War Games and War Names

"It's a perfect marriage," bleated DC City Council member Vincent Orange, and he wasn't talking about Charles and Camilla. The unctuous Orange was celebrating the National Guard's proposed $6 million purchase of naming rights for Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, home of Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals -- deal that the Washington Post reports is as good as sealed. So now, in the middle of Southeast DC, the Washington Nats will come to you, "Live from National Guard Field at RFK."

This is the first time a branch of the armed forces has thrown its helmet into the stadium name game. It's worth understanding why.

More than a decade ago, the names of sports arenas still held pretensions of dignity, tradition, and a kind of bloated grandeur. We had the Veterans Stadium, the Boston Garden, Memorial Stadium, Candlestick Park, Tiger Stadium, and the Spectrum.

Then, in the 1990s, all that was holy was officially profaned, and new stadiums sprang up like weeds, selling their "naming rights" to the highest bidder. The century old Tiger Stadium was abandoned to rot in favor of the sparkling new Comerica Park. The San Francisco Giants weren't playing at Candlestick any more. Their new stadium was first named PacBell and renamed SBC Park after the 2003 season. The Houston Astros were left with the most corporate egg on their faces, going from playing in the Astrodome to chasing fly balls in the gloriously named Enron Field. After the inevitable unpleasantness ensued, the team switched to the current Minute Maid Park, an equally unfortunate name at a time when no player wants to be associated with "the juice."

In the history on naming rights, the National Guard's attempted RFK purchase in 2005 will likely prove as embarrassing a display of hubris as the Enron deal.

It's no accident that the purchase comes at a time when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon desperately need the Guard to grow, and grow now. Recruitment is down more than 30 percent, and dissatisfaction among guard members is at an all time high. Lt. Gen. James Helmly, the commanding officer of the Army Reserve, said in January that the Guard and the Reserve are "rapidly degenerating into a broken force." With the Bush White House mis-using the reserve to achieve its imperial ambitions, the Guard has become stretched tighter than Dick Cheney's bikini briefs.

In the late 1960s, the National Guard was a prized place for country club chicken hawks like Dan Quayle and George W. Bush -- a perfect way to avoid Vietnam while not missing tee time. In the era of the volunteer army, the National Guard's most enduring image was shaped by the sight of reservists standing in armed defense of Fredericks of Hollywood during the 1992 LA Rebellion. At the time, a National Guardsman was typically far more likely to help clean up after a hurricane than inspect roadside bombs.

Today, the Guard - the under-trained, under equipped, one-weekend-a-month-National Guard - accounts for an astounding 40 percent of the boots on the ground in Iraq.

Thanks to the persistence of the Iraqi resistance and the so-called War on Terror's expansionist agenda, the Pentagon still needs more warm bodies to sacrifice. This is why, as Time Magazine reports, the Guard has now hired 1,400 new recruiters. This is why -- even though 25,000 soldiers are currently on food stamps -- there are 6 million dollars in the Pentagon Budget to spend on stadium naming rights. This is also why RFK stadium of Southeast DC -- with its decrepit high schools and spiraling unemployment -- is a perfect locale for their new publicity stunt. Since Sept. 11th, Armed Forces enlistment by African-American men has dropped by 47 percent. Presumably, even if they can't afford tickets, folks of color can come on by to sign up at the adjacent recruitment stands.

It's a telling fact that the only person to raise objections to this purchase -- and who could scuttle the deal -- is Sen John Warner (R-VA), who thinks the purchase doesn't do enough to raise the public profile of National Guard and increase its recruitment number. Ted Kennedy lifted his 82 pound head long enough to say that both he and Ethel Kennedy love the name change -- not surprising from a political family who thinks we are "fighting the wrong war," and should be taking on North Korea and Al Qaeda instead. Those new wars will require more troops -- all in the service of military goals that an unreconstructed hawk like RFK would have loved.

The people really gurgling with pleasure are members of the DC City Council. As Councilman Jack Evans put it, "I started laughing when I first heard it because you usually think of Verizon or a bank for a sponsorship. But I wouldn't object to [The National Guard purchase] as long as we get the money."

Evans may be laughing all the way to the bank, but others aren't quite as amused. People like Darryl T. Dent of the Army National Guard or Gregory E. MacDonald and Kevin M. Shea of the Marine Corps Reserve, all of whom signed up for a weekend a month and ended up coming back home in coffins.

Another person not laughing is Celeste Zappala. Just two weeks ago, Zappala was at George Washington University telling the story of her son Sherwood, who joined the National Guard after helping sandbag a flood in Wilkes Barre Pennsylvania. But instead of the civic works projects he was seeking, Sherwood was sent to to search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq -- the WMD that were never there. Sherwood too came back home in a coffin.

Zappala told the audience what it was like to hear the news from the soldier who came to her door: "He said,'Are you Sherwood's mother? Are you Sherwood's mother?' And I just started to scream and scream and scream. I could hear myself screaming. And he just stood there and he -- a neighbor heard me screaming and came to me and lifted me up ... it was just -- just a terrible -- the really worst moment of my life."

We need to see this attempted name purchase for what it is: an act of aggression by a military bent on increasing its ranks by whatever means possible, including using sports as a lure to hook unwary citizens. If the name is changed, DC residents should respond with the same words as the growing numbers of National Guardsmen who are now refusing to be recalled for duty. Repeat after me, "Hell no! We won't go!"


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