(For an extended essay on sports and the military, please see my latest at TomDispatch.com: “Why Can’t We Just Play Ball? The Militarization of Sports and the Redefinition of Patriotism,” August 19, 2018, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176459.)
There’s a lot of blurring and blending of sports with the military in the USA today, but my service branch, the U.S. Air Force, has taken it to a new level. The Falcons football team at the USAF Academy has issued a new “alternate” uniform in honor of air power and specifically the AC-130 gunship. What this means is that cadets can now wear helmets that feature spooky, grim-reaper-like images together with images of the AC-130 firing on some indistinct enemy below. Check it out above and below:
The fog and the shark-like tailfin in the background are nice touches. Somebody probably got a promotion and/or a commendation medal for putting this campaign together.
Of course, the Air Force celebrates flight, using falcons as the team mascot, which makes sense. But uniforms dedicated to and celebrating a specific weapon system — really? The AC-130 gunship rains death from the sky; it’s a nasty weapon system and certainly one that I’d want on my side in a shooting war. But putting it on football helmets with images of screaming skeletons is a bit much.
How did military academies like West Point and Annapolis play football for so long with just regular uniforms? Without images of tanks or battleships adorning their uniforms?
I know: I’m an old fuddy-duddy. This is the new military — the military of warriors and warfighters. These new uniforms: so cool! So sexy! Dealing death is so much fun!
Why is it that these new “alternate” football uniforms of the AF Academy remind me, not of our citizen-airmen force of the past, but of some sinister, darker, force of the future? Why does the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” come to mind? (Hint: We’re no longer the “good” Federation.)
(You can go to https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsFly and watch an Air Force video that links AC-130 combat footage with the new uniform, complete with lusty music and stoked players.)
Disturbing, upsetting, baffling: these words often apply when young troops face religious pressure or discrimination for the first time.
And it disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a nation founded on religious freedom produces people that want to abridge or eliminate that freedom in the (false) name of following Christ.
It also disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a military that is supposed to defend our Constitutional freedoms, to include freedom of religion, occasionally works in ways that undermine that very freedom.
I was born and raised within the Catholic church, but I would never push my religious beliefs on someone else. Certainly not in a military context, in which supervisory authority is nearly absolute.
I believe there is a place for God (or gods, or no god) in the military, and a place for chaplains. Troops should be able to worship freely in the military, as is their right as American citizens. But there’s no place for proselytizing, pressure, “mandatory” Bible studies, and all the rest of that.
I remember how much Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy changed between my first tour there (1990-92) and my second (1998-2002). Lots of evangelical organizations (like Focus on the Family) built headquarters just to the east of the AF Academy. I started to see that evangelical influence permeate the Academy. I suppose I was lucky I left in 2002, just before the scandals involving religious discrimination broke.
The military attracts many young people looking for certitude as well as a mission, a calling. Some of these young people come to espouse a narrow form of “Christianity,” one that sees itself as uniquely American and uniquely suited to a military context.
Yet how can troops take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which enshrines freedom of religion, and then work to curtail or offend the religious freedoms of others?
Here’s what people need to remember about military settings: the authority of your direct supervisor is nearly absolute. If your drill sergeant, your platoon commander, your company commander, makes it obvious that he or she favors Christianity, it puts enormous pressure on subordinates to conform, or at least to fake it.
If your boss in a civilian setting is an assertive Christian evangelist, at least you have the option of quitting (however painful that might prove). There is no option in the military of “quitting” your platoon, your company, your unit. Furthermore, in a war zone, refusing to conform to an evangelical zealot as a leader could literally become a matter of life and death. Hey, Private Jones, you’re an atheist: go ahead and walk point again, i.e. take the lead as the unit walks through dangerous enemy territory infested with IEDs and snipers. Maybe that’ll give you some faith in God. Ha ha.
Again, the U.S. military must remember its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution. In fulfilling that purpose, there is simply no place for evangelism of any religion, Christian or otherwise.
Note: Since 2005, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has fought to ensure religious freedom within military settings. The foundation represents nearly 45,000 service members, 96% of whom identify as Christian. Find out more about the MRFF at http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org.
Back in 2010, I wrote the following article on American sports for Huffington Post. With the end of “March Madness” and the beginning of baseball season, the time seems right to revive it. I love watching my hometown teams and experiencing the vicarious thrill of victory (as well as the agony of defeat), and I’ll never give up sports and the fun of being a fan. But professional sports in America sure make me want to stop watching at times, as you’ll read below:
Been to a major American sporting event lately? If not, consider yourself fortunate. The NFL and NASCAR are already over-the-top when it comes to manufactured noise, exaggerated pyrotechnics, and wall-to-wall corporate advertisements. Even my beloved sport of baseball has fallen victim to sensory saturation and techniques of crowd control that would make a dictator proud. The grace and spontaneity of America’s pastime is increasingly lost in Jumbotrons, overly loud and canned music, and choreographed cheering.
