By Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem (ret.), contributor
Observing the bombardment of Baltimore by British ships, Francis Scott Key penned the “Star-Spangled Banner” to capture the onslaught U.S. troops braved – “rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air” – for the sake of “the land of the free.” As it did then, our military will always without question answer the call to defend our nation. But airmen, soldiers, and sailors cannot be the only ones on whose shoulders rest the burden of cherishing the principles upon which our country is founded.
President Barack Obama, who has always possessed such a strong vision of what the United States could be, should understand this need better than anyone. All Americans must embrace and strive for what the United States – and its Anthem – represent. Thus, it is astonishing that the President suggested that only the military would be troubled by recent high-profile protests against the National Anthem.
Key was imprisoned upon a British ship on the night of September 13, 1814. It was from captivity that he watched the British pound Baltimore’s Fort Covington. His desire to discern “by dawn’s early light,” whether the “star-spangled banner yet wave[s],” was fueled both by his yearning for liberty and the Nation’s hope to resist oppression. As a song, “The Star-Spangled Banner” pays homage to the ideals upon which the United States was founded and those U.S. service members who gave their lives to preserve them. As our national anthem, it is a symbol of our enduring and unified aspiration to live up to those ideals and a clear statement of our collective determination to defend them.
Our National Anthem does not symbolize one simple law, political issue, or policy. It expresses a common heart within the Nation, striving to improve our laws and policies. During the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., father of the noted Supreme Court judge and defender of freedom of expression, proposed adding a stanza to the Anthem to further amplify Key’s message, including the lyrics: “By the millions unchained who our birthright have gained, we will keep her bright blazon forever unstained.”
Yet, some now consider our National Anthem to represent oppression. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick recently refused to stand for the National Anthem to protest “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Other athletes have now joined him.
It is the very principles celebrated in the Anthem that give Kaepernick the right to protest. No one knows this better than veterans; it is these principles that we swore to protect when we joined the U.S. military.
Yet, incredulously, the Commander-in-Chief spoke not one word of indignation on behalf of the service members he has sent to war. Instead, President Obama minimized the outrage of veterans by saying, “When it comes to the flag and the National Anthem and the meaning that holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us — that is a tough thing for them to get past...”
A tough thing to get past? As veterans of the U.S. military, we are deeply troubled by these recent protests. But we should not be alone in this outrage. If we are to be the nation captured by Key – the “land of the free and the home of the brave” – if we are to continue in our national quest to provide all with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we cannot expect our military to be the only ones who honor and respect the symbols and principles of our country.
No Commander-in-Chief of an all-volunteer force, predicated on the principles of civilian control and public service, should divide society – as President Obama has – between those who serve and honor our nation, and some who merely take riches from its vast opportunities. The Commander-in-Chief should speak forcefully in support of our national unity first, rather than simply defend the obvious rights of a pampered multimillionaire who has never served, like us, in war.
Perhaps Kaepernick and the President could learn from the example of Dr. Martin Luther King. Before presenting an advanced version of his “I have a Dream” speech before a crowd of 25,000 in Detroit, King and his assembly stood as the Four Tops sang the National Anthem. King personally experienced far more injustice than Kaepernick ever will. Yet, unlike Kaepernick, he did not sit.
If Kaepernick wants to better our society, he should celebrate our National Anthem. Its lyrics bring to life the message of sacrifice for liberty and justice more than any protest against it can. And if President Obama believes in the virtues of an “active citizenry” he should not be relegating respect for “the flag and the National Anthem and the meaning that holds” to just the armed forces.
During the Anthem, we should all stand together, united as a nation.
Stutzriem, USAF (ret.) was Director, Plans, Policy and Strategy, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. He currently serves on the Board of Advisors for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).