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Baseball and War, All-American Pastimes

A decade of war hasn’t done much good for the country, but it sure has been good for the Red Sox.

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 4:50 PM EDT

And the holiday festivities at Fenway had another significance as well, one that extended beyond burnishing institutional reputations and boosting bottom lines. Here was America's civic religion made manifest.

In recent decades, an injunction to "support the troops" has emerged as a central tenet of that religion. Since 9/11 this imperative has become, if anything, even more binding. Indeed, as citizens, Americans today acknowledge no higher obligation.

Fulfilling that obligation has posed a challenge, however. Rather than doing so concretely, Americans—with a few honorable exceptions—have settled for symbolism. With their pronounced aversion to collective service and sacrifice (an inclination indulged by leaders of both political parties), Americans resist any definition of civic duty that threatens to crimp lifestyles.

A Navy Seal parachutes into Fenway Park.: kke227/FlickrA Navy Seal parachutes into Fenway Park. kke227/Flickr

To stand in solidarity with those on whom the burden of service and sacrifice falls is about as far as they will go. Expressions of solidarity affirm that the existing relationship between soldiers and society is consistent with democratic practice. By extension, so too is the distribution of prerogatives and responsibilities entailed by that relationship: a few fight, the rest applaud. Put simply, the message that citizens wish to convey to their soldiers is this: Although choosing not to be with you, we are still for you (so long as being for you entails nothing on our part). Cheering for the troops, in effect, provides a convenient mechanism for voiding obligation and easing guilty consciences.

In ways far more satisfying than displaying banners or bumper stickers, the Fenway Park Independence Day event provided a made-to-order opportunity for conscience-easing. It did so in three ways. First, it brought members of Red Sox Nation into close proximity (even if not direct contact) with living, breathing members of the armed forces, figuratively closing any gap between the two. (In New England, where few active-duty military installations remain, such encounters are increasingly infrequent.) Second, it manufactured one excuse after another to whistle and shout, whoop and holler, thereby allowing the assembled multitudes to express—and to be seen expressing—their affection and respect for the troops. Finally, it rewarded participants and witnesses alike with a sense of validation, the reunion of Bridget and her family, even if temporary, serving as a proxy for a much larger, if imaginary, reconciliation of the American military and the American people. That debt? Mark it paid in full.

The late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a name for this unearned self-forgiveness and undeserved self-regard. He called it cheap grace. Were he alive today, Bonhoeffer might suggest that a taste for cheap grace, compounded by an appetite for false freedom, is leading Americans down the road to perdition.

Andrew J. Bacevich, the author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His next book, of which this post is a small part, will assess the impact of a decade of war on American society and the United States military. To listen to 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. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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