With all the Jumbotrons and other video screens everywhere, people are no longer focused on the game as it takes place on the field, and perhaps turning to their neighbor for an explanation if they miss a play or nuance. Instead, people look to the screens to follow the game. Indeed, sight lines at some seats at Yankee Stadium are so poor that the only way you can watch the action on the field is on video screens posted at strategic locations.
Speaking of Yankee Stadium, last month a friend of mine went to a game there and found the experience “shocking.” In his words:
“The new stadium is flooded with noise from constant speakers as well as screens everywhere. It was so loud that there was really not much independent reaction from the crowd. I got a feeling like I was in a scene from Triumph of the Will. The noise would come out of the speakers and people would chant. When it stopped so did the people. The entire experience left me dying to get out of there!”
Mediocre seats are $110 each, and an $11 beer only compounds the pain. Attending a Yankees game “used to be something of a social leveler, where people of all classes would come and meet to support the team… Although the place was packed for a Red Sox game, it was a largely white crowd, looking nothing like the mix of people who actually inhabit New York,” my friend concluded.
I share my friend’s concerns. I hate being coerced by screens and speakers telling me when to cheer and what to say. Even at my local Single-A baseball games, the post-game fireworks are set to music, usually of a patriotic tenor. I’ve got nothing against music, but why can’t I just enjoy the fireworks? I don’t need “Proud to be an American” blaring to make me proud to be an American.
But it seems like many fans are happy being told when to cheer, what to say, even what to feel. Or they’ve simply become accustomed to being controlled, which has the added benefit to owners of suppressing any inconvenient spontaneity.
More and more, our senses are saturated so we cannot pause to converse or even to think. If the game grows tiresome, people turn to cell phones, palm pilots, and other personal technologies for stimulation. And the phenomenon is hardly limited to sporting events. Today’s version of “Sesame Street” is an exercise in frenetic action and hyperkinetic stimulation; one wonders whether it’s designed for ADHD kids, or to create ADHD kids.
More and more, we’re surrounded by and immersed in near-total sensory saturation; the stifling effect such an environment has on individual spontaneity and thought can’t be disregarded (nor can it be accidental).
And it appears in the most unlikely of places. I used to watch air shows at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Few things are more viscerally thrilling (or chilling) than a formation of F-16s screaming overhead. But that effect apparently wasn’t enough. The powers-that-be “augmented” the air show with loud rock music (call it the “Top Gun” effect) along with an especially annoying (and superfluous) narrator. There was even a proposal to add huge video screens and even bigger speakers to the performance until it got shot down due to charges of contractual cronyism.
In a way, it’s sad to compare today’s thunderingly loud yet sterile air shows to their Depression-era counterparts. The latter, as another friend reminded me, had in his words:
“No concrete runways, no visitor stands, just grass in a field on the edge of town. I loved planes so much that as an eleven year old I would take the two streetcars … then walk a mile to the airport. There was always one or two old biplanes and the small crowd would wait expectantly for the pilots and the daredevils to appear. What excitement just to see those little planes taxing across the grass and getting into position to take off. Gunning their little engines and racing along into the wind. Loops, upside down and then the big thrill, the ‘wing walkers.’ Try that on a jet.”
Bigger, faster, louder doesn’t always mean “better.” Whether it’s an air show or ball game today, we seem saturated by noise, video images, and other sensory distractions, often advertised as “necessary” to broaden the appeal to non-fans or casual spectators who simply want to feel that they’ve witnessed a spectacle, whatever its meaning.
It’s hard to develop an inner life when you’re constantly plugged-in and distracted. It’s also hard to take independent political stances when you’re constantly bombarded by infotainment, not just in the mainstream media but in the sports world as well. I don’t care about off-field shenanigans or contract disputes or manufactured grudges between teams, nor do I want to watch pre-game and post-game shows that last longer than the games: I just want to watch the game and marvel at the accomplishments of world-class athletes while cheering for my home team.
Sports have always been a form of entertainment, of course, but today’s events are being packaged as life-consuming pursuits, e.g. fantasy football leagues. And if we’re spending most of our free time picking and tracking “our” players and teams, it leaves us a lot less time to criticize our leaders and political elites for their exploitation of the public treasury – and betrayal of the public trust. I wonder, at times, if we’re heading in the direction of “Rollerball” (the original movie version with James Caan), in which a few corporations dominate the world and keep the little people (you and me) distracted with ultra-violent sports and hedonistic consumption, so much so that people can’t recognize their own powerlessness and the empty misery of their lives.
