This article originally appeared at The Agon.
ESPN is giving a good deal of attention to the story of Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, a wounded Iraq War veteran and supporter of the New York Giants. In many ways, there are compelling reasons for this attention.
Gadson was injured in Iraq when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED). Although doctors were able to save his life, they were forced to amputate both of his legs after post-surgery infections caused complications. In the subsequent months, as Gadson has adjusted to a world without legs, he has built a relationship with the New York Giants.
A former teammate of Gadson's from West Point is now a Giants coach. They re-connected after Gadson's injury, and wide receivers coach Mike Sullivan introduced his old friend to members of the team. Understandbly, Gadson's experience was eye-opening for these professional football players. As linebacker Antonio Pierce said:
"Coaches and everybody always want to say football is like war, it's a battle -- no. This guy, he lives in the real war, the real battle. He knows what it's like to hear bombs and stuff going off. We're playing a kids' game, trying to have fun. He put that in perspective: Enjoy life, enjoy the moment, enjoy what you're doing, because it's rougher out there than what you really think it is."
This makes sense to me, as it reminds us of the human costs of war and, at the same time, encourages us not to take sport quite so seriously. But there's more, of course. And this is precisely why I pay attention to these things as a scholar. Mid-way through the story, Giants coach Tom Coughlin summarized the ideological underpinnings of stories like this one:
"I have so much respect for those serving our country in Iraq. He's a real hero, he's the real deal. This is a guy who's given a tremendous sacrifice of himself so we can sleep under the blanket of freedom, so I wanted to meet this guy."
Heroic? Yes. Deserving of our respect? Yes. But it is the simple, and unquestioned, assumption that Gadson's service is linked to our freedom that characterizes so much of the "support the troops" rhetoric that is increasingly common. Coughlin's comments take for granted that Gadson's "sacrifice" was worth making at all; it is a tacit endorsement of the mission in Iraq, and demonstrates yet again the subtle ways that professional sports sanction American military policies, even those that are misguided.
So my hope here is to re-frame Gadson's story. Indeed, he is heroic. And the details of his ordeal are moving. But let's consider for a moment that Gadson himself is a victim of a misguided war; the real tragedy is that he never should have been in that vehicle in Iraq in the first place. The war in Iraq is a charade, an invention of presidential hubris and belligerence. What is most tragic is that Gadson's "sacrifice" hasn't contributed to our safety or freedom. But it surely sounds and feels better to assert that it has, doesn't it?
To Greg Garber's credit, he keeps his distance from the politics involved in the war. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Coughlin's comments, which go uncontested, reinforce a rhetorical tendency to direct our compassion toward the victims of war without ever questioning how they became victims in the first place.