Flags and Field Training

The men and women who serve in uniform offer the most genuinely American take on the NFL protests.

If you were also off the grid two weekends ago, lugging a cumbersome rucksack through the Cape Cod woods or tripping through the densest foliage known to man, searching for a tiny metal pole that looked just like the rest of the woods, you may have missed some key events.

On Sept. 22, MIT Army ROTC trucked down south for field training at Joint Base Cape Cod in the middle of a tropical storm. President Trump also unleashed a tropical Twitter storm condemning the NFL players who elected not to stand for the national anthem.

President Trump’s statements were unquestionably unpresidential. Laced with profanity, the tweets were unbecoming of the office President Trump occupies. That is undeniable. The worst part is that they reflect a growing sense along all ideological battle lines that when it comes to politics, nothing is off the table any more.

I personally find little encouragement or solidarity in watching players kneel for the anthem. I empathize with those who believe kneeling in front of the flag as the national anthem plays is a slap in the face. It stings. It hurts. I can’t help but wonder how such a protest can be unifying when it seems to be rooted in blatant disrespect towards the United States.


But I think I need to take a step back. Usually I’d say that sitting or kneeling before the flag is an affront to those men and women in uniform who come back from war in a casket draped in the flag, or who wear it on their sleeve into battle. We would therefore do well to hear their thoughts on the matter, as those men and women offer a truly unifying take on the protest.

Nate Boyer was a long snapper for the University of Texas before joining the Seattle Seahawks in free agency. He is also a former U.S. Army Green Beret. (A total badass.) Boyer wrote an open letter to Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback at the center of the controversy, and all of us need to read it.

Boyer writes: “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it. When I told my mom about this article, she cautioned me that ‘the last thing our country needed right now was more hate.’ As usual, she’s right.”

Do you know what happened next? Nate Boyer and Colin Kaepernick actually got together and talked. They discussed the importance of Kaepernick’s message, and how that message could be shaped to not take away from the contributions and service of military members.

They were not alone. Another Army Green Beret whose father served during World War II and whose son served in Afghanistan stated, “it is PRECISELY for men like Kaepernick, and his right to peacefully protest injustice, that we were willing to serve.”

The first thing I ever learned in ROTC was just that—the reasons why we are willing to serve. The U.S. military is virtually the only force in the world that does not swear allegiance to any person. Our oaths tie us not to a monarch, not to a president, but to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” We literally swear allegiance to a piece of paper, but in doing so, we swear to defend the very essence of America.

We do also swear to obey the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, undoubtedly a critical and binding part of the oath. But our allegiance is not contained within their person. For contrast, take the oath of the British armed forces, who swear to be “faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty...”

The U.S. military has paid a high price in its history to defend the principles and values that make us American. It has fought for the rights that allow these NFL players to protest, and it has certainly also earned the right to ask others to respect the American flag and anthem. What the military community shows us is that these two seemingly incompatible realities do not need to divide the country.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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