Military service is a potentially rewarding career. However, not every strategic objective involves defending the nation from enemies that pose an existential threat to our “freedom.” Foreign policy is complex and messy. If, in the absence of unintended consequences, the U.S. military always promoted global human rights while safeguarding American democracy, there would be little reason to have any oversight or discussion about how the military should be employed. With oceans protecting it, the civilian population does not bear the burden of war in the United States. This detachment from armed conflict is generally a positive thing.  Yet, the minimal impact of armed conflict on the civilian population creates confusion about what the military does. Equating the utilization of the military with the defense of freedom suppresses the type of dialogue and transparency that is crucial to sustaining a healthy democracy. The necessity of the military need not perpetuate its mysticism.

There are many ways to serve the nation without carrying a gun in a foreign land. Equating the flag with military service by default is something one might expect in a military state, not in a “free” country. This spurious equivalency effectively renders an arm of the government the arbiter of freedom. The meaning of the flag is contextual and fluid. It doesn’t have to represent the same thing all the time. No symbol should be so sacred that its meaning can’t be challenged. There are instances in which challenging what the flag symbolizes is completely tasteless and disdainful. Kneeling during the national anthem at a football game is not morally and symbolically equivalent to, for example, protesting at a military funeral like one particular religious group frequently does. The latter are deplorable people who harass American families at their most vulnerable moments to highlight their warped agenda.

What Kaepernick did is different from what military funeral crashers do, and we need to be able to differentiate between these types of situations. During a military funeral or while transporting a casket from Afghanistan to Arlington National Cemetery, the flag is more synonymous with military service. It’s crucial that we not treat every situation involving the flag as identical. Otherwise, context ceases to matter. NFL players who kneel during the national anthem have no intention of disrespecting the military. Instead, they see a discrepancy between what the flag alleges to represent and what certain people are experiencing. One can debate the nature of this disconnect, but the notion that NFL players who take a knee are somehow hostile to the military is extremely dubious. Additionally, the suggestion that sports should be devoid of politics is problematic considering that playing the national anthem at a sporting event is itself a political statement. Commissioners and owners exploit political opportunities for financial gain, so nobody’s really “sticking to sports.”

Identity politics is often associated with historically marginalized social and cultural groups.  In this instance, however, the military is the vehicle for virtue signalling. In identity politics, victimhood is embraced as a weapon to morally and intellectually delegitimize dissenting opinions. When military members are victimized by anthem demonstrations at a football game, there is little impetus for additional dialogue because it’s repugnant to engage in conversation with people who disrespect a group we associate with sacrifice and selflessness. The ideological Right misuses the military to stifle discussion about anthem demonstrations when it neglects to contextualize the flag. Similarly, the ideological Left achieves its moral and intellectual certainty when it anoints itself the only faction capable of determining what constitutes systematic disempowerment and prejudicial behavior.