Colin Kaepernick sat down to make all of us consider what we stand for

The quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the American national anthem prior to the commencement of an NFL game. Why should this small act of defiance generate so much controversy and debate?

Firstly, the NFL is huge business in the United States. A multibillion dollar extravaganza, the NFL, along with baseball and other national sports, are fused with unbridled patriotism in American popular culture. The national anthem is played as a matter of routine. Chris Hedges, long-term commentator and political writer, wrote in an article back in 2014 that sporting events have largely become mass religious ceremonies tied to blessing American wars and militarism. The virtual religious reverie of the sporting arena – typified by NFL games – is used to normalise inflated war budgets, cultivate public support for the US military forces, and reinforce public opinion in favour of endless wars overseas. He wrote that:

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.

While traditional places of worship remain empty on Sundays, the sporting arena is where religious fervour is expressed. The uniforms, caps, and paraphernalia of football (and baseball as Hedges wrote) form modern-day holy relics, preserved in the museums and halls of sporting fame across the land. The collective outpouring of euphoria is accompanied by, among other things, the singing of the national anthem. It is not unusual for military aircraft to stage flyovers prior to NFL games. The beauty, power and precision of the airplanes – according to the NFL – demonstrate the close fusion of sporting prowess and military heroism in the public mind. However, there is no mention of the horrific toll that war takes on the population. As Hedges reminds us:

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.

The NFL crowds roar their enthusiastic approval during the prematch flyovers – the military that produces crippled and traumatised veterans, while libraries and schools close, and billions are allocated to ever-expanding military budgets. Back in 1991, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, when the United States pummeled Iraq – the latter a military pipsqueak compared to the US – patriotic fervour was at an all-time high. Prior to the commencement of the SuperBowl that year, in Tampa, Florida, Whitney Houston – a black woman – sang a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Her talent was incredible and indisputable. Here was an America that had vanquished the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ – public opposition to overseas wars. America was patriotic and great again – what could be more emblematic than a black woman, surrounded by American flags, belting out the national anthem at the SuperBowl?

Decades later, America remains mired in the Iraqi quagmire struggling to turn defeat into something resembling a positive return on investment, the United States remains the starting point and epicentre of the terminal phase in the capitalist economic crisis, and a professional black American footballer refuses to stand for the national anthem. Kaepernick’s simple protest action has sent shock waves throughout American society, and his action has filtered through not only the sports world, but also into the political system. Kaepernick, and those who have stood by him throughout this controversy, are challenging the blind faith in patriotism, the latter that makes all of us ignore the ills plaguing the country. Police violence against African Americans is at epidemic proportions, and Kaepernick highlighted this issue as one of the reasons why he took the action he did.

Not only are police officers avoiding accountability for their murderous actions, the financial oligarchy that is responsible for the current economic downturn has also avoided facing the consequences of its culpability. Kaepernick’s action is gaining support not only from African Americans and supporters in the Black Lives Matter movement. American war veterans, white and black, are also organising support for the quarterback. They are refusing to join the violent right-wing backlash against Kaepernick, pointing out that military service does not blind them to the fact that African Americans are being assaulted and killed by brutal police forces across the country. Former US Army Ranger Rory Fanning expressed his support for Kaepernick, stating in an interview that:

Anyone who’s been to a sports event in this country, or seen one on television, knows full well the connection that is made between sports and military. From the national anthem to the jets flying overhead to the convenient trotting out soldiers to “thank them,” nationalism and “patriotism” is constantly forced down the throats of sports fans.

Many soldiers thought they were going overseas to sacrifice for freedom and democracy. But they are not seeing those ideals being practiced in this country.

Kaepernick’s protest is resonating with soldiers who feel like they’ve been lied to. One thing that has come across clearly from so many soldiers’ tweets and posts is that soldiers do not feel like they are risking their lives so the state can kill with impunity here in the United States.

