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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Playing Ball With the Pentagon

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

Post-9/11, doesn't it seem as though all American experience is blending into a single experience whose label is "your safety"?  Which means, in practical terms, you get poked, prodded, searched, and surveilled wherever you go.

The other day, I went to the ballpark to see my team, the Mets, play the Florida Marlins.  It's always a shock these days to make your way into the team's new stadium, Citi Field (named, charmingly enough, after one of the financial institutions that took us down in 2008 and somehow came up smelling like roses).  No more is it just tickets at the turnstile.  What's involved now is that peek into your backpack or bag, followed by the full-scale search of you, body wand and all.

I always have the urge to shout: I'm here for a ballgame, not the Global War on Terror!  Instead, of course, I just lift my arms and let myself be wanded.  It's like an eternal reminder that, for Americans, 9/11 did change everything -- and for the more intrusive at that.  Once inside, past all the restaurants and clubs, memorabilia shops and sports-clothing stores that now add up to the baseball (basemall?) experience, it turns out you haven't left America's wars behind.

In about the fourth inning of this particular humdrum game, only modestly attended on a Monday night, the looming Jumbotron in the outfield (where I was sitting) suddenly flashed a shot of an Iraq War veteran in the stands.  Caught in the camera's eye, he stood up to wave, bringing the sparse crowd to its feet cheering.  Then, former Mets great Tom Seaver came on screen making a pitch for vets, which he concluded this way: "They've made their sacrifice.  Now, it's time for us to do the same."

And then, of course, everybody sat down, went back to hotdogs and peanuts, and the game proceeded.  As Andrew Bacevich, TomDispatch regular and author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, points out in a particularly striking way, it's no mistake that pleas like Seaver's end in mid-air on nothing whatsoever.  Like the Bud Lite being sold all over that stadium, sacrifice-lite is being sold all over America when it comes to wars that most of us are almost completely detached from (until the bills start coming in).  Sacrifice-lite turns out to have less body and isn't filling, but nobody's about to complain.  Not in America.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses cheap grace and military spectacle, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Ballpark Liturgy: America's New Civic Religion
Cheap Grace at Fenway
By Andrew Bacevich

Fenway Park, Boston, July 4, 2011.  On this warm summer day, the Red Sox will play the Toronto Blue Jays.  First come pre-game festivities, especially tailored for the occasion.  The ensuing spectacle -- a carefully scripted encounter between the armed forces and society -- expresses the distilled essence of present-day American patriotism.  A masterpiece of contrived spontaneity, the event leaves spectators feeling good about their baseball team, about their military, and not least of all about themselves -- precisely as it was meant to do.

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In this theatrical production, the Red Sox provide the stage, and the Pentagon the props.  In military parlance, it is a joint operation.  In front of a gigantic American flag draped over the left-field wall, an Air Force contingent, clad in blue, stands at attention.  To carry a smaller version of the Stars and Stripes onto the playing field, the Navy provides a color guard in crisp summer whites.  The United States Marine Corps kicks in with a choral ensemble that leads the singing of the national anthem.  As the anthem's final notes sound, four U. S. Air Force F-15C Eagles scream overhead.  The sellout crowd roars its approval.

But there is more to come. "On this Independence Day," the voice of the Red Sox booms over the public address system, "we pay a debt of gratitude to the families whose sons and daughters are serving our country."  On this particular occasion the designated recipients of that gratitude are members of the Lydon family, hailing from Squantum, Massachusetts.  Young Bridget Lydon is a sailor -- Aviation Ordnanceman Airman is her official title -- serving aboard the carrier USS Ronald Reagan, currently deployed in support of the Afghanistan War, now in its 10th year.

From Out of Nowhere

The Lydons are Every Family, decked out for the Fourth.  Garbed in random bits of Red Sox paraphernalia and Mardi Gras necklaces, they wear their shirts untucked and ball caps backwards.  Neither sleek nor fancy, they are without pretension.  Yet they exude good cheer.  As they are ushered onto the field, their eagerness is palpable.  Like TV game show contestants, they know that this is their lucky day and they are keen to make the most of it.

As the Lydons gather near the pitcher's mound, the voice directs their attention to the 38-by-100-foot Jumbotron mounted above the centerfield bleachers.  On the screen, Bridget appears.  She is aboard ship, in duty uniform, posed below decks in front of an F/A-18 fighter jet.  Waiflike, but pert and confident, she looks directly into the camera, sending a "shout-out" to family and friends.  She wishes she could join them at Fenway. 

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As if by magic, wish becomes fulfillment.  While the video clip is still running, Bridget herself, now in dress whites, emerges from behind the flag covering the leftfield wall.  On the Jumbotron, in place of Bridget below decks, an image of Bridget marching smartly toward the infield appears.  In the stands pandemonium erupts.  After a moment of confusion, members of her family -- surrounded by camera crews -- rush to embrace their sailor, a reunion shared vicariously by the 38,000 fans in attendance along with many thousands more watching at home on the Red Sox television network. 

Once the Lydons finish with hugs and kisses and the crowd settles down, Navy veteran Bridget (annual salary approximately $22,000) throws the ceremonial first pitch to aging Red Sox veteran Tim Wakefield (annual salary $2,000,000).  More cheers.  As a souvenir, Wakefield gives her the baseball along with his own hug.  All smiles, Bridget and her family shout "Play Ball!" into a microphone.  As they are escorted off the field and out of sight, the game begins. 

Cheap Grace

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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