BOSTON—On Saturday I went to one of the massive temples across the country where we celebrate our state religion. The temple I visited was Boston’s Fenway Park. I was inspired to go by reading Andrew Bacevich’s thoughtful book “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country,” which opens with a scene at Fenway from July 4, 2011. The Fourth of July worship service that I attended last week—a game between the Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles—was a day late because of a rescheduling caused by Tropical Storm Arthur. When the crowd sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” a gargantuan American flag descended to cover “the Green Monster,” the 37-foot, 2-inch-high wall in left field. Patriotic music blasted from loudspeakers. Col. Lester A. Weilacher, commander of the 66th Air Base Group at Massachusetts’ Hanscom Air Force Base, wearing a light blue short-sleeved Air Force shirt and dark blue pants, threw the ceremonial first pitch. A line of Air Force personnel stood along the left field wall. The fighter jets—our angels of death—that usually roar over the stadium on the Fourth were absent. But the face of Fernard Frechette, a 93-year-old World War II veteran who was attending, appeared on the 38-by-100-foot Jumbotron above the center-field seats as part of Fenway’s “Hats Off to Heroes” program, which honors military veterans or active-duty members at every game. The crowd stood and applauded. Army National Guard Sgt. Ben Arnold had been honored at the previous game, on Wednesday. Arnold said his favorite Red Sox player was Mike Napoli. Arnold, who fought in Afghanistan, makes about $27,000 a year. Napoli makes $16 million. The owners of the Red Sox clear about $60 million annually. God bless America.
The religious reverie—repeated in sports arenas throughout the United States—is used to justify our bloated war budget and endless wars. Schools and libraries are closing. Unemployment and underemployment are chronic. Our infrastructure is broken and decrepit. And we will have paid a crippling $4 trillion for the useless and futile wars we waged over the last 13 years in the Middle East. But the military remains as unassailable as Jesus, or, among those who have season tickets at Fenway Park, the Red Sox. The military is the repository of our honor and patriotism. No public official dares criticize the armed forces or challenge their divine right to more than half of all the nation’s discretionary spending. And although we may be distrustful of government, the military—in the twisted logic of the American mind—is somehow separate.
The heroes of war and the heroes of sport are indistinguishable in militarized societies. War is sold to a gullible public as a noble game. Few have the athletic prowess to play professional sports, but almost any young man or woman can go to a recruiter and sign up to be a military hero. The fusion of the military with baseball, along with the recruitment ads that appeared intermittently Saturday on the television screens mounted on green iron pillars throughout Fenway Park, caters to this illusion: Sign up. You will be part of a professional team. We will show you in your uniform on the Jumbotron in Fenway Park. You will be a hero like Mike Napoli.
Saturday’s crowd of some 37,000, which paid on average about $70 for a ticket, dutifully sang hosannas—including “God Bless America” in the seventh inning—to the flag and the instruments of death and war. It blessed and applauded a military machine that, ironically, oversees the wholesale surveillance of everyone in the ballpark and has the power under the National Defense Authorization Act to snatch anyone in the stands and hold him or her indefinitely in a military facility. There was no mention of targeted assassinations of U.S. citizens, kill lists or those lost or crippled in the wars. The crowd roared its approval every time the military was mentioned. It cheered its own enslavement.
War is not a sport. It is about killing. It is dirty, messy and deeply demoralizing. It brings with it trauma, lifelong wounds, loss and feelings of shame and guilt. It leaves bleeding or dead bodies on its fields. The pay is lousy. The working conditions are horrific. And those who come back from war are usually discarded. The veterans who died waiting for medical care from Veterans Affairs hospitals could, if they were alive, explain the difference between being a multimillion-dollar-a-year baseball star and a lance corporal home from Iraq or Afghanistan. At best, you are trotted out for a public event, as long as you read from the script they give you, the one designed to entice the naive into the military. Otherwise, you are forgotten.