Fanning added that while the United States kills people overseas with impunity, the same thing is happening inside the US itself. He explained that he had served in Afghanistan; however:

Then after returning from Afghanistan I saw how the security state had grown at home. I saw that the United States has the largest prison population in the history of the world, with African Americans (there are a lot of people of color in the military) being disproportionately incarcerated. Public schools are being gutted in every city. The media and politicians barely mention our endless trillion-dollar wars and drone operations.

Let us listen to what Kaepernick is trying to say about the condition of his own society, rather than wrap ourselves in the false mantle of wounded patriotism. He is using his status and fame as an NFL player to raise awareness about the legalised, systematic form of racist police violence and jarring economic inequalities. As Dave Zirin commented in his column about Kaepernick’s protest:

It is also pathetic that so many in the sports media, who a few months ago were praising the legacy of Muhammad Ali, are coming down so ferociously on Colin Kaepernick. As if sports and politics can mix only in the past tense, and racism is something that can only be discussed as a historical question. People can choose to agree or disagree with Kaepernick’s analysis or arguments, but they should deal with the reality of the facts he’s risking his career to bring into light.

Kaepernick’s true sin – if you can call it that – is to highlight the injustice of an economic and political system in which he has thrived. Make no mistake – Kaepernick acquired wealth and fame in the NFL structure, and is risking losing all of that in taking the stand that he did. He is willing to sacrifice millions in endorsements, corporate sponsorships and salary to raise awareness of, and take a stand against, the racist injustice of an unequal corporate state. Kaepernick has broken the silence around the bargain that successful athletes make with corporate America – remain silent about the racism in society, and enjoy your millions as you rise the sporting ladder.

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States drew a false finish line beneath the question of racism. After all, has not racism ended with the rise of a black man (actually a biracial man) to the top political office in the land? Is not Kaepernick himself biracial and successful? What grounds for complaint does he have? It is interesting to point out that Kaepernick, being of biracial background, is not the first person with mixed ancestry to protest against racism. Malcolm X had white ancestors, those ancestors passing on their reddish hair and lighter skin to the main who rose up eloquently and bravely against racism. Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery writer and activist;  W E B Du Bois, sociologist and the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University – both had white ancestors, and yet both became, each in their own generation, courageous and intelligent advocates for African Americans.

An elite composed of black faces is taken to indicate that America has resolved its racial divisions. Kaepernick reminds us that African Americans, regardless of whether or not individuals have ‘made it’, face a racist corporate state determined to defend its wealth and privileges at all costs. Kaepernick’s protest reminds us that human solidarity and empathy cannot be banished, while the fundamentalist doctrine of neoliberal austerity ravages the community. Individual success, while noteworthy, should not be acquired at the expense of societal resources. Kaepernick’s motivations are not unrealisable pipe-dreams; his colleagues in the NFL have taken their stand as well.

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Laos and the long shadow of an American criminal war

US President Barack Obama visited the small nation of Laos in early September 2016. He is the first sitting American president to set food in that country. He did so after attending the G20 summit in China, a meeting of the largest economies and central bank officials, the purpose of which is to encourage economic and political cooperation to stabilise and strengthen the capitalist system. Laos was one of the invitees to the 2016 G20 summit. It is always encouraging when economically smaller nations, such as Laos, are recognised as growing in importance, and are invited to further their integration into the international community. Obama visited Laos specifically to welcome the Vientiane government, and boost bilateral ties between the two nations. This is all very well and good, but it does raise serious questions about the role of the United States in South Asia.

American investments and influence in Asia was acquired, not by peaceful means of trade and economic ties alone, but by waging criminal wars of aggression to carve out spheres of influence at the cost of millions of lives and casualties. This is illustrated no better than anywhere else than by the experience of Laos. In the context of the American war on Vietnam throughout the 1960s, Laos was also targeted by the US authorities. It is true that Laos, like Vietnam at the time, was experiencing a civil war between the Royal government, backed by the imperialist states, and the Pathet Lao, the nationalist and Communist political movement which was eventually supported by the former USSR and China. Laos became a battleground state, locked into the Cold War, in much the same way as Vietnam. Successive attempts to establish a Pathet Lao regime were undermined by the secretive political machinations of the West, cooperating with the Laotian Royalist forces. When these intrigues failed, the United States turned to a devastating, but no less secretive, type of warfare.

