Paul Pillar

Football and War, American Style

Sports journalist Frank Deford, in his most recent commentary on NPR, sees a possible root of Americans' fondness for football--and especially for the more violent aspects of the game--in the frustrations associated with some of America's more recent wars.  He observes that the popularity of football has grown as wars involving the United States have become more disturbingly inconclusive, in contrast to some of the nation's earlier conflicts that ended in clearcut victory.  As wars have become more unsatisfying to watch, more Americans have turned to watching football.

I believe Deford is on to something, and he certainly is right about the popular frustration associated with inconclusive wars.  I would look at the war-football nexus more in the reverse direction, however, from the way he looks at it.  (Perhaps that's not surprising given that part of Deford's job is to explain sports, while part of my job is to explain issues of war and peace.)  Americans tend to think of war and warfare in distinctively American ways that are remarkably similar to how they think about football games.  This does not necessarily mean that football is the cause of the distinctive perceptions of war.  Some American attitudes toward both war and football are rooted in American history, geography, and the culture that in turn has been influenced by the history.  

But in at least a few respects football itself may be a shaper of American perceptions of war.  Look, for example, at cross-fertilization of the vocabularies applied to each endeavor.  Deford notes the use of war terminology in football: bombs, blitzes, ground attacks, etc.  The linguistic influence also works in the other direction.  The large flanking movement that U.S. troops under General Norman Schwarzkopf executed to seal the victory against Iraq in the Persian Gulf war of 1991 was known as a "hail Mary"--referring in this case not to the religious incantation that is the etymological source of the term but instead to a kind of long, into-the-end-zone forward pass in football.

One of the attributes of the American perception of war and football is that each is a contest against a clear opponent: a single, readily identifiable opposing team (even if that opposing team may be an alliance).  Another is that there are clear standards of success and failure, with the sought-after outcome being unmistakably a victory.  Yet another is that there is a clear distinction between playing the game (or waging the war) and not playing it.  A blowing of the whistle marks a sharp temporal dividing line.  We are either in uniform playing the game, or we are in street clothes not playing it.

These attributes accurately describe football games (with probably the only exception being that there still can be a few ties in regular season games without scoring in overtime).  And so believing and living by these attributes make for success in football.  Successful players and coaches focus intently on only a single opponent at a time.  They study lots of film of the opponent's games and, as voiced in countless cliche-ridden locker room interviews, concentrate only on this week's opponent and not next week's.  As for the standards of success being clear and simple, another widely accepted key to success in football is a single-minded, Vince Lombardi-style "winning is the only thing" commitment to victory. And as for the clear distinction between playing the game and not playing the game, one of the most admired sorts of players is one who channels all of his aggression onto the playing field, putting on his game face and being terrifyingly ferocious when in uniform but being a model, well-behaved citizen off the field.

The trouble with applying this same set of attitudes to warfare is that the attributes do not accurately describe many wars, or the modern use of military force in general.  The lines of contention in many armed conflicts are not as simple as just us against them.  (We compound the problem when applying a war metaphor to endeavors that are not just armed conflicts in the first place--most notably a "war on terror" that got grossly oversimplified into a contest between "us" and "the terrorists.")  The most feasible or stable outcomes of some wars may not be a clear victory for one side or the other.  And the modern use of the military as a tool of statecraft has blurred the temporal line between wartime and peacetime.  So we run into a variety of problems by thinking of wars in simplified, football-like ways.  We fail to see the overlapping lines of contention in complex conflicts, overlook possibilities for negotiated peace, and have historically swung a pendulum back and forth between fervent commitment to winning a war and, once we see a war as done, shunning responsibilities while seeking normalcy and peace dividends.

It would be good if football, and other sports, could be even more of a sublimated substitute for warfare than Deford suggests they are.  If we Americans could fully satisfy on the playing field (or in the stands, or on our couches, while watching others on the playing field) our yearning for clear wins in clearly defined contests, then maybe we would be more psychologically prepared to perceive real war more accurately than we now do.