Memorial Day is a federal holiday dedicated to remembering Americans who died in combat. It is supposed to be a solemn holiday, and if you watched any baseball games yesterday, you saw an endless tributes to the troops, remembering those who lost their lives in war. You also saw a constant flow of camouflage jerseys, hats and apparel, and this is where this story turns cynical—former MLB pitcher Brandon McCarthy perfectly summarized my disillusionment in this tweet from Memorial Day Weekend 2017.
Nick Francona served in the Marines, and yes baseball fans, you do recognize that last name. He is the son of Terry Francona, a longtime MLB player and manager who managed the Red Sox in the historic 3-0 comeback over the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, and currently manages the Cleveland Indians. Nick has also worked in several front offices across the league, and there may be no one more naturally qualified to opine on this subject than him. He told UniWatch last week why this promotion by Major League Baseball angers him so much:
And now it's not just camouflage caps and jerseys — you have the camouflage eye black, the cleats, the socks, the arm sleeves. It's turning into dress-up at Halloween. And what you don't see, through any of this, is any acknowledgment of “This is so-and-so who died. This is their name and their story.” These are real people who died, they have families left behind. And when you actually talk to the families, they care about their lost loved ones' stories and keeping their names alive. They don't care about camouflage.
And it's not just the camo itself — it's how it's presented. When you have to really dig and find the fine print that says they're donating the proceeds — and even then, the fine print is basically “Take our word for it, we're donating to charity” — that's problematic. Nobody would look at that and say it looks like a benevolent charitable campaign.
A few days after the interview published, Francona sent out some updates that make MLB look even worse than they did in the interview.
Based solely on this tweet from the Los Angeles Dodgers, would you guess that MLB is trying to honor fallen soldiers or sell merchandise?
And this is where we get to the “is so America” portion of my title. America loves money and we love the military. We can’t stop telling everyone how much we respect our heroes for “fighting for our freedom,” but we don’t make things a political priority for us that matter to our stated heroes, like the fundamentally broken Department of Veterans Affairs. Our army is an all-volunteer army that comprises less than one half of 1% of the population, so clearly being a service member is not as glamorous as our patriotic hyperbole makes it out to be. We cannot stop lauding the troops for their sacrifice all day every day, yet when they are martyred at the altar of government incompetence, we do not see a similar push through the political system to right wrongs like when 50,000 troops went to war in Iraq without body armor. Nearly every step of the way, our dedication to the military is largely surface-level, and we do not show the same level of support for military causes when expressing our political priorities. All we really do is say “thank you” as dramatically and seriously as possible while playing it up into something more honorable on our part than it really is.
Which brings me to the freaking camo jerseys. MLB advertising them as honoring the troops, and then not disclosing how much of it goes to charity (if any) is peak America. We love to say how much we support the troops—buying camo jerseys as a flashing beacon of our loyalty—and then we just assume that MLB will do the right things with the proceeds. Thing is, we don’t know if they are. Their website used to say that “net proceeds” or “a portion of the proceeds” would go to charity, and now they are simply saying “royalties” are being paid out to these military charities, without disclosing how much or responding to anyone asking them questions about this topic.
The NFL works from this playbook as well. They have an entire Salute to Service section too, but they are actually more transparent about this than MLB, saying on their site that “the NFL does not profit from the sale of Salute to Service products. Charitable contributions are donated to the NFL’s military nonprofit partners.” Granted, because this is the NFL and no story involving them can stay positive for too long, we know that millions of taxpayer dollars have been handed out to the NFL by the Department of Defense for this “Salute to Service” tradition which began this past decade, so it’s a safe bet that the NFL is making a profit off the military when it’s all said and done.
This is who America really is. We are hyper-militaristic, hyper-capitalistic, mostly lazy people who want to appoint definitely not demigods to make our democracy work for us while we either watch the game on TV or go to the stadium and stuff our faces with ballpark food, then spend hundreds of dollars on camouflage swag that may or may not have some of the money donated to military charities. We cannot stop talking about how honorable our service members are and how meaningful serving your country is—and yet the notion of a draft is completely and utterly anathema to significant majorities of the populace. We are liars who lie to ourselves about the reality of our strained relationship with our all-volunteer military.
We respect those who serve because they demonstrate a level of bravery and a willingness to sacrifice that the vast majority of us would run away from if presented with the option (I’m including myself in that “vast majority,” so hold your angry letters). Americans have largely abandoned the military through our political process (find me one election since 2014 where the 307,000 veterans who died waiting for VA care was a top priority for voters), and instead of actually honoring the troops, we send money to billion-dollar businesses granted monopoly status by the United States Congress to buy camouflage tchotchkes that mostly serve to virtue signal to everyone around us how much we supposedly respect the troops. Whatever we tell ourselves about how we honor our fallen heroes, what we actually do is very different.
If I sound bitter over this, it’s because I had this anger instilled in me at a young age by a veteran. My grandfather served in World War II and was the most stoic man I ever met, but Memorial Day was the one day of the year that got to him. I used to follow this country’s lead in aggressively letting everyone in my general vicinity know how much I respect the troops, until one Memorial Day when he forcefully reprimanded me at a baseball game. He told me how deeply uncomfortable public displays of adulation like this made him feel, because he was simply part of a unit, and singling out members of the unit as demigods went against the selflessness that he was taught to always embody. If Americans really want to honor the troops in a way that benefits others more than themselves, then either donate money directly to a legitimately charitable military cause instead of relying on the supposed goodness of the hearts of a sports league currently refusing to pay their own players anything remotely close to what they’re worth, or, as UniWatch reader Scott Rogers wrote, wear a camouflage uniform that actually means something instead of cosplaying a troop while wearing your favorite players’ jersey:
Want to wear camo uniforms? Want to wear the flag on your sleeve? Great! Go find your local Armed Forces Career Center.
This country has a pathology that simply does not honor the troops the way they honor us. This is what my grandfather explained to me at that Memorial Day baseball game that changed my entire worldview on this subject. By equating military support with wearing camouflage (or simply just stating our support instead of doing something), we communicate that we see soldiers as just soldiers, and not people.
This is reinforced by the fact that we simply do not take care of our veterans after they return from war, as evidenced by the broken VA or the roughly 40,000 homeless veterans wandering American streets (veterans comprise about 10% of all homeless people). We are more than happy to put troops in harm’s way while sending money to organizations like the NFL or MLB to buy items that virtue signal our support for the troops, but when it comes to the actual groundwork of doing something to benefit the troops (like making sure they don’t die in another war of choice ordered by a bunch of draft-dodging, bloodthirsty psychopaths that we elected), Americans are largely nowhere to be found. If you find yourself about to purchase a camouflage baseball hat because you want to support the troops, do something that actually supports them more than your ego, like lobbying your congressmen to provide our brave men and women in uniform with the health care they deserve when they return from the horrors of a generation of forever wars that have burdened less than one half of one percent of Americans.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.