All religions need relics. Old uniforms, bats, balls, gloves and caps are preserved in the Baseball Hall of Fame, like the bones of saints in churches. In that Cooperstown, N.Y., museum you walk by glass cases of baseball relics on your way to the third-floor display bearing the words “Sacred Ground: Examining ballparks of the past and present, this exhibit takes a look at America’s cathedrals of the game.” At ballparks the teams display statues of their titans—there is one of left fielder Ted Williams outside Fenway Park. And tens of thousands of dollars are paid for objects used by the immortals. A 1968 Mickey Mantle jersey was auctioned in May for $201,450. Team minutiae and statistics are preserved, much as monasteries preserve details of the lives and deaths of saints. Epic tales of glory and defeat are etched into the permanent record. The military has astutely deified itself through the fans’ deification of teams.
The collective euphoria experienced in stadiums, especially among those struggling to survive in the corporate state, gives to many anxious Americans what they crave. They flock to the temples of sport while most places of traditional religious worship in the United States are largely deserted on the Sabbath. Those packed into the stadiums feel as if they and everyone around them speak the same language. They believe those in the crowd are one entity. And they all hate the same enemy. To walk through Fenway Park in a New York Yankees shirt is to court verbal abuse. To be identified as a Yankees fan after a game in one of the bars outside the park is unwise. The longing to belong, especially in a society where many have lost their sense of place and identity, is skillfully catered to by both the professional sports machine and the military propaganda machine.
Many sports devotees return after the games to dead-end jobs, or no jobs, to massive personal debt, to the bleakness of the future. No wonder supplicants at Fenway Park part with such large sums of money to be entranced by fantasy for a few hours. And no wonder it is hard to distinguish the fantasy of a game from the fantasy of the military. Life in the Army or the Marines begins to look like spending a few years at Fenway. And that is why the military invests so much in sponsoring sporting events. Between innings Saturday, the screen above my head flashed segments called “U.S. Army Presents Top Prospects” that showcased promising ballplayers. Recruitment ads appeared at intervals. And the logo “Discover a Stronger Future. There’s Strong. There’s Army Strong” was ubiquitous. The Pentagon spends some $4.7 billion a year on recruiting, advertising, public affairs and psychological operations, according to a 2009 report published by The Associated Press. And much of that is targeted at the audiences of professional sports.
The owners of coal companies at the turn of the 20th century in southern West Virginia found that by funding local baseball teams they could blunt the solidarity of workers. Towns and coal camps rallied around their individual teams. Workers divided themselves according to team loyalty. Sport rivalries became personal. The owners, elated, used the teams to help fracture the labor movement. And the infernal logic is no different today. The players on a baseball team—who usually do not come from the city they represent—are used to promote a provincial chauvinism and a false sense of belonging and empowerment. And the financial, emotional and intellectual energy invested by fans in these well-choreographed spectacles keeps the onlookers docile and supine.
The Boston Globe and the Knight-Ridder media chain reported in 2005 that Phillip H. Morse, a minority partner of the Boston Red Sox, chartered his private jet to the Central Intelligence Agency, which used it to pick up terrorism suspects in the Middle East and Europe and fly them to Guantanamo Bay. The plane was spotted in Cairo on Feb. 18, 2003, according to Knight-Ridder. The imam of Milan, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, had been kidnapped the day before on a Milan street by the CIA and the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service. He was then flown clandestinely to Egypt. It is nearly certain that Morse’s plane was used for that flight. The imam was allegedly beaten and tortured in an Egyptian-run “black site.” The Gulfstream jet, the Globe reported, rented for $5,365 an hour, which, it calculated, worked out to $128,760 for a 24-hour day, or about $900,000 a week. Not even the highest-paid star on the Red Sox makes that much money.
The use of the Morse jet to carry out extraordinary rendition exposes the dark side of professional sports, how it is used by oligarchs and the military to manipulate and control us. The Red Sox logo that normally adorns the plane was missing. But the logo in any case would not have been visible to the imam, whose head would have been covered with a hood. The only difference between the imam and the rest of us is that we don’t require blindfolds.