For the Valley News
Published: 8/25/2018 10:08:07 PM
Modified: 8/25/2018 10:08:15 PM

As I write this column, nearly to the minute, members of my Officer Candidate School class are celebrating the 51st anniversary of our “graduation.”  

On that sultry August day in Virginia we stood at attention before the American flag and proudly received our commissions and the gold bars that signified our perseverance and survival skills. OCS was a brutal test in those days; separating the wheat from chaff involved physical and emotional challenges most folks never experience. Far fewer than half of those who began the six-month course were standing at the end. Washing out almost invariably meant immediate deployment to Vietnam. The stakes were high.

For the past 15 years, this aging crew has been reunited by newsletter, website, personal correspondence and two reunions. Several died in Vietnam, and others have passed away in the intervening years. I have little but faded memories in common with them. I neither correspond regularly nor have I attended the reunions. These old soldiers seem uniformly conservative. The typical communications are patriotic memes and anti-liberal diatribes.

In anticipation of the anniversary a letter written by Bill, one of our classmates, was circulated to all.  It was addressed to his congressional representative.  The letter strongly objected to NFL athletes kneeling during the anthem. It was heartfelt and respectful.

His letter began: “The reason I am writing to you today has to do with the NFL players and their consistent disrespect for the most sacred symbol our county has … the American flag. As a veteran and, as a concerned American, I find their actions totally unacceptable. I also find it a sad commentary that our nation’s elected congressional leaders, yourself included, have not had the courage, conviction or the sense of patriotism to speak out about this unacceptable behavior.” He went on to cite, with great emotion, the sacrifices made by soldiers then and now.

Because silence in the presence of presumption is a form of political complicity, I responded:  

“Dear Troopers,

Bill, your feelings were conveyed with dignity and balance. Thanks for that. Many who share your feelings are less dignified and diminish their own expression with anger or personal attack.

I invite you to consider a different perspective. First, the players and others who kneel or sit in support of the players are responding more to the anthem than the flag itself. This distinction may seem minor, but it is not insignificant. The anthem is not a foundational piece of American history. It was adopted in 1931 and is political, not sacred.   I am among those who think that the anthem and pomp at sporting events and other occasions are unnecessary and fuel a rather shallow kind of patriotism. When the anthem is played or sung, many of your fellow Americans are texting, drinking beer or going to the concession stand. This is their right too, but certainly no less offensive than players making a pointed statement that is important to them.

“But the more germane notion I invite you to consider is this: Bill makes a wonderful case for the powerful symbolism the flag carries for him and, I suspect, many or all of you. It is this power  the emotion, the history, the promise of our democratic republic — that also makes it the catalyst for protest. For black Americans, the emotions associated with the flag evoke complex personal experiences. Their history is painful and the promise of our democratic republic was withheld for generations, up to and including the current era. That they are wealthy celebrities is somewhat beside the point, although it makes it easier to dismiss their protests.Their protest does not diminish your reverence. This is the genius of America — not just freedom of expression, but the ability to hold reverence for country and vivid protest within the same loving arms. 

“Conformity, particularly enforced conformity, is the antithesis of freedom. It is conservatives who have made the anthem and flag an issue, not athletes of color or their allies. It is almost entirely white, conservative citizens who shake the flag as a patriotic test and political bludgeon, demanding that others tacitly submit to both the symbolism and the majority domination implicit in its aggressive display.  When athletes of color or allies kneel, it is not to desecrate the flag. It is to refuse to be coopted into conspicuous displays of a secular faith that has not embraced them.    

“Protest and civil disagreement are impotent if exercised in the shadows. The very powerful emotions aroused by kneeling might be invisible if not done so publically and controversially. It is precisely the power that you find in the flag that necessitates this particular form of protest. 

“Protest is a lovers’ quarrel. NFL players love the country no less than you do. It's easy to salute the flag. It's hard to stretch empathically to understand why many feel the promises of America are too often broken.”

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at


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