Until our sporting events and air shows return to a time when players and fans and enthusiasts collectively showed up simply for the love of the game and the purity of it all (and I can hear my brother mischievously singing, “Until the twelfth of never”), count me out. I can be more spontaneous in my living room with friends — and the beer sure is cheaper.
Update (4/1/2015): Chicago’s Wrigley Field is a vintage ballpark with a lot of character. So how do you ruin some of that? By installing a massive Jumbotron.
They still haven’t finished the bleachers, but they have the humongous TV glaring and dominating the skyline in left field. Error, Cubs.
The passionate discussion generated by our last article, America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed, was heartening. Our military academies will not be improved if we merely accept the status quo, with allowance for minor, mainly cosmetic, reforms. But truly radical reforms are difficult to achieve since the academies are so deeply rooted in tradition. A reluctance to change can be a good thing, especially when an institution is performing well. Yet since the Korean Conflict, and certainly since the Vietnam War, America’s military performance has been mediocre. Placing blame here is obviously contentious, with military professionals tending to point to poor decisions by civilian leaders, among other causes.
Rather than placing blame, let’s entertain some probing questions about the future structure and mission of military academies, with the intent of making them better schools for developing military leaders, as well as better institutions for defending America and advancing its values.
Here in no particular order are a few questions and proposals:
1. Is America best served by military academies that emulate undergraduate colleges in providing a course of study lasting four years? Or should the academies recruit from students who have already finished most (or all) of an undergraduate degree? The academies could then develop a concentrated course of study, specifically tailored to military studies, lasting roughly two years. In effect, the academies would become graduate schools, with all cadets graduating with master’s degrees in military studies with varying concentrations (engineering, science, English, history, and so on). Such a change would also eliminate the need to kowtow to undergraduate accreditation boards such as ABET.
2. West Point and the AF Academy rely primarily on serving military officers as instructors, whereas Annapolis relies primarily on civilian instructors. Is this a distinction without difference? Would West Point and the AF Academy profit from more civilian instructors, and Annapolis from more military ones? Should all the service academies work harder to bring in top instructors from the Ivy League and similar universities as full-time visiting professors?
3. How much of today’s experience at military academies is busy work? Or work driven mainly by tradition, i.e. “We do this because we’ve always done this.” Do we still need lots of inspections, marching, parades, and the like? Do freshman (call them plebes, doolies, smacks, what have you) truly profit from being sleep-deprived and harassed and otherwise forced into compliance as a rite of passage in their first year? Does this truly develop character? Or are cadet schedules so jam-packed that they have little time to think?
4. Why do cadets continue to have limited exposure to the enlisted ranks? NCOs are the backbone of a professional military, a fact that is not stressed enough in officer training. How do we increase opportunities for cadets to work with NCOs in the field?
5. A strong emphasis on physical fitness and sports is smart. But is it necessary to place so much emphasis on big-time sports such as Division I-A football? What is gained by focusing academy recruiting on acquiring athletes that will help to win football games? What is gained by offering such athletes preferential treatment within the corps of cadets? (Some will claim that athletes receive no preferential treatment; if you believe this, I suggest you listen very carefully to cadets who are outside of the charmed circle of celebrated athletes.)
6. When I was a serving officer at the AF Academy, cadets used to ask me whether I believed they were “the best and the brightest.” Certain senior leaders had told them that, by virtue of being selected to attend a military academy, they were better than their civilian peers at universities such as Harvard or MIT. Is it wise to sell cadets on the idea that they are America’s best and brightest?
How I answered the question: I told my cadets that comparing military academies to universities such as Harvard or MIT was an apples/oranges situation. First and foremost, military academies were and are about developing military leaders of strong character. If you compared cadets to their peers at Harvard or MIT, of course you’d find smarter students at these and similar top-flight universities. But that wasn’t the point. Military academies had a different intent, a different purpose, a different mission. This answer seemed to satisfy my cadets; what I sensed was that they were tired of being told they were America’s best, when they could see for themselves that this often wasn’t true.
We do our cadets no service when we applaud them merely for showing up and working hard, just as our civilian leaders do the military no service when they applaud us as the best-led, best-equipped, best-trained, and so on, military force in all of human history. Any student of military history should laugh at such hyperbolic praise.
7. And now for a big question: Are the academies contributing to America’s current state of perpetual war? Have we abandoned Washington’s ideal of Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier, the soldier who fights reluctantly and who seeks not military honors but only a return to normalcy and an end to war?
Some will argue that the world today demands perpetual vigilance and a willingness to use overwhelming “shock and awe” force to intimidate and defeat America’s enemies. And that only a professional corps of devoted regulars can lead such a force. Perhaps so.
