Letter From Military History – November 2012

Football It Ain’t

Military analogies are often casually applied to sports, and less often, sports analogies are applied to warfare—especially now, in football season. There are some superficial resemblances: Football is a contact sport in which two teams—each in body armor and distinct uniforms—engage in a violent struggle to conquer and control territory, and to reduce the opponent’s will and ability to resist. Other parallels are evocative. There is talk of “offense” and “defense,” and use of complex tactical plans, with premiums placed on surprise, maneuverability and speed. It all takes place on a formal and well-defined “battlefield” on which certain generally agreed-upon rules prevail.

Of course, the sports/combat analogies only go so far. Military “competitors” play for keeps. Combat is directed not merely toward demoralizing or disabling opponents but toward killing them. Nevertheless, the popularity of likening some sports—football in particular—to a military campaign does suggest something important about the type of warfare to which Americans are accustomed and with which they are most comfortable—the so-called conventional war. Conventional or “normal” war, as most of us understand it, is large-scale conflict between national armies, in which organized and disciplined uniformed forces fight to dominate territory or to destroy the enemy’s forces, infrastructure and ability to conduct warfare. This is the type of war the United States has fought frequently and most successfully—from the American Revolution to the Gulf War.

There is another type of war, though, that the United States has fought less successfully and certainly less comfortably—unconventional, asymmetric or even “guerrilla” warfare. With murky goals, few battle lines, no clearly identifiable enemies and few “rules,” this type of warfare features a high level of improvisation rather than recognized tactics. It does not resemble football. Rather, it is like a bar fight or an exceptionally rough midnight game of capture the flag—except it too is like all modern combat, played for keeps.

Historically, this type of warfare—like the Barbary Wars, skirmishes with the Plains Indians, the Philippine War, several “police actions” in Central America, aspects of the Vietnam War and the events of September 11 and their aftermath—has been as challenging as America’s conventional wars. Since such conflicts seem likely to erupt much more frequently than conventional wars, they might best be considered the real “normal” type of warfare––suggesting it is finally time to blow the whistle on that hyperbolic football analogy.

2 Responses

  1. tony tramonte

    All true no doubt, but football is changing too, with strikes every year, owners crying poor-mouth, the NFL implementing public relations strategies in response to concerns about concussions, players whining because they are given the “franchise tag” and thus are forced to take 9.5 million for a season, etc.

    And in much the some way much of the military establishment is built around buying weapons systems and keeping the money flowing, the NFL is concerned about how they can maximize revenue by essentially having a system where they get much of their money from cable fees, in a system where they lobby Congress to make it difficult for subscribers to order stations individually.

  2. H. Davis

    This is an interesting line of thought, but the facts are a bit off. We were the insurgents fighting asymmetrically in the American Revolution. Also, even during conventional conflicts like WWII and the Korean War American forces conducted irregular and unconventional operations in support of conventional campaigns. The essence of warfare is winning – however that is culturally and societally defined by a combatant – and no real norms exist beyond this. The football analogy definitely has got to go though, sports are not warfare and vice versa.


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