From 1964 to 1973, the United States air force dropped at least two millions tonnes of bombs on the nation of Laos, conducting 580 000 missions over the population of 6.8 million people. That effort means that a planeload of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Laos became the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. This counterinsurgency effort was undertaken ostensibly to disrupt the supply lines of the North Vietnamese inside Laos, and bring further pressure on North Vietnamese forces. Actually, this aerial bombing campaign was part of the secret war, the CIA-sponsored programme of regime change, intended to establish a friendly pro-Western government in the country. The Americans had taken over from the French in trying to subdue the anti-colonial and nationalistic movements for independence, not only in Laos, but also throughout Indochina.  The bombings killed thousands, displaced many more – villages and towns were completely destroyed, the landscape left a cratered desolate wasteland. Areas of farmland were rendered useless and uninhabitable – more tonnage was dropped on Laos than on Germany by the Americans during World War Two.

The CIA and American authorities were heavily involved in all aspects of the Laotian fighting – the Royal Laotian army was trained by US personnel, CIA operatives armed and trained anti-Communist guerrillas from among the Hmong tribespeople, supplementing them with mercenaries from Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. The Hmong guerrillas, assisted and abetted by the CIA, funded their activities with the production and sale of opium. Countless thousands were not only displaced by the aerial war, but had their lives ruined by the outflow of heroin as part of this secret war. It was a secret war for the American (and Australian) populations, but not for the Laotians who endured this suffering.

Laos is still coping with the trauma of that war, with unexploded ordnance (UXO) dotting the countryside. Close to half the country is contaminated by UXO, and thousands have been maimed and killed long after the war and foreign invasion ended in 1975. In June 2014, Democracy Now published the stories of those who are living with the deadly legacy of the American bombing. The Democracy Now team spoke with Thoummy Silamphan, a bomb accident survivor from Laos, who explained what happened on that fateful day when as an eight year old, he went out to collect bamboo shoots:

THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: One day, I needed to find some bamboo shoots for to feed my family, to make soup. So—and when I saw the bamboo shoots, and I tried to dig into bamboo shoots. After that, the bombie explode to me.

AMY GOODMAN: What you call a “bombie,” like a bomblet, exploded?

THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: Yes, because at that time in my village or in those areas, we have a lot of the bombing, and we don’t know the bomb under ground. And when we’re digging for bamboo shoots, and then the UXO explode to me, yeah. And it get—I lost my left hand. And that time, it’s very, very difficult for me to continue my life.

The Legacies of War web site summarises some of the startling realities that Laotians must contend with in their everyday lives, surviving in the dark shadow of this criminal American war on their country. For instance:

  • Between 1993 and 2016, the U.S. contributed on average $4.9M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
  • In just ten days of bombing Laos, the U.S. spent $130M (in 2013 dollars), or more than it has spent in clean up over the past 24 years ($118M).

In a way, the United States is still terrorizing Laos, by not providing sufficient funds and resources to adequately clean up the Laotian countryside and detoxify it in order to make it at least livable again. This malignant neglect has got to stop. This lack of funding reflects the grotesque priorities of a decaying social and economic system – boosting funding for large banking and financial institutions to stabilise the terminally ill system; neglecting the ecological and human costs of wars that are the products of that system.

President Obama, when speaking during his Laotian visit, expressed regrets about the consequences of the bombing campaign, and pledged 90 million dollars to help remove unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs from the country. That is all well and good, but it does leave us with two relevant observations to make; firstly, 90 million is still a pittance given the scale of the cleanup, and the horrific barbarism of the bombing visited upon the Laotian nation. Back in 2010, Brett Dakin, writing about this issue in The Guardian newspaper, stated that:

So far, the US has contributed an average of about $3m a year to bomb removal efforts in Laos. In contrast, the US spent more than $2m a day (about $17m in today’s dollars) for nine years dropping the bombs in the first place. The US can, and should, do more.

