17 November 2009

On Sports Analogies

According to popular legend, the Duke of Wellington had once claimed that "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton". Indeed, there always seems to be a link between war and sports--note the Victorian British Army's irrational obsession with rugby skills which will seem all too familiar to captains in our career courses forced to play Ultimate Frisbee ad nauseam.

The link between sports and war are most striking in American football, which seems to perfectly mirror the linear battlefield. Two lines of similarly-equipped teams clash into one another, sometimes in a battle of attrition and gridlock, sometimes in deft maneuver-war like passes and lateral movements.

Should anyone doubt the link between war and football, just witness dozens of defensive linemen bashing through gaps in the offensive line at top speed, wreaking havoc in the rear areas of the formation as they sack the quarterback-- American crowds refer to this play as a blitz, as the quick breakthrough of the defensive line resembles the dreaded blitzkrieg, when German Panzer formations broke through the heavily-fortified Maginot Line in France, as they sacked Paris.

But just as football takes terms from linear war, so do American commanders take terms from football. For example, in the movie Black Hawk Down, Army Rangers parody then-Captain Michael Steele's motivational speeches which draw heavily from football imagery. (Steele played football for the University of Georgia before being commissioned as an infantry officer)

However, while football analogies have their place, they're not always the best framework for understanding a non-linear battlefield, which counterinsurgencies and policing actions usually are.

When I first arrived in Iraq, we sat down to brief a general regarding our upcoming year-long mission. The general, after a few introductions, turned to the commanders in the unit we were replacing. He noted their accomplishments during their deployment, which took place during 2007-2008, just as the violence in Iraq began to drop off precipitously. The general claimed, "This team here has taken the ball to the twenty yard line. And I think you guys", he said, pointing to us, "are going to take this one all the way across the goal line to put this one into the 'W' column for the United States of America"

Some cheered when they heard this, but I remained skeptical. (Sorry, but the last time someone dramatically claimed that we won the war, he wasn't exactly right).

A year later, as we transferred control to another unit, I heard the following speech from yet another general:

"You guys have taken this one to the twenty yard line, and I think [your replacements] are going to take this one to the goal line as we depart Iraq and turn over responsibility to..."

Wait, that was the exact same speech from two different generals! You mean we're still on the twenty yard line?! How long have we been on the twenty yard line? Have we been on the twenty yard line for two or three rotations now? Are we 3rd and 10 on the 20 yard line? Seriously, I think these guys need to have their speech writers compare notes.


Anonymous said...

4th and Goal...we better get it right this time.

Boss Mongo said...

You guys took the ball to the twenty yard line, and scored a home run! With bases loaded, you got nuthin' but net! From outside the 3-point line, you burst through the sticky wicket! In the last period of the game, your slapshot sank the eight-ball!
Is it too early to start drinking?