Patriotism and the Blue Angels

“If you don’t like the Blue Angels, you don’t like America.” – A Facebook comment in response to a Seattle photographer’s misgivings regarding military demonstrations and recruitment tactics at Sea Fair.

After returning home from Iraq in 2004 I avoided crowded places. Concerts and festivals were out of the question – the throngs of people and loud noises kicked my fight/flight response into high gear. Sporting events and air shows were another no-go; flyovers from fighter jets after the national anthem once inspired in me a sense of awe and swelling patriotism – after my deployment, however, I was only reminded of war. The piercing roar of jet engines would cause my heart rate to skyrocket and a tightly coiled knot of anxiety and panic would gather at the base of my skull making every nerve ending in my body buzz.

But my post-deployment aversion to the fighter jet flyover wasn’t just rooted in the physiological response it provoked, but also in the underlying message: To be a patriot, one must love (and be in awe of) the Armed Forces.

The idea of the Blue Angels is, at its surface, a nice wholesome message of seemingly traditional Americana. Look at our technology! Look at our might! Look at the discipline and excellence of our Navy pilots!

And those pilots are tremendously skilled and disciplined – in operating equipment that is primarily designed to kill human beings.

Think about that.

Each time the Blue Angels (or any military fighter jets) fly in formation overhead, it is a demonstration of America’s capacity to kill. In connecting our feelings of patriotism with our admiration for the capabilities of the Department of Defense, we’re essentially conditioned to conflate one feeling with the other. And a major sporting event isn’t considered complete without a military fighter jet formation flyover to conclude our national anthem. Each time military fighter jets fly over the Super Bowl, the World Series, and thousands of other events across the country, it serves as a way to reinforce the connection between our national identity and our military supremacy.

Red-White-Blue Deadly Patriots

So what? Isn’t military supremacy a part of our American heritage?

Yes, the US Military has been an integral part of US history (a history that was shamefully introduced with the genocide of Native Americans). But is employing the US war-making apparatus as central to our national identity actually a good thing? In the past we celebrated the return of our veterans from WWI and WWII and then helped them find their way back home with education and housing programs. As a nation, we began the work to right injustices that existed for people of color and women and those in poverty through numerous civil rights acts and social justice reforms. National protests brought our soldiers home from Vietnam. Our pride and heritage was centered on celebrating and bettering the lives of individual Americans.

Now the way we celebrate our country has morphed into a quasi-worship of the Armed Forces. “Support the troops” tropes have supplanted connections with actual veterans, and those Americans who question the value or need for increased defense budget allocations or preemptive military actions are in turn accused of lacking patriotism.

It’s a disturbing shift.

In much the same way US Military fighter jets have been incorporated into numerous American celebrations, at those same events the American flag is almost always carried out by service members or veterans, nameless and faceless in their uniformed number, merely a representation of the larger organization. Under the pretext of honoring veterans, the American flag is repeatedly associated with conflict and war. And at these events, are we really honoring the individuals who served? Do we learn about their favorite past times, their families, or their goals for the future? Almost always the answer is “no”. The Veteran or The Service Member is simply a placeholder meant to keep in the forefront of our minds the ever present connection between America and its fighting forces.

There are many other ways to celebrate the vast array of traditions and diversity in the United States without incorporating a demonstration of military power. Rather than watching nameless and faceless uniformed troops unfurl our colors at national sports events, imagine seeing elementary students or family members of the local team carry out our American flag. Perhaps instead of incorporating fighter jet flyovers after the national anthem, we could honor first-generation college graduates or recently naturalized American citizens.

While the US Military and American identity are connected historically, they aren’t inextricable. Celebrating our national heritage does not require that we also celebrate our ability to make war. Our national pride is not inseparable from our military might, and I argue that we will act as better Americans (and better plan for a peaceful future) if we do separate our national identity from our military capacity.

Christmas in Iraq, 2003

We were relatively comfortable by December. We had a roof over our heads and cots cushioned with mini mattresses purchased through our local ice-man.* Next to my cot I had a few packages from my family that I was saving for Christmas morning. 


Yes I’m painting my toenails. And that’s a cast I acquired after some douchebag picked me up (without my consent) and then dropped me on my ankle after he realized I’m no 120 pound snowflake. Lamest. Story. Ever.

The daily grind, running operations in our little indoor ops corner, was bearable. Although punctuated by other platoon operations, illness, or injuries, we’d worked out a system in the squad that amounted to 8 hour shifts for each of us, leaving considerable “free time” to wallow in our holiday blues and chain-smoke like 3 packs a day… I think by that time we may have even had access to email. Conditions were much, much better than when we first arrived. 


