Naval gazing

Keith Duggan went to America to watch a colllege-football game. He came home to the Irish Times with a remarkable piece of militarist propaganda. By Harry Browne.

Like Keith Duggan, I’ve been to see Notre Dame play the US Naval Academy (aka “Navy”) in college football at the Notre Dame stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Like him, I was quite awestruck by the scene and the occasion. Unlike him, I was celebrating my 14th birthday at the time, and still managed to maintain my critical faculties.

I’m an American. I have friends and family in the US military, including the navy. I know the risks their work entails. But I also recognise the literary form that Edmund Wilson famously called Patriotic Gore, with its sense that causes are sanctified by the lovingly evoked blood of the fallen. Last month Duggan went to Notre Dame, discovered - if he didn’t know already - that the famous Fighting Irish are still sliding down a two-decade descent into sporting mediocrity, and so directed most of his purple-prosaic awe at the young “Midshipmen” of the US Naval Academy, who find themselves so very close to “swift death”, who are “the living embodiment of everything that frivolous youth is not”.

It’s sad enough that Duggan went on an 8,000-mile round-trip just to bring back such a stereotypical image of Middle-American life, so monochromatic and monocultural, so perfectly lacking in discord or dissent; I guess things might truly look that way on a quick visit. But it’s downright offensive that he did so in service of militaristic myth-making, to bathe in sombre glory the servants and masters of US imperialism.

Because let’s get this straight: the graduates of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland - the likes of John McCain, an admiral’s son who finished near the bottom of the class of ‘58 - are not the poor grunts of the marine corps, or the cannon-fodder of the navy, the two branches where most of them serve their time after graduation. They go in as officers, and often rise to the top of the military and civilian elite. You need a congressman’s recommendation to get into the academy. The thousand who graduate every year make up a small fraction of the US military, and of its casualties.

Curiously, the word “war” is missing from Duggan’s piece, except in a passing reference to World War I, but certainly the article is quite deliberately haunted by warfare. Duggan finds it “peculiar” that recruitment has not fallen away in America’s time of “overseas conflicts”. It is of course the opposite of peculiar: the military has been a rare growth industry in the 21st-century United States, and the academy offers a chance to get in at management level.

The risks these military managers face do pale into statistical insignificance compared to, say, an Iraqi civilian, but they are nonetheless real. Duggan wallows in them, leading off his article with the tragic story of one JP Blecksmith, once a Navy footballer, but 18 months after graduation the victim of a sniper’s bullet in Fallujah.

But what did it mean to be “leading a platoon through Fallujah” in November 2004? Duggan prefers not to say. Journalist Dahr Jamail was there at the time, and he puts it like this: “For all their high-tech weaponry, precision munitions, and exceptional training, in their search-and-destroy mission occupation forces all but obliterated Fallujah. During the month-long siege of Fallujah by American forces more than 200,000 residents fled the city.”

Blecksmith's personal sacrifice is indisputable.* Navy graduates die. But they're far more likely to kill. And if they can kill by remote control, all the better.

Surely, you say, Duggan can’t be responsible for saying, or not saying, all this? It’s just a sports story, right? Well, he had a choice. He went to Notre Dame, but with its glittering wealth it clearly didn’t interest him all that much; in the nearest his article comes to sarcasm, he says Notre Dame has “8,000 students and not a Holden Caulfield among them”. So he buried Notre Dame in the middle of his piece. He could have written about American football, but that doesn’t appear to have taken his fancy either. Instead he devotes the crucial first and final sections of his article to a virtual ode to the brave men of Navy.

The article reaches its nadir when Duggan reaches for a half-sentence of weasel-y apology: “And regardless of one’s viewpoint on the role of America in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq...” - my viewpoint is that the US invaded those countries, precipitating “conflicts”; what’s yours, Keith? He continues: “ is all but impossible not to acknowledge the genuine valour of their commitment. For they are all so shockingly young and they believe in this cause and in this life, regardless of where it takes them.”

So Keith was in the US too briefly to find a single disaffected student at Notre Dame, but long enough to look into the hearts and minds of every Navy student and discover that they “all... believe in this cause and in this life”, whatever those might happen to be - his prose has bravely set sail at this point and has no need for the safe harbours of clarity.

If Duggan wants “genuine valour”, perhaps he should check out Bradley Manning, who spent most of his first year of torturous solitary confinement in the marines’ brig at Quantico, where presumably some of the officers are graduates of the Naval Academy that lies just the other side of Washington DC.

The reason Duggan went to an inconsequential American-football game, where there was nothing better to write about than Navy’s brave and beautiful boys, is because the two teams play again next September in Dublin. The annual game against Notre Dame is a money-spinner for the Naval Academy, whose own stadium is too small to cash in on the interest that Notre Dame still inspires. (Notre Dame is famously followed across the US by “subway alumni”, working-class Catholics who never went to that college, or perhaps any other, but nonetheless identify with it as the leading symbol of US Catholicism.) So Navy takes its bi-annual “home” game against the Fighting Irish on the road. In 1996 it came to Croke Park. Next year it’s in Lansdowne Road. The idea is to lure Irish-Americans with an “Irish” game in Ireland.

Duggan dutifully promotes that game: “Advance sales in the US have reportedly been strong so far.” (That word “reportedly” is so much better than “people with a vested interest have told me”.) In fact, the only named people quoted in the whole article are Naval Academy sporting administrators, which led me to wonder whether Duggan might have been hosted by Navy or its representatives - that is, by a branch of the US military - on his trip to the United States. This is not to suggest that Duggan’s approach to the story would have been affected if this were the case, but rather to ask, among other things, whether the story would have happened at all with the Irish Times paying all the expenses. I have been somewhat critical in the past of my friend and colleague Dr Tom Clonan, who travelled to the naval base at Guantanamo for the Irish Times with the US navy’s direction and assistance, but at least he was there in pursuit of a very legitimate story.

I have emailed Keith Duggan, sports editor Malachy Logan and the editor’s office of the Irish Times to ask who paid Duggan’s way. I have also telephoned the editor’s office. At the time of writing I have had no answer but will certainly update this piece if and when I get one. Whoever paid, it is certainly worth asking why such considerable space was devoted to an advance plug for such a game.

And while we’re at it, it’s also worth asking, after 10 years of America’s seemingly unending wars, why everyone seems to think it’s okay for Navy to play a “home game” in neutral Ireland. Perhaps it’s because the US navy, along with the rest of America’s armed forces, have got used to treating this country as a base, with permanently stationed liaison officers at Shannon Airport and hundreds of thousands of troops, and their weapons, passing through each year.

But we should also remember that it was a US navy C-40 transport plane that Mary Kelly attacked with an axe at Shannon in January 2003. Then, a few days later, after that plane had been repaired and was waiting to fly on to its role in the Iraq invasion, it was attacked again by five members of the Dublin Catholic Worker, the Pitstop Ploughshares, who put it out of action for months. Kelly and the Pitstop Ploughshares have been found innocent of any crime by the Irish justice system for disabling one small cog in the navy’s war machine.

The US navy has found in the past that there is more than one kind of Irish welcome. Which one awaits next September?

UPDATE Tuesday 8 November 3.30pm

With thanks to ‘Catch’ in the comments on this article, I can report that Fleishman-Hilliard PR has confirmed organising the trip, which saw seven Irish journalists flown to and based in Chicago from Thursday 27 October to Sunday 30 October, visiting Notre Dame for functions and the football game on the Friday and Saturday. The client was Navy, with whom the PR company is doing ongoing work in preparation for next year’s game.

For many years the Irish Times had a policy for its journalists of not participating in such ‘junkets’. Now it appears they not only partake, but have no requirement of acknowledging the junket, even when, as in this case, the sponsoring party is a branch of a foreign nation’s military and the Irish Times reporter fills his story with language that portrays it in a dramatically favourable light.

The Irish Times has still not replied to my questions about this matter.

UPDATE Friday 25 November 12:00pm

*A sentence comparing the Fallujah operation to a WWII atrocity was removed. While the comparison of these events is valid, in the editor's view, this sentence in which it was framed could be construed to include Blecksmith's own actions, which would be unfair.   

Image top: Radio Rover.