath freely and without reservation – under penalty of law. If it turns out you, as an officer, are unable to well and faithfully execute the duties of your office because you have mental reservations which you kept concealed at the time of your oath, then depending on the circumstances you’re likely to face resigning your commission or sitting in front of a court martial on your way to prison.
I took both of these oaths. First as an enlisted man and later as a commissioned officer. As the latter I administered the oath to others many, many times. The one thing both of those oaths have in common is this part: I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.
We swear our oath, our lives, to the Constitution.
Not the flag.
Not the anthem.
Not to the president.
Not to congress.
Not to the citizens.
Not to a political party or ideology.
Not to a race.
Not to a religion.
We swear our oath to the Constitution.
But what does that mean? That we swear to give our lives for some raggedy old piece of paper? Is it the sacred paper itself that commands our allegiance? Some old piece of parchment, yellowed, handwritten in an archaic language, falling apart, stored away in a nitrogen-filled box somewhere in the National Archives. Is that it?
Ah, I see. It’s not the paper -- whether it be that hoary old original document or one of those mass produced little booklets supposed patriots and politicians like to toss around. The paper doesn’t matter, it’s the ideas written on it.
We swear our oath to an idea.
This idea: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
We swear we will bear true faith and allegiance, and give our lives if necessary, for that idea.
That idea was the foundation of the United States of America.
That idea was the very first words spoken by the new nation.
A war for that idea, tens of thousands dead for that idea, a decade of argument and bitter debate and endless compromise later and that idea became the Constitution of the United States.
That’s what we swear our oath to.
That’s why the Founders and the Framers made us subordinate to the civilian leadership – so that we would never forget that our place, our duty, is to defend the life, liberty, and happiness of all Americans. The ones we agree with and identify with and call brother and the ones we don’t. This is why Americans should be appalled and alarmed by the recent tendency of presidents to wrap themselves in military custom. The president is the civilian Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, not the General in Chief. The president shouldn’t be wearing military garb or rendering a salute. His civilian status should forcefully remind every American of their military’s subordinate role in our society every single day, especially it should remind the president and generals.
We are not Rome, and if we wish to remain so then this reminder is vital.
Okay, stop right there, Jim, I hear you say in that tone you use when you’re pretty sure you’ve got me. Back up. What about “enemies, foreign and domestic?” What about that?
What about it? We just covered that.
We, we military, we don’t get to decide who is and who is not an enemy, or who is and who is not an American – check the Constitution if you don’t believe me.
The military’s job is to defend the country, not rule it.
That’s not our job. And for a damned good reason.
It’s your job.
We are a representative democracy, a constitutional republic, not a mob, not a military dictatorship. It is our elected civilian government’s job as constrained by the law and limited by the Constitution to decide who is and who is not an enemy.
If you don’t like how they’re doing it, then elect better leaders. You’re the check, you’re the safety stop.
Only about 50% of you vote. What kind of safety system only shows up 50% of the time?
If you want a better nation, you have to be better citizens.
You are who that flag, that anthem, represents.
And that takes us to your question:
AS A VETERAN, what do you think about Colin Kaepernick's decision to sit during the National Anthem?
That was your question. That’s how you phrased it. As a veteran.
If you’d asked me as a citizen, as a civilian, as a writer, as an artist, as a father, as a patriot, as a transplanted Michigander by way of Alaska living in the hellish fetid dinosaur infested swamps of the Florida Panhandle, I might have a different answer – then again I might not.
But that’s not what you asked.
You asked me to speak as a veteran, and as a veteran there is only one answer.
The very first thing I learned in the military is this: Respect is a two-way street.
If you want respect, true respect, sincere respect, then you have to give it.
If you want respect, you have to do the things necessary to earn it each and every single day. There are no short cuts and no exceptions. This is true of men and true of nations.
Respect cannot be compelled.
Respect cannot be bought.
Respect cannot be inherited.
