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The “Bum” Who Took a Knee to Avoid the Vietnam War

Photo by H. Michael Karshis | CC BY 2.0

Soldiers don’t sacrifice their lives so that citizens will stand for the national anthem and the American flag.  They sacrifice themselves so that citizens have the freedom to kneel in protest against governmental policies that cause unjust wars or other acts that harm American lives.  The America flag and national anthem are supposed to be symbols of that precious Constitutional freedom, not turned into idolatrous objects of worship by politicians seeking to suppress that freedom by equating patriotism with their self-serving policies.  Patriotism is about revering human rights, not worshipping a flag.  It is about democratic principles that guide behavior, not a symbolic flag pin to brandish on one’s lapel.  Real patriotism is beyond the understanding of the authoritarian “bum” in The White House.

I write as a World War II Navy veteran, whose three brothers also served in that war, and whose father was a veteran of World War I.  I use basketball player LeBron James’ apt description of the occupant in The White House with all due respect for so-called “bums.”  And I write with deep respect for those conscientious objectors whose reverence for every human life led them to refuse induction into the immoral Vietnam War.

At a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, President Trump declared war on the National Football Association, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL [National Football League] owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d, say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.  Out!  He’s fired!,’ ” His words  elicited a roar of approval from his mostly white audience.  He then piled on NFL players taking a knee: “That’s a total disrespect of our heritage . . . of everything that we stand for.” (“Trump says NFL should fire players who kneel during the national anthem,” By Associated Press, LA Times, Sept. 22, 2017)

What prompted President Trump to attack NFL players in Huntsville?  San Francisco Forty-Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest was a year ago, during which he kneeled, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, this is bigger than football , and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way . . . [with] bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” (“Colin Kaepernick protests anthem over treatment of minorities,” ESPN.com news services, www.espn.com, Aug. 28, 2016)  Kaepernick ‘s protest came on the heels of the repeated killing of black persons by police.

Why President Trump’s attack on NFL players in Huntsville?  Super Bowl champion quarterback Colin Kaepernick had been effectively “fired” in that no NFL team has hired him.  Besides, there had been no publicity this year about any NFL player taking a knee of protest before Trump’s rally.  And Huntsville, Alabama doesn’t have an NFL team.

Why Huntsville?  Could it be that President Trump’s preoccupation with the NFL serves to rev up his base and divert attention from his incompetent behavior as president?  Like his administration’s slow response to 3.4 million Puerto Ricans facing a “life or death” humanitarian disaster in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.  The defeat of his Republican Party’s latest so-called health care bill.  His failure to respond with constructive measures to the national opioid crisis, relying, instead, on harsher sentences for drug offenders.  His dangerous bullying of North Korea’s leadership with nuclear warmongering threats creating world-wide unease.

Perhaps President Trump likes the attention and feeling of power that come from pitting people against each other and setting the world on edge.  Whatever his motivation, fixating on respect for the flag, and not on the rights of human beings, is an effective way for him and many in his predominately white base to express their racism toward NFL players, over two thirds of whom are black. Their fixation also conveniently diverts attention from the NFL players’ legitimate protests against America’s white supremacist policies – protests that actually implicate him and many in his base, creating their racist unease.

President Trump’s unprovoked attacks on NFL players’ patriotism have led many players to kneel or stand and lock arms in protest during the singing of the national anthem – no doubt in part because he is actually calling the mothers of these mostly black protesters “bitches.”  Colin Kaepernick’s mother’s response to this latest example of Trump’s “locker room talk” depreciating women: “I guess that makes me a proud bitch!”  In an interview with Deadspin, she also said, “This is just ridiculous that he continues to attack private citizens like this and continues to not be able to see what freedom of speech is.”  She then referred to Charlottesville, where Trump “would not call out the Nazis . . . [and] white supremacists, but he’s calling out these guys who are peacefully kneeling and asking for their country to do better.” (“Teresa Kaepernick On Trump Calling Injustice Protesters Sons Of Bitches: ‘It’s What Most Of Us Have Come To Expect Of Him,” By Lindsey Adler, Deadspin, Sept. 23, 2017)

President Trump’s hypocritical cowardice is seen in him kneeling behind the unnecessary sacrifices of veterans.  As reported, after “recently visit[ing] maimed US veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington,” he said, “They were fighting for our country . . . for our flag . . . for our national anthem,” and added, “For people to disrespect that by kneeling during the playing of our national anthem, I think, is disgraceful.” (“Trump: NFL anthem kneeling protesters ‘disgraceful,’ “ BBC News, Sept. 26, 2017)

Tragically, the veterans maimed and killed in Afghanistan and Iraq were fighting in our government’s contrived wars, and in the case of Iraq a UN-condemned illegal war.  They were not sacrificing themselves for a “flag,” nor for a “national anthem,” nor for their “country.”  They were fighting in capitalism’s endless “global war on terrorism,” which are code words for the pursuit of world domination and endless profits for the military/industrial/energy/ intelligence/ religious complex.

