When Team USA competes against Germany in today’s World Cup match, it will field a team consisting of 5 German Americans who were born and raised in Germany. Four of those players’ fathers were American service members. English is not their first language. They will be coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, himself born and raised in Germany. There are also 2 other players who are dual nationals, one Norwegian and one Icelandic.
As the World Cup approached, America looked up from its Big Four sports and soon the outcry began: our team is not American enough! And when Klinsmann dared to weigh in on the American sports organizations’ tendency to reward a player’s past accomplishments and not current or anticipated production, Michael Wilbon of ESPN declared Klinsmann was not American enough to weigh in on American sports culture and suggested that he “get out” of America. While I’m no expert in soccer, I’m pretty sure that trying to silence (and deport) people is pretty un-American.
Evidently, when certain people watch Team USA compete in the World Cup, they can’t quite smell Mom’s apple pie cooling on the windowsill.
What is “American?” Does it refer to a geographical location? A set of principles? A cultural identity? Can “being American” be conferred through official documents or are there other factors which identify someone or something as American?
As military spouses, we live with the fact that our husbands or wives may be put in harm’s way. They serve America. They fight to defend America. They assume the awful burden that they may have to give their lives to protect American interests. And so do we.
To shoulder this burden, it would help if we knew exactly what it is that our spouses are fighting for. America. All things American. Allies of America. American ideals.
It would ease this burden if we could pinpoint exactly what it is about America that makes us willing to assume that risk. Our spouses’ lives and our families’ unity hang in the balance, so it should be pretty obvious that we know exactly what it is “we” are fighting for.
It is commonplace to refer to America as the great melting pot. The place where cultures coalesce and ethnic boundaries become blurred. But I’m not so sure that’s the case. The “melting pot” analogy warms the heart and fuels our sense of family kinship with one another. Recently, another analogy has gained traction, that of the “salad bowl.” Rather than dissolving into undifferentiated slurry, different races and ethnicities unite in a place called America, while retaining their own cultural identities and customs. Just as you can clearly identify the different ingredients in a salad, I think it is fair to say that we can clearly identify different cultures operating under the great tent of “America.” We are not a homogeneous country. We are not that salad blended into a vegetable smoothie. Out of its many ingredients…one salad.
Is there a uniquely singular American culture? I’m not so sure.
We have the surf culture of Southern California. We have the visceral intensity of New York City. We have hippie culture, cowboy culture, inner-city culture, rural culture. We’re all a bunch of Hyphenated-Americans. But is there a single American culture, one that unites us and one for which we are willing to wage war?
You might point out, “Well, America is more than geography or culture, it’s an idea. It’s the land of opportunity. Of liberty. It’s the place where freedom reigns.” I would agree. But I would also point out that America hardly has a monopoly on principles of freedom and liberty. I believe in American exceptionalism, not because we have corned the market on so-called American values, but because we are the most fully realized version of those ideals.
When my wife was stationed in Stuttgart, we lived off post and found that we had much in common with our German neighbors. I often encountered Germans who clearly loved America and American culture. Their English was impeccable and they frequently mentioned how lucky I was to be American. I think an argument could be made that those folks were far more American than those malcontents among us who constantly denigrate our country, our military and our way of life.
While we were in Germany our second son was born, not in an American hospital, but in the Boeblingen Krankenhaus. (Still one of my favorite German words…the “sick-house.”) After a prolonged process of securing an international birth certificate, filing for a Social Security number and applying for a passport, he was officially recognized as “American.” But for the first year of his life, before we PCSed back, he evidently wouldn’t have been “American enough” for some folks to play on Team USA. I can’t tell you how absurd that notion is to me.
Is Team USA “American enough” to represent America?
I’ll just say that when our kids joined the German neighborhood kids outside, they communicated, not through language, but through play. Let us hope that, though these weeks of World Cup play, we as global citizens can come to better communicate with one another as well.
Chris Field has been an Active Duty Army spouse for 8 years. He teaches university philosophy wherever his wife’s duty stations take him, and writes regularly for DC Military Family Life. Being an Army spouse doesn’t define him, it completes him. Don’t ask him about Fight Club or Nietzsche, for you will never hear the end of it.