It is amazing how important a piece of cloth or a poem set to the music of an old drinking tune can become. It is a matter that will always be perceived differently by those who served versus those who did not.
During this NFL situation, I have learned that those who have not served have some misconceptions concerning veterans. Hopefully, I can clear some of those up. I also want to discuss the National Anthem’s possible meanings and some notes on the Flag Code.
Before I begin the main body of this article I want to provide some information on freedom of speech. The Bill of Rights became the first ten amendments to the constitution. The 1st Amendment grants us freedom of speech and the right to assemble. The 1st Amendment does not protect us at work if employed in the private sector (non-governmental employment). In my opinion, no government agency should regulate employers outside of established law; in other words, if it is not illegal then the government should have no say on it.
The 1st Amendment protects all Americans. It is important that we understand that the 1st Amendment does not prevent someone from having an opinion either in agreement or in opposition of a given topic.
The Third Verse
“The Star Spangled Banner”, originally titled “Defence of M’Henry”, consists of four paragraphs, or verses, and was penned in 1814 describing the Battle of Baltimore. Those that support the NFL players’ protests will ask “please read the original National Anthem as it was written before judging people who refuse to stand for it.” So, let’s examine the original National Anthem, specifically the third verse.
“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and 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 the home of the brave.”
Francis Scott Key was a lawyer with some contradictory views on slavery, he was also a slave owner. As a lawyer Key defended individual blacks, but later in his life, he played a critical role in what is called the “Snow Riot”. Key prosecuted Arthur Bowen. The events that unfolded after this prosecution cement Key as a supporter of slavery. The “Snow Riot” was in 1835, 11 years after the Star Spangled Banner was written. Key went on record as saying that the system of slavery was full of sin and “a bed of torture." He also stated that Africans in America are “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” So, it is a safe assumption that although, Key occasional defended blacks, he was pro-slavery. Knowing these facts about Key one may assume that his poem is pro-slavery.
Linda Alchin, Director of Education at Siteseen Ltd., offers another take on the verse.
“Francis Scott Key describes the British as arrogant and boastful in the lyrics 'that band who so vauntingly swore'. He is venting his anger at the British with the "foul footsteps' pollution" lyrics inferring that the British poisoned the ground on which they walked. But the poison and corruption had been washed away by the blood of the British. The Star Spangled Banner lyrics "the hireling " refers to the British use of Mercenaries (German Hessians) in the American War of Independence. The Star Spangled Banner lyrics "...and slave" is a direct reference to the British practice of Impressment (kidnapping American seamen and forcing them into service on British man-of war ships). This was an important cause of the War of 1812. Francis Scott Key then describes the Star Spangled Banner as a symbol of triumph over all adversity.”
It is easy to focus on the word Slave and connect a more sinister meaning behind Key’s poem, especially due to his views towards Africans, but if the poem is read in its entirety then we can consider a different interpretation more akin to the above quote.
Blacks fought on both sides of the war, but it was the British that made better use of these soldiers. Three companies of Colonial Marines took part in the burning of Washington and fought in the Battle of Baltimore. The safest assumption, in a poem about The Battle of Baltimore, is that the poems use of the word slave is a reference to the Colonial Marines rather than imprisoned colonials forced to fight or a celebration of slaves’ deaths.
There is no definitive interpretation of what Key meant by what he wrote. Whatever Francis Key Scot’s original intent behind the Star Spangled Banner was, it is ultimately irrelevant. I understand that, like any piece of art, a poem can take on a variety of symbolism beyond its original meaning. For NFL players the National Anthem symbolizes something very different than it does for me.
US Flag Code 10 and Criminal Behavior
Two topics that often come up when discussing this is the US Flag Code and the players' criminal activities. Some use a football player’s criminal activity as a counter argument asking, “where is the uproar over this?”. In a similar way, some will point out the violations of the US Flag Code asking the same question.
I do not watch football. I would not know about the players kneeling if the media did not cover it as much as they have been. I wish the media would give an equal amount of attention to the criminal behavior of these athletes. I believe our culture idolizes athletes too much.
