Ken Burns’s and Kim Novick’s documentary on the Vietnam War concluded its run on PBS in October. While the documentary did an excellent job of examining the war from both the Vietnamese and US perspective, at least in terms of the soldiers who fought in the conflict, it came under criticism for its depiction of the anti-war movement. Maurice Isserman said in a review of the film for Dissent:
Burns and Novick manage simultaneously to offer a thorough indictment of the war, and a dismissal of most of the people who were committed to ending it. It’s both antiwar and anti-antiwar movement.
Isserman points out that the film splits the view of the protest movement into two groups, one composed of honorable veterans who came out against the war after returning home and a dishonorable protest movement depicted only “as abstract representatives of the genus ‘protester’. ” The “genus protester” is a stereotype that delegitimizes the demands of real citizens. The only way Burns and Novick can valorize an anti-war stance and question the war is by placing service members as the sole legitimate voice of the protest movement. Isserman’s point about the limitations of the “anti-antiwar” stance is well taken, and in fact serves to highlight how any valorization of protesting military actions is beyond the pale in the context of today’s conflicts.
In a recent podcast, The New York Times’ critic, Wesley Morris, contrasted the simplistic notions of military service and patriotic heroism espoused in movies about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with those dealing with the Vietnam War. For better or worse, films about Vietnam attempted to link questions about the actions of military service members during armed conflicts and the political rationales for placing service members in those conflicts:
The culture around that war [Vietnam] is different versus how we feel about wars now and the military. We don’t care at all about the wars. We just care about the men and women who fight them and serve in the military…this is sort of what’s happening around the NFL and questions of protest. Nobody knows what’s happening in Afghanistan or Iraq. Nobody really cares, but the idea that you would not do anything but valorize your service people is just anathema to people. You get a movie like Thank You for Your Service (2017), which everything you need to know about it is pretty much in the title, but it isn’t challenging any aspect of what it means to send people to war.(16:00)
Morris suggests that this is why the public no longer wants movies like The Deer Hunter (1978) that are about what service people were being asked to do and why they were being sent to fight.
Instead, we only want an American Sniper (2014) now… It’s not a good movie; it is sort of relying on a very simple notion of service and whatever we think of heroism… That’s how we think of this era now. It really isn’t about the system by which people get sent into these situations.”
As Isserman points out, later films about the Vietnam War cast a negative light on protesters. Drawing on the work of sociologist and Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke, Isserman says that there is no evidence from the time of the war in newspapers, magazines, or television that antiwar protesters spit on veterans, and in fact a close look at the protest movement as a whole, in which Isserman was deeply involved, shows that the norm was for the antiwar movement to recruit veterans to their cause.
It was only fifteen or twenty years later, following the release of the Rambo movies (sample dialogue: “Then I come back to the world [from Vietnam] and I see all those maggots at the airport… Spitting. Calling me baby-killer…”) that the notion that antiwar protesters spent long hours lurking around air bases hoping to harass and dishonor returning veterans took off in right-wing lore.
This is no longer just right-wing lore but part of the construction of the genus protester found in the mainstream. Insofar as organized protests attempt to upset the status quo, they have been and will always be viewed negatively by anyone who currently benefits. This is true from the women’s and labor movements in the first half of the twentieth century to civil rights and antiwar movements that followed. What is different today is the way in which this genus protester has been constructed as anti-military even if the protest is not directly related to the military and foreign conflicts. Protesters are anti-American, communists, complainers, and often feminized and racialized in the most degrading stereotypes.
The construction of genus protester is directly opposed to the simplistic figures of heroes found in movies about recent conflicts. As Morris suggests above, the negative response to the protests in the NFL are a sign of how ingrained those simple, cinematic notions of heroism are in the mainstream culture. The NFL protests are so problematic for many fans precisely because they raise questions about the quality of freedom in this country during the very public rituals that are meant to silence questions about why service members are sent into conflicts and whether or not such actions actually promote freedom and democracy at home. There aren’t simple answers to such questions. The public rituals of appreciation during sporting events silence complex questions because they provide an opportunity for civilians to celebrate their own patriotic goodness and generate a feeling of self-gratification. Steven Biel makes this point in discussing some of the literature around US wars. Talking about Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Biel says,
The protagonist [a returning veteran] is besieged by a “fervor” of self-congratulatory gratitude, by a relentless attack of thank-yous that bring tears to the eyes of the people uttering them, so full are they of “love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness.” In Phil Klay’s story “Bodies,” a marine who served in Mortuary Affairs reports the same experience: “I got home and everybody thanked me for my service. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for.”
Fans do not participate in the ritual because they have a deep understanding of either the lived experience of serving or the politics behind armed conflicts. The “troops” are reduced to symbols, living flags, marched out in front of cheering stadiums to serve a kind of collective patriotic narcissism. The ritualistic expression of “Support” functions to reassure the civilian of their anodyne, uncritical patriotism. This is a feedback loop: the self-gratification created in patriotic rituals requires a sanitized, imagined national history, and vice-versa. Anything that deflects from the gratification of this narcissistic impulse, such as the image of Colin Kapernick kneeling during the national anthem, is met with contempt and outrage at the figure of the protester. The very ubiquity of these public rituals means that this response is not confined to any part of the part of the political spectrum.
