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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.