I’m the goofy-looking one in the middle.

Our 3-person squad was attached to a 2nd Brigade support battalion in Mosul. I want to say we got there in May but my memories are patchy so it could have been late April. I do remember we were in this weird limbo status between our assigned location with the support battalion and our attachment to Bravo Company which was located elsewhere in the city.**

We had established our “home” in one of the many courtyard complexes scattered throughout the partially blown-up Iraqi military compound. It was a low U-shaped building with 2 or 3 individual rooms (with entrances facing the interior courtyard) on each of the three sides. All the windows were shattered, some of the shards still jutting out from the frames, the rest of the glass was in piles inside and outside the building. A theater (or what I assumed was a theater) across the street offered a possible explanation for the broken windows; the blackened front entrance, debris scattered outward, and more damage visible at the top of the structure indicated a recent explosion or fire (my guess was it got blown the fuck up – sort of, since it was still standing). At our courtyard building all the doors were also missing, but here they were ripped off their hinges, and the rooms on the opposite side of the courtyard were littered with spent munitions casings and rocket tubes, some possibly Russian (Soviet era?) We left those rooms undisturbed after we heard that some of the rounds might still be live but unstable and, more alarming, potentially depleted uranium rounds.


That’s shit burning in the background. Some of it is mine.

The engineers dug a huge pit in the middle of the courtyard so we could burn our garbage, and over the next 8 months we worked with the local Iraqis to make additional improvements to our site. After a few months we scored 2 gravity-fed flushing toilets to replace the seat-less chair and plastic bag system we were using before (we no longer had to burn our shit in an oil drum! Very awesome).

We also got a gravity-fed shower to go with the toilets, and it was the most amazing day ever.*** I’m pretty sure I got some 1.5 degree burns from attempting showers in the late summer afternoons after the sun had been heating the water in the tank to near boiling temperatures – morning time was better, not so risky. We also had the broken windows replaced by a local glazier and he used weird squishy caulk that never stopped being squishy (if those windows are still there, my thumbnail marks in the squishy window caulk are probably still there too, unless they’ve been squished and replaced by the thumbnail marks of other morose soldiers over the last ten years), And finally, we worked with a local electrician to have a power outlet installed so we could bring our equipment inside rather than keeping our vehicle constantly running.

So it wasn’t awful (by shitty-Iraq standards) – we were pretty lucky with our set-up. There were still soldiers living outside with no toilets – not even seat-less chairs, and there were others living in crowded tents with no access to their own awesome ice-man.

But overall, it still really sucked. There were still explosions from mortars and IEDs, still people getting shot, still people shooting at us, still stupid Army politics and bullshit sexism, groping, and fear of getting raped by our own people. In short, we were still in a combat zone and we still weren’t entirely sure when we would get to go home. During that pretty abysmal and lonely holiday season (by most non-shitty-Iraq standards), I received a letter from a wonderful woman who wanted to sponsor me for Christmas. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I was shocked at how amazing it made me feel to read kind words from this stranger and know that she and her family were using their time and money to do something special for someone they didn’t even know. I was surprised when I felt tears well up in my eyes; I hadn’t even realized how much I needed this beautiful and generous gift.

They sent me cards and photos. Her kids drew little pictures for me and they sent a stocking stuffed with amazing things like candy and lotion and fun little Christmas toys. I felt connected to home through them. I hung the stocking over my M-249 rifle on the dirty, pitted wall next to my Kevlar helmet and vest.

On Christmas day I woke up feeling sort of empty and flat. I opened my packages in the morning and we had turkey for lunch at the chow hall. Later that evening I re-read all my cards and letters, and maybe it was because I didn’t know this family so I couldn’t miss them but when I read their letters, the yearning to be home wasn’t a sharp stabbing pain, it was more of a dull ache, and I felt included and recognized and valued without the overwhelming wave of sorrow that seemed to always accompany letters from my family.

I heard a story on NPR the other day about melancholy Christmas songs and it made so much sense. Many of the mournful tunes like “I’ll be home for Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” were written during WWII, when war was all encompassing and it was probably pretty difficult to be festive when you missed your loved ones.  Although it was written later, “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas always evokes for me that same feeling of thankfulness and acceptance, lined with the homesickness and sadness that I experienced in Iraq.


* The ice-man’s name was Mahmoud, and he started out bringing us huge blocks of ice in the summer but soon he was procuring all sorts of stuff for us, including the mattresses and delicious homemade baba ghanoush.

** Additionally, because our platoon was actually part of Delta Company back in Fort Campbell, KY, the leadership at Bravo Company weren’t exactly throwing their arms open to welcome us. So when we were at the support battalion location we were on our own, isolated organizationally from the rest of the soldiers around us, and when we were at B Co headquarters there was a strong feeling that we didn’t belong there either.