Our public rituals ostensibly meant to honor service members are constructed as the antipode of protest. In The New York Times, David Leonhardt takes the tact that, because of the enduring nature of this construct, it would be a better political tactic to find another way of protesting. He uses the dubious historical argument that Civil Rights protesters were more acceptable and upset less people and consequently were more effective. His argument amounts to saying that you won’t undo and maybe shouldn’t question the orthodoxy of flag=military=country so you need to go around it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates directly rebuts Leonhardt. Coates argued in The Atlantic that the problem is not about the manner of protest but the very efforts to expose oversimplified versions of reality projected through public ritual.
If young people attempting to board a bus are unacceptable, if gathering on the National Mall is verboten, if preaching nonviolence gets you harassed by your own government and then killed, if a protest founded in consultation with military veterans is offensive , then what specific manner of protest is white America willing to endure? It’s almost as if the manner of protest isn’t the real problem.
The Civil Rights movement is lauded now but angered not only blatant racists but many in the center of the political spectrum who would have felt better with a slower rate of change. NFL players kneeling during the national anthem upsets White America because the protests reveal how deeply racism is woven into the fabric of our country. Citizens of the US expend immense psychic energy to avoid thinking about this truth and other unpleasant realities of their country, so anger over protests against shooting unarmed African Americans, mass incarceration, and economic exploitation inevitably comes out as anger over disrespecting the troops.
As much as the sight of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem has caused outrage, there is some question as to whether the protest is simply a spectacle, not only because owners attempted to co-opt the act of kneeling during the anthem as a defense of their business against the verbal attacks by Trump but also because even Kapernick’s initial act is necessarily confined by the spectacular nature of the NFL itself, which turns any controversy into mere tabloid fodder. Last year in CounterPunch, Yvette Carnell argued that the image of Kapernick kneeling on the sideline was a symptom of “a country where real choice is replaced by spectacles devoid of any material benefit for average Americans.”1 The very debate that has occurred around Kapernick as well as subsequent protests this year is nothing but “performance as protest.” Carnell respects Kapernick and others’ efforts, admitting that there is some symbolic value in these acts, but she says that such spectacles are not a substitute for “real transformative politics” that would in the end “muffle voices like Kaepernick’s because his influence is proportional to both his celebrity and ability to amass capital for NFL billionaire owners.” In 2017, Kaepernick has been blackballed from the NFL, Donald Trump added his two cents to the issue with predictable results, more players have knelt and raised fists during the anthem, and outrage has ensued.
There is certainly an element of celebrity spectacle to all of this that does little more than provide content for mainstream media personalities to debate and argue. However, the same for-or-against attitude that marks the NFL protests is at work in the ongoing protests over police violence in St. Louis. Last month, police officers in riot gear were filmed chanting at protesters, “Whose streets? Our streets,” and the chief of police in St. Louis proclaimed a victory over his fellow citizens when declaring that the police “owned tonight.” A report in The New York Times described questionable arrests made by police officers:
They have swept up an undercover officer, an Air Force lieutenant, a reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and people who were not protesting. The newspaper published accounts of people who said the police struck or pepper-sprayed them after they had been taken to the ground.
Such attitudes and actions are not unique to St. Louis, as the #BlueLivesMatter movement demonstrates.
#BlueLivesMatter was launched to counter #BlackLivesMatter and as a response to the killing of two NYPD officers. The “About” statement on their Facebook page reads, “Dedicated to the warriors who stand on this line, to those who wage war in the streets, to those we have lost and will lose, to our brothers and sisters.” Their aim is to “strengthen the public support of an understandably naive society [for law enforcement].” They draw a direct affinity between themselves and the military, except that they are positioning for a war against their own citizens. The policies and tactics of law enforcement are sacrosanct. Criticism is an insult to the public service of officers. In other words, we should revere and worship police officers in the same way we do members of the armed forces. As Jonathan Russell [stated in an article for the Huffington Post the claim that #BlueLivesMatter is about respect and public support lacks merit:
[Law enforcement’s] experience of social space is (again, for the most part) one of profound privilege and deferential treatment. This is, of course, much more widely experienced in affluent (read, largely white) communities, but when police experience of the opposite—say, in poorer and more socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods—it is doubtlessly colored by deeply rooted painful experiences of mistreatment and oppression at the hands of law enforcement. This is not to justify such mistreatment, or to say that police officers should not be honored and respected, but to simply say that they are. Their experience of the world is, in many way, constitutively different than the lives of those who are judged as social dangers by their very appearance and existence.
Members of the military and police make sacrifices to provide us with our freedom. They are in a sense responsible for the fact that we are free. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men (1992), we rise and sleep under the blanket of freedom provided by our armed services and law enforcement and we should just say thank you and go on our way. We should not question the manner in which that freedom is provided. This is the dogma that makes everyone in sports stadiums in the US stand up during the national anthem. To sit, kneel, or raise a fist is to not only question the manner in which freedom is provided but to ask critical questions about the quality of that very freedom. Citizens have a moral and ethical obligation to ask questions, not only for their own sake but for the sake of the service members that they so fervently salute at sporting events in this country. This moral and ethical obligation has been transformed into something negative, a quality of that figure of the protester that is dismissed through racism, red-baiting, and misogyny. Questioning the military policies and actions of this country or suggesting that the freedom for which service members fight is not actually shared by everyone equally is tantamount to spitting on someone in uniform.
Yvette Carnell, “Liberal Ruin Everything,” Counterpunch (Vol. 24.5), 8. ↩