Super Bowl Sunday.
An American institution. A night of parties, sport and food. A whole lot of food.
And this Budweiser advert.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for Lieutenant Chuck Nadd. He deserved his welcome home. And his friends probably got a lot of free beer. That’s genuinely great. Still, I have a problem with the advert that used him.
Because it speaks to a troubling Super Bowl trend — the appropriation of patriotic service in pursuit of profit.
And be under no illusion, it is a trend. Last year it was Jeep.
But the corporate identity is ultimately beside the point. The real problem here is the manner by which ads like these further decouple American military families from civilian society.
Watching the Budweiser ad, it’s easy to get carried away and believe that Anheuser-Busch has been unbelievably generous. And in the imagery of parade floats and pomp, they have. But the truth is that for a company as large as theirs, the sums involved were negligible. The gains, however, were exponential. Budweiser already holds a powerful place at the heart of America’s drinking tradition. Nevertheless, by situating its brand in the basking light of returning soldiers, Budweiser’s ad proffers a false narrative for civic virtue — ‘Want to be patriotic?’, it not so quietly asks, ‘then have a Bud.’
And so we have the first disconnect.
Since 9/11, with extraordinary sacrifices, nearly 7,000 American service members have lost their lives in service around the world. Tens of thousands more have suffered injury to body, limb, and brain. Some, like Cory Remsburg, deployed ten times or more.
Budweiser, Jeep and co. would have us believe that we can honor that legacy by buying their products. And their implicit offer is a salivating one — patriotism by buying things that benefit our own particular tastes rather than doing things that are hard. After all, it’s easier to drink beer than engage with the realities of contemporary military service. And it’s comforting to feel that, by watching and nodding along to these ads, we’re in some way connecting with those who have served.
Except that the opposite is true.
For many in our society, terms like TBI and PTSD are known but not understood. In similar vein, while many are aware that Veterans services are woefully inadequate, few have any embedded interest in the details of why that’s the case. Or mobilizing a popular movement to fix such problems — they’ve lasted for years now.
It’s easier to drink beer.
Yet this isn’t just about our isolation from the consequences of service in war — it’s about our deeper divorce from war.
When we watch ads that proclaim celebration for the military, the ads tend to begin with the military member’s return home. Again, advertisers are taking the easy option. Fostering consumer comfort is easiest when military service is portrayed at its most heartwarming. The problem, of course, is that the return home represents the culmination of the hard reality and not the reality itself. As a society, our celebration of military service is matched only by our lack of interest in the nature of such service. Whether a soldier, sailor, marine or airman has spent 15 months patrolling a dilapidated Baghdad neighborhood, or a year patrolling IED-infested roads in Helmand, or doing something else in some other far off place, for most Americans, it’s all one and the same. Heroic yes, but out of sight.
Most certainly out of mind.
We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that foreign policy is an issue for those in government to deal with. That we can stick our head in the sand and wave yellow ribbons. Instead of facing up to the complexities of national security — supporting the use force or opposing it — we prefer to chant our support for the troops. And drink Budweiser. And drive Jeeps to the mall and then back home.
We’re deluding ourselves. In the end, those who best support the troops are not those who best make profit from them.
Instead, the real “troop supporters” are those who apply entrepreneurship towards public service.
Those who facilitate a better union between civilian society and veterans.
Those like some good friends of mine, who choose to fundraise.
And while those who drink beer may well be patriots, drinking beer does not a patriot make.