But is it time to consider new paradigms?
What are the most serious threats that America faces today? For example, American infrastructure is crumbling even as we spend hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan with indifferent results. Should West Point return to its roots, unleashing its officer-engineers to lead a new Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild America? (Recall that George C. Marshall ran the CCC.) Should America’s military be refocused not on winning the “global war on terror” (unwinnable by definition, for terror will always be with us), but on preserving the global environment?
As humans wage war against our planet and biosphere, should not a force dedicated to the defense of America focus on preserving our livelihood as represented by our planet’s resources? With its global presence, the American military is uniquely situated to take the lead here. Indeed, the U.S. Navy already advertises itself as “A global force for good.” Can we make that a reality?
Too pie in the sky? The U.S. military has enormous resources and a global role in leadership. What would it mean to America if our military took the lead in preserving the earth while rebuilding the core strength of America? Aren’t these “wars” (against global environmental degradation; for America’s internal infrastructure) worth fighting? Are they not more winnable than a perpetual war on terror?
There you have it. Let’s hear your ideas in the comments. And thanks.
U.S. military academies are neither Spartan in being dedicated to war, nor are they Athenian in recognizing humanism (even the humanism of war). They are Archimedean. They focus on engineering and the machinery of war. But two millennia ago even Archimedes with his clever war machinery could not save Syracuse from defeat at the hands of Rome.
There is a lesson here for America’s military academies – if only they spent more time studying history and the humanities and less time solving equations. But they do not. I taught history at the Air Force Academy (AFA) for six years. My experience? The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects (science/tech/engineering/math) to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities. Today, America’s military cadets still concentrate on STEM, and they still receive Bachelor of Science degrees, even when they choose to major in subjects like history.
A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan. Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation. Small wonder that the U.S. military in 2007 had to hire civilian anthropologists to teach the troops that winning is not only about hammering the enemy with superior firepower.
Emerging from an engineering mindset, young officers are too number-oriented, too rule-bound, too risk-averse. U.S. military officers, old as well as young, tend to think geopolitical problems – even in destabilized cauldrons like Iraq and Afghanistan – are solvable if you identify and manipulate the right variables. They think history and politics, human and cultural factors, can be controlled or compensated for.
Ever since their service academy days, they have internalized a puzzle-solving mindset, one that is suitable to technocratic hierarchies in which “progress” is measured by metrics. Their thinking about war is infected by quantification and business-speak in which assets are leveraged and force is optimized. Reinforcing this impoverished view of war is an officer evaluation system that stresses numbers, numbers, and more numbers, since if it cannot be quantified, it did not happen or does not exist.
When I was an officer and professor teaching history, many military cadets would ask, “What can I do with a History degree?” They were thinking not in terms of which course of study would make them savvier, more effective, officers and leaders. They were thinking in terms of which academic major would help them become a pilot (even better: a test pilot or astronaut), or they were thinking which major would make them more marketable once they left the military.
As a result, the vast majority of cadets at the Air Force Academy took two, and only two, history courses: a one-semester survey on world history and another survey course on military history. (Cadets at West Point take more history courses, but technical subjects are over-stressed there as well.) They had virtually no exposure to U.S. history (unless you count AF heritage or Academy trivia as “history”), but plenty of exposure to thermodynamics, calculus, physics, civil engineering, astronautics, and related technical subjects. Naturally, an engineering mentality pervaded the air. Notably absent were critical and sustained studies of recent U.S. military performance.
Combine a reductive, problem-solving approach shared among U.S. military officers with the dominance of lawyers in U.S. governmental systems and you have a recipe for number-crunching rationality and rule-bound conformity. Solutions, when proffered by such a system, involve cleverness with weapons and Jesuitical reasoning with laws. A perfect example: America’s high-tech drones and the tortured legal reasoning to sanction their assassination missions.
Educated as engineers and technicians, young officers are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and charged with negotiating the “human terrain” of cultures utterly foreign to them. Lacking knowledge of their own history as well as the history of the cultures they walk among, it is hardly surprising that they make little progress, despite hard work and honorable intentions.
Today’s U.S. military likes to fancy itself a collection of warriors, but America is not Sparta. Today’s military likes to fancy itself the bringers of democracy, but America is not Athens. Today’s military is Archimedean, infatuated by technology, believing in smart machines and victory achieved through violent action — much like America itself.
But mastery of machines by the military or, for that matter, tortured legalistic gymnastics by civilian commanders, is not in itself sufficient for victory. Just ask Archimedes at Syracuse, or a US Marine at Fallujah, or even the constitutional lawyer-in-chief at the White House.