*** Before the most amazing day ever, we were fortunate to have a field shower maintained by the support battalion. The field shower, set up shortly after we arrived in Mosul, was a vast improvement over our previous “facilities” (someone else holding up a poncho while you dump water over your head from a plastic water bottle) but as the weather warmed, venturing into the steamy, jungle-like atmosphere of the dark green shower tent became an effort in futility. I’m pretty sure I was sweating while I was taking a shower, and it continued as I attempted to towel off, resulting in a sweat-drenched Stephanie stumbling out of the dark oppressive heat of the tent into the blinding oppressive heat of the day, Was I cleaner? Yes. Did I feel clean? Meh.

The Equality Filter: Legitimizing Civil Rights through Militarization

America is in the business of conflict. Since WWII, the US has been engaged in war, conflict, or police action for 66 of the last 72 years, and for 216 of the 237 years we’ve been a country our military has been fighting, killing, occupying, or threatening with nuclear weapons. “Terrorism” is now a ubiquitous and tired threat that induces a persistent low-level fear and passivity, which in turn secures consistent funding for the military and defense contracts.  The deployment of “precision military strikes,” drones, and soldiers overseas is premised on delivering justice or securing democracy, but in reality the U.S. Administration is usually dealing with the fallout of poor past policy decisions.

And yet… there have been some significant civil rights developments that were expedited through the war-making apparatus. Desegregation in the military preceded the ruling of 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka by several years. The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) headed the repeal of DOMA, and the DOD has already surpassed the Federal government in providing universal benefits to the same-sex spouses of Active Duty military and retired veterans. After lifting the career-restrictive combat exclusion policy in January 2013, Congress and the Pentagon also recently announced the creation of gender-neutral standards for men and women serving in combat units will be signed into law. This is an enormous milestone for military women and their families, not to mention the greater implications of employment equality in other sectors.

So how can one reconcile the desire for a more just and equitable society while at the same time acknowledging that the recognition of individual and group civil rights has been, to a certain degree, facilitated by the military institution?

I face this dilemma having come from a family where military service is almost a family business (my mother, step-father, father, grandfather, uncles, and my husband have all served). I say this having served five years in the US Army myself.

While the military has been a bellwether of civil rights advancement in the U.S., it has more often facilitated America’s oppression of marginalized persons both here and abroad. Hazing, sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault, racist practices, war crimes, extended occupations, “collateral damage,” indefinite detentions, and torturous interrogation techniques have been imprinted on the American psyche, normalized to a certain degree through media and pop culture glorification of war. The widespread deployment of the United States Armed Forces has made military occupation seem common place. The international opinion of America’s obsession with defense isn’t complimentary, but domestically the military culture is a very successfully propagated ideology. Support the troops! Patriotism! Sacrifice! Honor! America! Oh, and Bud light, football, and whatever other corporate interests latch onto the pro-military bandwagon to make some dollars.

Although specific military policies like the combat exclusion for women and DADT may seem to accelerate civil rights action in America when they are lifted or repealed, these policies may play a more harmful role in their very existence in the first place. Rather than acting as a mirror of society, simply reflecting the current national social temperament, the military institution is acting as the definer of civil rights and citizenship in broader American society. Presently, a significant argument to reform immigration is leaning heavily on the fact that many immigrants choose military service as a path to citizenship. Even undocumented family members of military members may avoid deportation because of their relationship to the service member, and there is also a campaign² to allow certain undocumented immigrants to enlist in the service. Military service establishes value in citizenship in otherwise disqualified individuals; military service compensates for other lacking characteristics. Conversely, groups prohibited from military service are diminished as citizens. Individuals in these groups are viewed as “less than” as long as they are defined so by the military institution, for those who aren’t permitted to participate fully in the military aren’t “real” citizens.

Legitimization of citizenship through military service is a troubling model: in order for a group’s rights to be widely recognized and accepted by society, they must first be filtered through the military institution. Definition of acceptable conduct in the military determines acceptable conduct in the greater civilian society. For example, the very concept of DADT was designed to allow gay women and men to serve in the military while “protecting” them from abuse or harassment (by placing a prohibition on homosexual activities or individual identification) but in fact DADT likely led to higher levels of abuse, isolation, and disenfranchisement because individuals were unable to report mistreatment without risking disclosure of their sexual orientation, and subsequently losing their jobs¹. This reinforced existing anti-gay prejudices, and legitimized the broader view that gay and lesbian Americans weren’t justified to equal rights or protections in the civilian sector. Similarly, the combat exclusion (which in recent years was largely disregarded) that “protected” female soldiers by prohibiting them from serving in combat roles acted instead as a method to reduce access to benefits and acknowledgement as legitimate troops. The policy also made it difficult for women who had served their country in the same combat zones as their male counterparts to obtain recognition and proper care and disability ratings when recovering from the same mental health issues. Again, this policy, along with the current selective service requirements, has had a larger impact outside of the military where women were not (are not) recognized as full citizens.