Respect cannot be demanded at the muzzle of a gun or by beating it into somebody or by shaming them into it. Can not. You might get what you think is respect, but it's not. It's only the appearance of respect. It's fear, it's groveling, it's not respect. Far, far too many people both in and out of the military, people who should emphatically know better, do not understand this simple fact.
There is an enormous difference between fear and respect. One is slavery, the other is liberty.
Respect has to be earned.
Respect. Has. To. Be. Earned.
Respect has to be earned every day, by every word, by every action.
Respect has to be given freely.
It takes a lifetime of words and deeds to earn respect.
It takes only one careless word, one thoughtless action, to lose it.
You have to be worthy of respect. You have to live up to, or at least do your best to live up to, those high ideals – the ones America supposedly embodies, that shining city on the hill, that exceptional nation we talk about, yes, that self-evident truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
To earn respect you have to be fair. You have to have courage. You must embrace reason. You have to know when to hold the line and when to compromise. You have to take responsibility and be accountable for it.
You have to keep your word.
You have to give respect, true respect, to get it back.
There are no short cuts. None.
And any veteran worth the label should know this. All of it. If they don't, then likely they weren't much of a soldier to begin with and you can tell them I said so.
If Colin Kaepernick doesn't feel his country respects him enough for him to respect it in return, you can not make him respect it.
You can not make him respect it.
It is impossible.
If you try to force a man to respect you, you'll only make him respect you less.
With threats, by violence, by shame, you can maybe compel Kaepernick to stand up and put his hand over his heart and force him to be quiet. You might.
But that's not respect.
It's only the illusion of respect.
And, yes, you might force this man into the illusion of respect. We’ve done such things in the past, beaten the illusion of respect into people of color. So you might. Would you be satisfied then? Would that make you happy? Would that make you respect your nation, the one which forced a man to his knees, into the illusion of respect, a nation of little clockwork patriots all touching their forelock to the tyranny of ideology and pretending satisfaction and respect?
Is that what you want?
If that’s what matters to you, that illusion of respect, then you're not talking about freedom or liberty. You're not talking about the United States of America. Instead you're talking about every dictatorship from the Nazis to North Korea where people are lined up and made to salute with the muzzle of a gun pressed to the back of their necks.
That, that illusion of respect, is not why I wore a uniform.
That's not why I held up my right hand and swore the oath and put my life on the line for my country.
That’s not why I administered the oath to others.
That, that illusion of respect, is not why I am a veteran.
Not so a man should be forced to show respect he doesn't feel.
That's called slavery and I have no respect for that at all.
If Americans want this man to respect America, then first they must respect him.
I didn’t say you had to agree with him.
I didn’t say you had to agree with his methods.
Just as I don’t have to agree with those who exercise their Constitutional right to stand on the corner in this little Southern town waving their bibles and loudly damning me to their hell.
Just as I don’t have to agree with those who exercise their Constitutional right to daily scream NRA talking points at me and carry their semi-automatic dick-extenders into the grocery store.
Just as I don’t have to agree with the pundits and the press who exercise their Constitutional right to create paranoia and hate and falsehoods whole cloth.
Just as I don’t have to agree with either the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement, or the drooling idiot Sovereign Citizens who march on the White House periodically to demand the president be tried in a kangaroo court and hung from the nearest lamp-post, I don’t have to agree with any of them when they exercise their Constitutional rights to assemble.
As a citizen, I might disagree with one hell of a lot of the ways other Americans exercise their rights, I might have no respect for their actions or their words and I might even write about it here in less than respectful language.
But as a veteran, I do have to respect them – whether they are worthy of it in my opinion or not. Because I swore my oath to the ideal that they have every right to believe as they will. That, that right there, was the whole damned point of my service in the first place.
Here’s what that respect got me this week: 50,000 plus messages of respect in return.
See how that works?
The same is true of men and true of nations.
If America wants the world's respect, it must be worthy of respect.