The state department must make a sustained commitment to solving this problem, starting with an allocation of at least $7m next year for the removal of unexploded ordnance in Laos. According to the department’s own weapons removal and abatement experts, this would dramatically reduce the impact of unexploded ordnance in Laos. A modest increase in funding would have an enormous impact for the people who live among the hidden remnants of the Vietnam war in Laos.

The horrific legacy of the US assault on Laos (and Vietnam) is still afflicting the people in that region until today. Millions lives in fear of their lives from the unexploded cluster bombs that litter the countryside. These cluster munitions are particularly lethal weapons because they contain multiple sub-munitions within one canister. The main ordnance disperses its payload over a wide area, causing casualties and injuries indiscriminately. Until today, the United States still uses, and trades in, cluster munitions.

The trade in cluster munitions brings us to the second relevant observation; while it is commendable that Obama has acknowledged the Lao victims of the US bombing, his administration is still creating more war victims. That is the point made by the writer and historian Jeremy Kuzmarov, in an article published in the Huffington Post. He wrote that the aerial and CIA-war on Laos provided a disturbing template for the current war on terror, a war that Obama has maintained and escalated throughout his years in office. As Kuzmarov observes:

The U.S. pioneered weapons systems in Laos such as drone surveillance and electronic ground censors connected to computerized bomb targeting centers that are a feature of the so-called revolution in military affairs guiding U.S. operations in the Middle East.

The U.S. government strategy in Laos was to subcontract counterinsurgency to proxy forces and rely heavily on Special Forces units and air power in the absence of regular ground troops while censoring media coverage. The manipulation of public opinion was epitomized by the fabrication of a story of a North Vietnamese invasion, during the monsoon season no less, when the roads were actually impassable.

Yes, the Obama administration changed the rhetoric surrounding the war on terror, referring to it as ‘overseas contingency operations’ (OCO). However, the content and substance has remained the same. Obama, throughout his two terms in office, has done nothing but escalate American military operations, deployment of US special forces, expand drone surveillance and warfare, and pivot increasingly to Asia, securing alliances with countries that can serve as allies in any potential conflict with China. Obama’s Laotian visit can be understood within the context of this pivot to Asia. Obama’s motivations to set foot in Vientiane is not just to spread a charm offensive, but also tactical – Laos is a potential gateway to Southeast and East Asia.

Laos has been getting on with rebuilding its country – after the end of the Laotian war in 1975, it was the former USSR that assisted in rebuilding the country from scratch, providing technical and financial assistance. Laos remains dependent on Chinese and Russian investment, though it has been steadily opening up to Western investment. The United States would like to claim a stake in the Laotian economy, and Obama’s historic visit is the first step in that endeavour. It is one thing to remember the Lao victims of the American bombing. However, Obama shows a perverse disregard for the Laotian casualties of that war and its lethal legacy by adopting the central doctrines of aerial bombardment and war by proxy – the very tactics developed by those responsible for bringing calamity on that country. It is time for the Obama administration to be held accountable for the war victims that it creates.

The Long Tan commemoration – a manufactured controversy

In August 2016, Australian government officials and the corporate media denounced a decision by the Vietnamese authorities to downgrade the scale of the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Long Tan. The Hanoi government, after much diplomatic wheeling-and-dealing, decided to reduce the scope and extent of the planned ceremony for the Long Tan battle. The event itself was intended to be on a much larger and more lavish scale than previous years, with a concert planned and that visiting Australian veterans were to wear their full uniforms and medals. The Vietnamese government decided to deny permission for such an event to proceed, and returned to their usual practice of allowing a low-key event.

