Colin Kaepernick is back under the microscope now that he is the face of Nike’s new “Just Do It” ad campaign. Just as when he initially chose not to stand during the national anthem, he remains an unnecessarily polarizing figure. To some, he is a martyr for social justice; to others, he is an ungrateful millionaire who blatantly disrespects the military and the nation. It is rare to see him characterized as anything between these two extremes. In the current political and social media climate, Kaepernick must either be one or the other. The idea that he can’t be anything else should give us all great pause.
Nowadays, meaningful political and social issues are seldom discussed with sufficient depth, but instead just expose the worst in us. Rather than collectively attempt to determine the legislative and philosophical boundaries that will better inform these issues, we tend to gravitate toward the extreme ends of the ideological continuum. The general response to the “take a knee movement,” initiated by Kaepernick, reflects the superficiality that tends to pervade our most important conversations. There are several layers to the NFL national anthem demonstrations, many of which have been addressed separately, but not in one place. The analysis suffers when it is compartmentalized into ideological buckets. Indeed, while social justice and the relationship between the military and national pride are components of this analysis, it is also about how we listen (or don’t, really) to those with whom we disagree, emotionally hijacking civil discourse, excessive tribalism, and the systemic political dysfunction that allows a reality TV host to become president.
One important question here is whether any type of nontraditional gesture during the national anthem is disrespectful to veterans. During my career as an Air Force Pararescueman, my teammates and I were sometimes tasked with missions whose sole objective was to recover human remains from aircraft crashes, vehicles destroyed by improved explosive devices (IED), or ambush sites. Standard procedure was to place these remains in body bags draped with an American flag. We worked just as diligently to return these deceased warriors to their loved ones as we would to recover them intact and whole. In most of the theaters to which I deployed, those killed in action were referred to as “heroes” over the radio and heroes they were to us. We dishonor the “heroes” when we artificially ascribe extra purpose to their deaths; when we say things like “they died protecting our freedom” without understanding the policy objectives that influence armed conflict. The only thing we can say is that they died fighting with their teammates in places few people would ever dare venture, not that their deaths advanced global freedom, justice, or well-being. That’s what made them heroes to us and that’s noble enough.
“When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life’s preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime. That is why the true warrior cannot speak of battle save to his brothers who have been there with him. The truth is too holy, too sacred, for words,” Stephen Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire.