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The Military’s Love Affair with Football

A marriage embedded in communities across America.

Words: Miriam Pemberton
Pictures: Connor Coyne

The Washington Football Team’s protracted deliberations over a new name reportedly didn’t much consider drawing from the city’s political realm — too controversial, too unpopular. They hovered instead around a set of names connecting the team to the military. This is, of course, Washington’s other stock-in-trade, encircling its political center and saturating the ground with military installations from the Pentagon to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to the CIA, plus several major bases and finally the military contractors. The database “governmentcontractswon” lists more than 1,000 in Arlington County, where the Pentagon sits, alone.

But the mutual attraction between American football and the military is of course not exclusive to Washington. This love is expressed at games all over the country, routinely in the color guards and most dramatically in the flyovers. Last year’s Super Bowl featured all three of our deployed heavy bombers — the B-52, B-1, and B-2.

None of these bombers is built in DC. When the Commanders head to LA they will be touching down just south of a base in Palmdale, CA where all three have been constructed, and where the next bomber project, the $200 billion-and-counting B-21, is getting underway. The team will also be flying over Los Alamos, where nuclear weapons designs and key elements of the bomb material are produced, and Fort Worth, where the most expensive weapon system of all time, the F-35 fighter jet, is constructed. It too will be fitted for nuclear weapons. When the team goes up to play the Patriots they will fly over Electric Boat on the Connecticut coast, where nuclear missiles are being mounted on a succession of submarine models.

The mutual attraction between American football and the military is of course not exclusive to Washington. This love is expressed at games all over the country, routinely in the color guards and most dramatically in the flyovers.

I have been visiting sites like these to find out how they came to be woven into the fabric of America’s military economy, who works at these sites, and how what they produce fits into the whole of the military enterprise. In addition to these military meccas, I have visited the backwaters of this economy in places like Johnstown, Pennsylvania and Pine Bluff, Arizona. I have tried to understand how this economy works — its organization, and its means of perpetuating itself.

And for that, you have to go back to the Commanders’ hometown. That’s where Congress voted in December to give the Pentagon more money than either Trump or Biden had asked for. This was about the time they decided that investing in child care, health care and the prevention of catastrophic climate change via the Build Back Better framework was too heavy a lift — even when that budget came down to a mere quarter of what they were happy to provide the Pentagon.

To the extent that this absurd disconnect was addressed at all, it was couched as simply a matter of putting National Security first. But during his presidential campaign, Joe Biden told the story of an early visit to the Pentagon as Vice President for a briefing on the greatest danger facing our security: “Know what they told us it was? … Climate change. Climate change is the single greatest concern for war and disruption in the world, short of a nuclear exchange.”

In some parts of America’s military economy, you can find local communities that are trying to become parts of the solution to this climate security challenge. But as long as Congress votes every year to give the Pentagon as many resources as all other national priorities put together, these efforts will not gain much traction, certainly not enough to make a dent in the problem. While the Pentagon is doing some investing of its own to reduce its own emissions, the climate crisis cannot be solved without a zero-emission transition across the economy as a whole.

Now if only the green and human needs economies could figure out a way to do stadium flyovers…

Miriam Pemberton is the author of the forthcoming Six Stops on the National Security Tour: Rethinking Warfare Economies (Routledge, 2022).

Miriam Pemberton

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