The fact that a controversy erupted in the pages and web sites of the major Australian newspapers and media outlets is quite telling – it reflects on how Australians are manufacturing the memories of the Vietnam war. This particular battle is usually depicted as an unequal contest – a David-like Australian contingent, far outnumbered by the superior Goliath-like Vietnamese enemy, bravely holding out and winning against insuperable odds. This way of commemorating the battle, couched in terms of Australian courage in the face of overwhelming enemy advantage, plays an important role in disguising the true nature of the Vietnam war. The hypocrisies that surround this commemoration allow us in Australia to remember the Vietnam war, not as a savage assault by a militarily superior imperialist power against a rural people fighting for their independence, but as a study in platitudes.

Binoy Kampmark, writing in Counterpunch magazine, elaborates on the hypocrisies of this type of commemoration. The war of US imperialism against Vietnam, extending over decades, was a sustained assault on the majority of the population. The Vietnamese were firebombed, scorched, poisoned and tortured, and are still dealing with the calamitous consequences of that attack until today. While Australia’s role in that particular slaughter was only small, it was however complicit. The Australian government at the time, headed by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies, deliberately and aggressively pushed for a more active combat role in Vietnam.

While Canberra does play the role of subservient underling to the imperial power of the North, it never forgets its own calculated and cynical self-interest. Menzies and his cabinet colleagues aggressively lobbied the power-that-be in Washington for an Australian military mission in Vietnam; they did not wait to be asked. Participating in the assault on Vietnam was motivated partly by Menzies’ anti-Communist ideology, but also partly by self-interest. As the Canberra authorities saw it at the time, making a small investment now on the side of the Americans would pay large dividends in the long-term.

The Australian socialist writer and activist Tom O’Lincoln wrote about Australia’s contribution to the Vietnam war:

One way Australia’s peculiar boutique imperialism is presented as superior is to suggest our troops are free of war crimes. Is it true? The Australian troops in Vietnam committed no major massacres, but there’s much more to be said. The main culprits of atrocities are not the soldiers at the front line, but the leaders in Canberra and their mates who backed – even-egged on – the genocidal American war effort.

The commemoration of Long Tan attempts to wash away any guilt about or association with the crimes of US imperialism in that country. How can a heroic stand by a small and determined troop of Australian soldiers against a numerically superior enemy be considered part of a larger criminal enterprise?

The battle itself was the largest loss of Australian lives in a single battle – 18. Each one of these deaths is an individual tragedy, and the families of those killed live with the trauma and emotional scars of that time. We would do well to remember that the losses sustained by the Vietnamese in that battle were ten-fold the number of non-Vietnamese casualties. The Australian veterans of that conflict are fully entitled to commemorate their experiences as they see fit – in Australia. To travel to the country that was devastated by the conflict, a victim of a larger imperial assault, and expect their views to correspond to ours indicates either a willful conceit to expunge Vietnamese suffering from remembrances of the war, or a startling ignorance about the impact of that war on the domestic population of Vietnam.

Allen Myers, long-time socialist and activist, wrote in an article for the Red Flag newspaper ‘What’s behind the carry-on about Long Tan?’ that there are definitive political objectives behind the fuss about Long Tan;

The reason is that the veterans are being used by Australian governments and media, who want us all to believe that wars waged by Australian governments can be noble and just and worthy of our support. This propaganda strategy uses the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers involved to conceal the vile purposes of the people who organise and benefit from war.

To do this, the propagandists seize on one or a few events and build a myth around them, attempting to make them emblematic of the whole war so that we will forget what it was really about.

It is interesting to note that at the official Long Tan commemorations in Canberra, there were a number of activities, including aircraft flyovers by two B-52 bombers from the United States air force. It was the US air force’s use of the long-range B-52 bombers, carrying out the indiscriminate bombing of densely-populated regions of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for years, that cost so many millions of lives. It was not just the carpet-bombing that devastated the region and resulted in millions of casualties, but also the constant use of chemical defoliants.

Rather than react with arrogant and condescending indignation regarding the decision of the Vietnamese authorities, there is another course of action open – disagree, but respect and accept their decisions about affairs in their own country. Let us remember the Vietnam war, address the trauma and suffering of that conflict, but avoid turning Long Tan into a shrine to aggressive militarism.