The criminal history of the NFL is a separate issue, but one that should have fans questioning why they watch the games. Something to think about is by supporting those kneeling you are also supporting those who may have committed a crime.
The subject of ‘The Flag Code’ deserves a dedicated essay. I cover it briefly here because it is often cited during the kneeling debate. The term ‘Flag Code’ as I am using it refers to The United States Code, Title 36, Chapter 10. It is a series of guidelines, not laws, although Title 18, Chapter 33, Section 700 discusses punishment for the desecration of the flag, it is unlikely a person would be convicted due to the previous cases presided by the Supreme Court. The argument or counter-point is that violating the Flag Code is disrespectful. Companies like Nine Line Apparel and Grunt Style (who ironically sell shirts not made in the US) make a profit selling shirts with the flag on them. Are they disrespecting the flag or even in violation of the code?
Title 36, Chapter 33, Section 173 defines the flag for use in Chapter 33 by referring to section 1 and 2 of title 4. Section 1 & 2 define the flag as:
§1. Flag; stripes and stars on
The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field.
§ 2. Same; additional stars
On the admission of a new State into the Union one star shall be added to the union of the flag; and such addition shall take effect on the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.
By this definition, the guidelines set forth in Chapter 33 are specific to an actual flag. Title 4, chapter 1, section 3 has some specific rules concerning the flag that pertains to the District of Colombia only. So, it is within the rules to wear a shirt with the flag on it; you can also use a napkin. You cannot wear the flag as a shirt or us the flag as a napkin.
I guess the difference between kneeling during the Nation Anthem and wearing an American Flag shirt is the latter is done out of patriotism. It is hard for me to be upset with someone trying to show their pride for our nation. However, I absolutely hate it when I see a tattered flag mounted in a pickup truck. It also annoys me when I see a flag hung backward in a house window or printed backward on a shirt. The code also specifies that the flag should not be displayed flat (section 176, c), so I agree that practice at games should end.
Regardless of ‘Flag Code’ interpretations, it is a separate issue from kneeling during the Nation Anthem.
Value of Life
The most horrible things I have read is “veterans care more about a piece of cloth than the lives of those they fight for”. There is nothing more valuable than life and it is especially hurtful to hear someone say that a combat veteran puts more value on anything other than life. Many civilians and a few veterans will say we fought to defend the freedoms of those who exercise their 1st Amendment rights. I understand why they say this; if there was no military there is potential that an enemy force would conquer the United States and take away our rights.
An event occurred that my team refers to as the Provincial Council Bombing. My team arrived on the scene shortly after the bombing took place. Three suicide bombers detonated their vests at a police graduation. My team took security positions to support the recovery operations. While in my position I glanced to my right, to check on a team member, I noticed what can only be described as something from a horror movie. My position was where someone had been standing during the blast. A vision not easily forgotten.
The attack was not against Americans it was against Afghans who decided to join their police force in an attempt to make their country a safer place. It is a misconception that I, as a soldier, fought for your freedoms. I fought to defend those who could not defend themselves. I fought because bad people were doing bad things.
Every ramp ceremony I attended reminded me how valuable life is. I would have ripped apart the American flag and use it as a tourniquet to save the life of Scott Stream. Please, never presume to understand what a veteran fought for.
One last thought; if I use my fist to kill a mosquito that has landed on your face, would that be acceptable? Mosquitoes have a long history of biting, sucking blood, and spreading disease. My intent was to kill the mosquito to save you. Unfortunately, I unintentionally punched you in the face while trying to kill the mosquito. A person can claim they have the utmost respect for veterans, but a punch to the face still feels like a punch to the face.
The Star Spangled Banner symbolizes the lives saved by Americans and memorializes the lives lost through service to America. I understand that it may be unintentional, but to kneel during the National Anthem or to support those who do is disrespectful to veterans.
I hope this article shines some light on why a veteran may be upset by the players kneeling. This was to help me understand why I am so angry when I see the players kneel. It is not the value I place on a piece of cloth or a poem, but what they represent to me and the value of the memories they trigger.
I fought, I stand.