Wrapping Oneself in the Flag

W.J. Astore

As soon as American athletes win an Olympic medal, it’s seemingly obligatory for someone to give them a flag so they can wrap themselves in it.  Here’s Nick Goepper, who won a silver medal in skiing:

Freestyle Skiing - Winter Olympics Day 9

I’ve seen athletes from a few other countries do this, but not with the uniformity and urgency of U.S. athletes.  Maybe American athletes just love their country more?

I vaguely recall “wrapping oneself in the flag” moments from previous Olympics that seemed spontaneous.  What gets me today is how routine these moments have become.  The American snowboarder Shaun White, for example, wrapped himself in the flag for his photo op, after which he dragged it on the snowy ground as he walked away, a transgression for which he apologized afterwards.

I understand athletes are proud to represent their countries, and understandably pumped after winning a medal.  But do all U.S. medal-winners now have to pose with a flag draped about them?

The official medal ceremony features the flags of the medal winners, with the national anthem being played for the winner of the gold.  I always thought that ceremony was more than sufficient as a patriotic display, and more consistent with the idea of the Olympics as an international event of diverse athletes.

What would happen if athletes, after winning their respective medals, wrapped themselves not in the flag of their respective countries, but in the Olympic flag showing the five interlocked rings?  Would heads explode?

800px-Olympic-flag-Victoria

David Petraeus: A Gold Medal Winner in Spin

Petraeus mufti

W.J. Astore

I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics on TV, and the color commentators for NBC are typically athletes who’ve earned gold medals in the past, like Tara Lipinski in figure skating or Bode Miller in skiing.  Why is it, then, when NBC and other networks seek expert “color” commentary on America’s wars, they turn to retired generals like David Petraeus, who’ve won nothing?

I’m not dissing Petraeus here.  He himself admitted his “gains” in Iraq as well as Afghanistan were both “fragile and reversible.”  And so they proved.  The U.S. fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost thousands of troops and trillions of dollars for gains that truly were ephemeral.  Despite this disastrous and tragic reality, Petraeus remains the sage on the stage, the go-to guy for analysis of our never-ending wars on PBS, Fox News, and elsewhere.

But then I got to thinking.  Sure, Petraeus hasn’t won any wars.  But he’s earned a gold medal in public relations.  In spin.  In 2007 he spun the Surge as a major U.S. victory in Iraq.  (Temporary stability, bought at such a high price, did indeed prove fragile and reversible.)  A later surge in Afghanistan didn’t prove as spinnable, but in a strange way his adulterous affair, a personal failure, came to obscure his military one.  Now he regularly appears as a pundit, the voice of reason and experience, spinning the Afghan war, for example, as winnable as long as Americans continue to give the Pentagon a blank check to wage generational war.

In facilitating the growth of the national security state and ensuring it never takes the blame for its military defeats, Petraeus has indeed excelled in the eyes of those who matter in Washington.  He’s no Tara Lipinski on ice or Bode Miller on snow, but when it comes to spinning wars and gliding over the facts, he takes the gold.