America must be worthy of respect. Torture, rendition, indefinite detention, unarmed black men shot down in the street, poverty, inequality, voter suppression, racism, bigotry in every form, obstructionism, blind patriotism, none of those things are worthy of respect from anybody -- least of all an American.
That does not mean there aren’t many things to admire about America.
But those great things don’t give you a pass on the bad stuff.
Our Founders expected us to fix those things, to keep making America better. Not great again, better. If you can’t see that, then perhaps those men had a higher opinion of us than we deserve.
Now, doesn’t all this also mean if Kaepernick himself wants respect, he must give it first? Give it to America? Be worthy of respect himself? Stand up, shut up, and put his hand over his heart before Old Glory?
No. It doesn't.
Respect doesn't work that way.
Power flows from positive to negative. Electricity flows from greater potential to lesser.
The United States isn't a person. It's a vast imperfect construct. It is a framework of law and order and civilization designed to protect the weak from the ruthless and after more than two centuries of revision and refinement it exists to provide in equal measure for all of us the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s the exceptionalism we talk about, that right there.
If you want to be exceptional, then you have to be exceptional.
If being exceptional was easy, everybody would be exceptional.
Living up to the promise of the Declaration is hard. Living up to the ideals of the Constitution is hard. If it was easy, we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.
All the power rests with America. Just as it does in the military chain of command. And like that chain of command, like the electrical circuit described above, respect must flow from greater to lesser first before it can return.
It doesn’t matter if Colin Kaepernick is a well paid pampered athlete.
It doesn’t matter if Colin Kaepernick is the worst quarterback who ever fumbled a play, or the finest baller to ever set foot on the gridiron.
It doesn’t matter if Colin Kaepernick is an arrogant jerk of a human being or the nicest guy you ever met.
It doesn’t matter if you think Colin Kaepernick doesn’t do enough for his cause or if he spends his money in a fashion you don’t approve of.
It doesn’t matter if you respect him.
What matters is that he is an American and he has every right to speak his piece, to use his voice and his position to make what difference he can if he so desires – and yes, to suffer the consequences of his actions if necessary. That’s his choice.
That’s his right. You don’t have to respect it, but as a veteran I must. Not to do so would make a mockery of the very things I swore my life to defend.
And that’s what you asked me, as a veteran. Remember?
To you the National Anthem means one thing, to Kaepernick it means something else. We are all shaped and defined by our experiences and we see the world through our own eyes. That's freedom. That's liberty. The right to believe differently. The right to protest as you will. The right to demand better. The right to believe your country can be better – just as the Founders themselves did – that it can live up to its sacred ideals, and the right to loudly note that it has not so far. The right to use your voice, your actions, to bring attention to the things you believe in. The right to want more for others, for the people who are important to you, freedom, liberty, justice, equality, and respect.
A true veteran might not agree with Colin Kaepernick and in fact might adamantly disagree, but a true veteran would fight to the death to protect any American’s right to say what he believes.
In the week since I wrote the original post on Facebook I’ve received literally tens of thousands of responses. The overwhelming majority are positive, notes of encouragement and understanding, enthusiastic and even reluctant agreement. It makes me proud to note many of those responses came from veterans, from cops, and from Americans who put their asses on line for their fellows every day without expectation of reward or thanks. They may not agree with Kaepernick, but they stand with him nonetheless as true Americans do. A number came from non-Americans, those on foreign shores who look to America with equal parts fear and fascination and wonder at that shining city on the hill and it makes me proud that they can still admire this nation for what it is supposed to represent.
But in that same week I’ve daily posted a roster of those who don’t get it. Those who wrote me, many who claim to be veterans, who called me traitor and called Kaepernick nigger and who have daily sent me death threats and seething hate simply because I spoke of honor and duty and respect. It is these people, these haters, these dimwitted goons, who prove with their own words the validity and necessity of Kaepernick’s protest and why I stand with him.
You asked me what I think as a veteran?
You have my answer and if you don't like what Kaepernick has to say, then prove him wrong.
Be the nation he can respect.
It's really just that simple.