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MLB goes camo, patriotism blends into background

Shirts on Memorial Day are just the start of coming to terms with our nation's heroes.

Denis Poroy

It's funny what the marketing people think we want, sometimes. When we were working on a piece about how players do on their bobblehead days last week, and we came across the Pirates' May 18th "A.J. Burnett Camo Jersey Bobblehead Night" it both amused me -- our ballplayers now come with accessories and outfits, like Barbie and Ken -- and also put me in mind of a line from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic graphic novel "Watchmen:" "My study of recorded sales figures in a historical context suggests an increase in the sales of soldiers and action figures in times immediately prior to a period of anticipated war or bloodshed." We've been at war for 12 years now, so if Moore was right then "A.J. Burnett Camo Jersey Bobblehead Night" is just part of the zeitgeist.

Or maybe it's more simple than that, and people just think camouflage uniforms look cool. You can get lost if you think about this too much -- do people think camo uniforms look cool because we've been at war for so long, or is it just an odd twist of fashion? Third possibility: Relatively few people are interested in camo-topped baseball players, but marketing people think we are.

Whatever the actual popularity of athletes wearing pixelated patterns, Major League Baseball is hopping on the bandwagon with a majors-wide event on Memorial Day. Paul Lukas of Uni-Watch, who first posted the story, perceptively notes that:

Memorial Day is not a day for celebrating the military. It's a day for honoring the military dead. A more appropriate gesture would be an MLB-wide black armband. An even better gesture would be a pregame moment of silence, without anything on the uniform. But as is so often the case nowadays, merchandising and pandering trump common sense.

David Brown of Yahoo! echoed Lukas:

It's just disturbing how many people don't know what Memorial Day is for, and that they'll just mindlessly go along with anything that sounds remotely patriotic. Memorial Day has become a synonym for anything at all to do with " 'Merica," and it's a disgrace.

I think of this same effect quite often in the context of another military-themed holiday, November 11's Veterans Day. It was George Carlin who observed that our language goes through a continual process of softening, so that over time we get further away from the meaning of things. One specific example he used was the tendency of human beings to crack up if subjected to the full horrors of war. In the First World War, they called this "shell shock." In World War II it was softened to "battle fatigue." Today we call it "post-traumatic stress disorder," which is gentler, but takes us further away from the immediacy of what its describing, which is a person having a very natural reaction to a whole lot of people trying to kill him.

Similarly, Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, a remembrance of the end of the Great War, one of the most pointless and murderous conflicts ever to overtake the human race. After World War II, we needed another holiday to remember the veterans of that war, but I guess we didn't have room for another red-letter day on the calendar because in 1954, Congress simply changed the very specific Armistice Day to the generic Veterans Day.

World War II was a very different animal than World War I, and rolling them up into one big ball isn't really an adequate gesture insofar as a national act of teaching. Remember, the point of a holiday of this kind isn't to give people a chance to have a barbeque, take in a ballgame, or even to attend a parade and pat an aged veteran on the shoulder. It's to give us, as a people, a common frame of reference and an understanding of what it has meant to be an American, what decisions and sacrifices that entailed, and even (and especially) what kind of trouble we got ourselves into, so that if similar circumstances arise in the future, we all come at it with the same vocabulary. We love to talk about America as a melting pot, a place where many different points of view (cultural, religious, political, ethnic, even sexual) not only coexist but cross-fertilize each other, making a more robust whole.

One of the key ways that happens is by our sharing a common history. You might not have been here in 1917 or 1941 or even 2001, but we still need you to know. We'll even make it easy for you: You don't have to pick up a book on these things (given the way we squabble about history textbooks, we probably couldn't agree on which book anyway), but we'll give you a holiday, a place on the calendar where, it is hoped, you might reflect a bit on all the wars this country has fought and the people who risked their lives, or just plain gave them, so that we might continue to enjoy our freedom.

If you don't pause and take that moment, neither Veterans Day nor Memorial Day really counts for much. It's just an occasion to buy a novel baseball top or cap. That MLB will not profit from its Memorial Day merchandise, but rather donate it to a veterans' charity, is a nice gesture, but one that pales in significance to the sorry plight of veterans, who face long delays in getting disability compensation approved, poorly-run and understaffed medical facilities, and often cannot get to see a VA doctor in less than 50 days.

None of that really has anything to do with Major League Baseball except that when one appropriates the iconography of the military or any group it invites discussion of all that iconography means, for good or ill. Long ago, baseball players and managers used to talk about the game in the context of war. Then we had a bunch of wars, people seemed to realize, no, it's just an entertainment, and all the war talk died down in favor of other metaphors. (One wonders if this went through Ty Cobb's mind as he watched Christy Mathewson choke on gas in France.) In both world wars, the game did whatever it could to keep its product, the players, out of the military. Basically, like many of us, Baseball is willing to do anything it can for our nation's defenders except, well, do anything.

Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk notes that Baseball will also have a moment of silence for fallen veterans, so perhaps the camo uniforms will not wholly trivialize the occasion, but surely there is a more appropriate gesture MLB could have made, even a sartorial one, towards a holiday that is intended to commemorate our honored dead. Again, the civic thing to do is to teach. Camouflage is a pattern. You want a real symbol? Put the flag-raising at Iwo Jima on every ballplayer's back, or better yet, a picture of the glorious eagle that adorns the memorial at the Ardennes American Cemetery. Don't just sell tchotchkes, tell people something they don't know... or might have forgotten, namely that this day is about the men and women who sleep forever in places far from the land of their birth.

Baseball may mean to celebrate veterans, and one hopes they succeed, but for them and for all of us, just pulling on a shirt aptly symbolizes that our national interaction with Memorial Day doesn't even go skin deep.

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