If NFL players – and coaches and owners – had taken a knee to protest the needless Afghanistan and Iraq wars, instead of promoting recruitment and militarism, and if far more people of faith had gotten up off their knees and joined other citizens in protest, those immoral wars could have been prevented, or ended sooner, and there would not be maimed victims and families suffering the permanent loss of their loved ones.  Far more “disgraceful,” to the point of being obscene, is President Trump exploiting the unnecessary sacrifice of war victims for his own egocentric ends.  His capricious behavior indicates that he could care less about wounded veterans and their families, or about the shattered lives of loved ones whose sons and daughters were killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Donald Trump took a knee to avoid being drafted in the Vietnam War.  He received five deferments: four for education and one medical for a questionable heel spur.  As a potential draftee, Trump’s position on the Vietnam War is radically different from all his talk about “disgraceful” NFL players disrespecting “maimed veterans . . . fighting for our flag [and] our national anthem.”  He is reported to have “strongly opposed United States’ involvement in Vietnam, calling that war “ridiculous,” and saying, “I thought it was another deal where politicians get us into a war where we shouldn’t have been in.  And I felt that very strongly from Day 1.” (“Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments: Four for College, One for Bad Feet,” By Steve Eder and Dave Phillips, The New York Times, Aug. 1, 2016)  Today, however, as Commander-in-Chief, he is justifying these criminal wars, and exploiting maimed veterans to suppress  NFL players’ protest against the oppression of people of color in America and beyond.

“They were fighting for our country,” and “for people to disrespect that by kneeling during the playing of our national anthem . . . is disgraceful.”  A reality check is needed here.  The national anthem’s author, Francis Scott Key, was a white supremacist, which sentiment he expressed in the third stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner:

No refuge could save the hireling and the slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and home of the brave.

The so-called “refuge” for slaves was the British military’s promise, in the War of 1812, that American slaves who escaped from plantations and fought for the British would receive their freedom. (“Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery,” By Jon Schwartz, The Intercept, Aug. 28, 2016)  What is “disgraceful” is a white supremacist president trying to use another white supremacist’s national anthem to suppress people’s Constitutional right “peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (First Amendment)

“For people to disrespect our flag . . . [and] our national anthem by kneeling . . . is disgraceful.”  These words from the man who took a knee to avoid the Vietnam War.  The man who, during his five deferments, slept around with various women, saying that dating was dangerous because of women with sexually transmitted diseases.  In his own words: “It’s a dangerous world out there – it’s scary, like Vietnam . . . It is  my personal Vietnam.  I feel like a great and very brave soldier.” (“Trump Isn’t into Anal, Melania Never Poops, And Other Things He Told Howard Stern,” By Andrew Kaczynski, BuzzFeed, Feb. 26, 2016)  And the risk of infection or unwanted pregnancy to the women sleeping with him?

Alarming is President Trump’s appetite for violence.  In Huntsville, he lamented that rules protecting NFL players from head and other injuries are “ruining the game.”  He complained, “Today if you hit too hard – 15 yards!  Throw him out of the game!”  Trump watched a game last week “for a couple of minutes.  Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle.  Boom, 15 yards!   . . . They’re ruining the game!”  He said these violent words in the face of reports “on the number of deceased former players diagnosed with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease experts believe is caused by repeated head trauma.” (“Trump Calls on NFL Owners to Fire Players Who Protest, and Mocks Efforts to Make the Game Safer,” By Peter King, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 23, 2017)  Three days before Trump made his callous lament, a study was published revealing that high school, college and professional players “who participated in youth football before the age of 12 had a twofold ‘risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function’ and a threefold risk of ‘clinically elevated depression scores.’ “ (“Playing Tackle Football Before 12 Is Tied to Brain Problems Later,” By Ken Belson, The New York Times, Sept. 19, 2017)

Many white, biblically-bound, evangelical Christians have embraced this sadistic president because he promised them control over women’s bodies and the legal power to discriminate against LGBTQ persons.  Like Judas, they are betraying Jesus and The Golden Rule for 30 pieces of silver.  But each day their Faustian bargain with the authoritarian “bum” in The White House will become more and more difficult to reconcile with one of the greatest commandments Jesus emphasized: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 34-40)

Democracy is about human rights and empathy for other human beings, not about worshiping a flag or a national anthem.  Similarly, faith is about doing what the prophets worshiped, not worshiping what the prophets did.

More articles by:

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Amazon.com. Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.  

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