Transgendered individuals are facing enormous obstacles gaining social and legal equity; this is compounded by the fact that they are prohibited from serving in the military at all if they have had any surgical genital modifications, or if they disclose their transgender identity prior to or after enlisting. So unlike women and gay service members, transgendered individuals are granted no legitimacy as citizens whatsoever as defined by military. And for other populations that will never meet restrictive military service requirements (individuals with reduced physical or cognitive abilities, certain religious practices, advanced age, or mental illness), American society’s propensity for viewing citizenship through the lens of military normative characteristics may place those populations forever outside the reach of full citizenship.

It is past time that advances for gay soldiers and women are taking place in the military, and it’s certainly time to examine how best to integrate transgendered individuals into the service as well; the successful elimination of DADT and the positive progression for women in the service have both demonstrated that transgendered individuals should not be restricted from work as service members (or any other profession) based solely on their gender identification. The “right” to serve in the military should not be read as the “right” to full citizenship, nor should the military be able to establish service requirements that interfere with individual or group civil rights except with regard to mission readinessHowever, the rights of an individual should be recognized not through or because of the military institution, but as inalienable rights regardless of any institution.

1.A Federal court in California ruled that DADT was unconstitutional a full year before it was officially repealed.


‘You just have to get over the wall’

Women’s equality: ‘You just have to get over the wall’ | Article | The United States Army.

My mom is the smartest person I know, and she had this to say about the fitness standards in the military:

When you talk about women needing to meet the same standards as the men, perhaps the issue is that we sometimes confuse the standard with the means of achieving it. Take the marines and their pull-ups. Why does a female marine have to do a pull up or whatever number of pull ups will be the magic number? Does she really have to have equivalent upper body strength as a man to meet the standards of her job? Do she really have to be able to do x number of pull-ups to carry her gear and maintain stamina and fire her weapon? Is the method of measuring fitness appropriate for women or is it requiring an otherwise competent marine to be a physical anomaly just to meet an unreasonable standard of so-called fitness. Test women on the performance of their duties, not just a brute strength or running speed equivalent to a man.

“You just have to get over the wall” – Brenda “Sue” Fulton, graduate of West Point’s Class of 1980, the first Academy class to include women

Women in combat?

“The more we treat service members equally, the more likely they are to treat each other with respect.”

From Military: Women to take combat roles by 2016

The most common arguments among those who oppose women in combat:

  1. Women soldiers will be raped.
  2. The average American female cannot meet the current infantry requirements.

Argument #1Women soldiers will be raped.

Unfortunately, this is already happening in all branches of the military (it’s also happening to more male service members than female service members). Integrating women into combat units may very well result in additional sexual assaults and harassment, the expected backlash of a significant cultural shift in a male-centered organization. But as the good ol’ boys are cycled out, and new recruits join a military where women are already commonplace in combat arms units, the level of respect for the women serving at their side will match the respect they feel for their brothers in arms. Women will no longer be seen as the second class citizens as they are viewed now. Their service and sacrifice will be recognized as equal, and their contributions will be valued, rather than seen as a “politically correct liberal experiment”.

Read this excellent article that delves into the common misconceptions about Military Sexual Assault (MST):

Rapes occur on college campuses too. Should we ban women from obtaining an education at co-ed universities?  Or should we address the root cause of sexual assaults in both the military and in the greater population: A lack of respect and recognition as humans of equal value and standing.

Argument #2 The average American female cannot meet the current infantry requirements. 

Guess what? Neither can the average American male. Standards will be established, and those standards will preclude the vast majority of people who apply. If women can meet the standards, there is no viable reason to exclude them from combat positions.

I am 5’8″, already taller than the average male height (global), and an inch shy of the average here in the US. I consistently scored 70-80% on the Male standards for physical fitness during my enlistment. My physical conditioning at that time likely exceeded that of a huge chunk of the male civilian population and probably a large number of male service members. I carried a pack, M-249, 600 rounds of ammunition, and full body armor.

I wasn’t even close to being the most physically fit female in my battalion either.

I’m not anticipating a huge flood of women will sign up for combat MOSs, but those that do should be given the same opportunity to succeed or fail as their male counterparts. “Women don’t belong in the Infantry” just isn’t cutting it anymore.