Rooting for the Home Team and the Troops

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This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Breach of Trust. Andrew Bacevich appears on Moyers & Company this weekend to talk about the American military and possible intervention in Syria.

Members of the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays line the field as a giant American flag is unveiled over the Green Monster wall before the game at Fenway Park in Boston, on opening day, Monday, April 1, 2002. (AP Photo/Victoria Arocho)

Members of the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays line the field as a giant American flag is unveiled over the Green Monster wall before the game at Fenway Park in Boston, on opening day, Monday, April 1, 2002. (AP Photo/Victoria Arocho)

Fenway Park, Boston, July 4, 2011. On this warm, summer day the Red Sox will play the Toronto Blue Jays. First, however, come pregame festivities especially tailored for the occasion. The ensuing spectacle — a carefully scripted encounter between the armed forces and society — expresses the distilled essence of present-day American patriotism. A masterpiece of contrived spontaneity, the event leaves spectators feeling good about their baseball team, about their military, and not least of all about themselves — precisely as it was meant to do.

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In this theatrical production, the Red Sox provide the stage, and the Pentagon the props. In military parlance, it is a joint operation. In front of a gigantic American flag draped over the left-field wall, an air force contingent, clad in blue, stands at attention. To carry a smaller version of the Stars and Stripes onto the playing field, the Navy provides a color guard in crisp summer whites. The U.S. Marine Corps kicks in with a choral ensemble that leads the singing of the national anthem. As its final notes sound, four U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagles scream overhead. The sellout crowd roars its approval.

But there is more to come. “On this Independence Day,” the voice of the Red Sox booms over the public address system, “we pay a debt of gratitude to the families whose sons and daughters are serving our country.” On this occasion, the designated recipients of that gratitude are members of the Lydon family, hailing from Squantum, Massachusetts. Young Bridget Lydon is a sailor — Aviation Ordnanceman Airman is her official title — serving aboard the carrier USS Ronald Reagan, currently deployed in support of the Afghanistan War.

The Lydons are Every Family, decked out for the Fourth. Garbed in random bits of Red Sox paraphernalia and Mardi Gras necklaces, they wear their shirts untucked and ball caps backward. Neither sleek nor fancy, they are without pretension. Yet they exude good cheer. As they are ushered onto the field, their eagerness is palpable. Like TV game show contestants, they know that their lucky day has finally arrived, and they are keen to make the most of it.

As the Lydons gather near the pitcher’s mound, the voice directs their attention to the 38-by-100-foot Jumbotron mounted above the center-field bleachers. On the screen, Bridget appears. She is aboard ship, in duty uniform, posed belowdecks in front of an F/A-18 fighter jet. Waiflike, but pert and confident, she looks directly into the camera, sending a “shout-out” to family and friends. She wishes she could join them at Fenway.

As if by magic, wish becomes fulfillment. While the video clip is still running, Bridget herself, now in dress whites, emerges from behind the flag covering the left-field wall. On the Jumbotron, in place of Bridget belowdecks, an image of Bridget marching smartly toward the infield appears. In the stands pandemonium erupts. After a moment of confusion, members of her family — surrounded by camera crews — rush to embrace their sailor, a reunion shared vicariously by the thirty-eight thousand fans in attendance along with many thousands more watching on the Red Sox television network.

Once the Lydons finish with hugs and kisses and the crowd settles down, Navy veteran Bridget (annual salary approximately $22,000) throws the ceremonial first pitch to aging Red Sox veteran Tim Wakefield (annual salary — modest for a big leaguer — $2 million). More cheers. As a souvenir, Wakefield gives her the baseball along with a hug of his own. All smiles, Bridget and her family shout “Play Ball!” into a microphone. As they are escorted off the field and out of sight, the game begins.

What does this event signify?

For the Lydons, the day will no doubt long remain a happy memory. If they were to some degree manipulated — their utter and genuine astonishment at Bridget’s seemingly miraculous appearance lending the occasion its emotional punch — they played their allotted roles without complaint and with considerable élan. However briefly, they stood in the spotlight, quasi celebrities, the center of attention. Here was a twenty-first-century version of the American dream fulfilled. And if offstage puppet masters used Bridget herself, at least she got a visit home and a few days off — no doubt a welcome break.

Yet this feel-good story had a political as well as a personal dimension. As a collaboration between two well-heeled but image-conscious institutions, the Lydon reunion represented a small but not inconsequential public relations triumph. The Red Sox and the Pentagon had collaborated to perform an act of kindness for a sailor and her loved ones. Both organizations came away looking good — not only because the event itself was so deftly executed, but because it showed that a large for-profit professional sports team and an even larger military bureaucracy both care about ordinary people. The message conveyed to fans/taxpayers could not be clearer: the corporate executives who run the Red Sox have a heart. So, too, do the admirals who run the Navy.

Better still, these benefits accrued at essentially no cost to the sponsors. The military personnel arrayed around Fenway showed up because they were told to do so. They are already “paid for,” as are the F-15s, the pilots who fly them, and the ground crews that service them. As for whatever outlays the Red Sox may have made, they were trivial and easily absorbed. For the 2011 season, the average price of a ticket at Fenway Park had climbed to fifty-two dollars. A soft drink in a commemorative plastic cup ran you five and a half bucks and a beer eight dollars. Then there was the television ad revenue, all contributing the previous year to corporate profits exceeding $58 million. A decade of war culminating in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression hadn’t done much good for the country, but it had been strangely good for the Red Sox — and an equally well-funded Pentagon. Any money expended in bringing Bridget to Fenway and entertaining the Lydons amounted to the baseball/military equivalent of pocket change.

The holiday festivities at Fenway had a further significance, one that extended beyond burnishing institutional reputations and boosting bottom lines. Here was America’s civic religion made manifest. In recent decades, an injunction to “support the troops” has emerged as its central tenet. Since 9/11 this imperative has become, if anything, even more binding. Indeed, as citizens, Americans today acknowledge no higher obligation.

Fulfilling that obligation has posed a challenge, however. Rather than doing so concretely, Americans — with a few honorable exceptions — have settled for symbolism. With a pronounced aversion to collective service and sacrifice (an inclination indulged by leaders of both political parties), Americans resist any definition of civic duty that threatens to crimp lifestyles.

To stand in symbolic solidarity at a ballpark with those on whom the burden of service and sacrifice falls is about as far as they will go — just far enough, that is, to affirm that the existing relationship between the military and society, along with the distribution of privileges and responsibilities that the relationship entails, is congruent with democratic practice. The message that citizens wish to convey to their soldiers is this: although choosing not to be with you, we are still for you (so long as being for you entails nothing on our part). Cheering for the troops, in effect, provides a convenient mechanism for avoiding obligation and perhaps easing guilty consciences.

In ways far more satisfying than displaying banners or bumper stickers, the Fenway Park Independence Day event provided a made-to-order opportunity for conscience easing. It did so in three ways. First, it brought members of Red Sox Nation into close proximity, even if not direct contact, with living, breathing members of the armed forces, figuratively closing any gap between the two. (In New England, where few active duty military installations remain, such encounters are increasingly infrequent.) Second, it manufactured one excuse after another to whistle and shout, whoop and holler, thereby allowing the assembled multitudes to express — and to be seen expressing — their affection and respect for the troops. Finally, it rewarded participants and witnesses alike with a sense of validation, the reunion of Bridget and her family, even if temporary, serving as a proxy for a much larger, if imaginary, reconciliation of the American military and the American people.

That debt? Mark it paid in full.

From the book Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by Andrew J. Bacevich. Copyright © 2014 by Andrew J. Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.
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