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Victory In Sport And War

Too many Americans view the military like they do their favorite football team.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 26, 2009

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Victory In Sport And War

The two traditions most associated with Thanksgiving are feasting and football.

There's nothing wrong with that.

For many, football plays an important role in life. The performance of the home team penetrates their bodies. A loss is like a punch in the gut. An exciting game gets the heart pumping. A few years ago, a man in Pittsburgh literally had a heart attack when his favorite player fumbled and almost cost the Steelers a conference championship.

The love for this game is not rational, but it can be useful.

For instance, I have a love for a college team - even though it's of a university I never attended, in a state I lived in for only a few years. Its ups and downs provided life lessons for me from an early age.

Football also strengthens social ties. Two strangers who are forced by circumstance into spending time together, can at least talk about the local team.

Football also builds a sense of identity and community pride.

The U.S. doesn't have anything quite like it on the national level. The national soccer team, while getting better every year, doesn't generate buzz. The medal count in the Olympics doesn't concern us much, because the only Olympic sport Americans are actually interested in in non-Olympic years is basketball.

Instead, Americans identify with the military for their national identity. Today, many Americans will be giving thanks to the military for keeping the nation free.

Yet I think many Americans, and especially the politicians, are undercutting the effectiveness of the military. We want to cheer the troops on as if war, like football games, is about wins and losses.

This is especially wrong-headed when the "war" is actually an occupation of foreign countries. The U.S. overthrew the regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan through military force. In such instances, they "won" the wars against those nations.

But it's impossible to "win" an occupation. One can have degrees of success with an occupation, but even here supporters of U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have it backwards. They think, because we successfully occupied Japan and Germany after WWII and rebuilt their nations, that we do the same in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the U.S. did not face fierce resistance then. We are facing fierce resistance now.

We can't have it both ways, saying that if we succeeded then, we can succeed now. How can we compare one occupation where the locals do not put up a fight, to an occupation where they do?

It's not a matter of victory or defeat. A home-grown resistance of guerillas and terrorists can never be crushed militarily unless the people stop supporting them. The people will stop supporting the resistance only if their legitimate grievances against the occupation forces are met.

From the American perspective, however, this is about winning and losing. If we "negotiate with terrorists," we lose. If we pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan and the terrorists declare victory, we lose.

We must continue the occupations because, still stinging from defeat in Vietnam 36 years, the U.S. doesn't want "lose" another war.

The U.S. will therefore stay in Iraq and Afghanistan until until the U.S. itself goes bankrupt.

We view military success in terms of win-loss record, similar to how we view football teams. But military engagements are not won and lost on battlefields between conventional armies. The military is instead a tool of diplomats and politicians. And in international and domestic politics, there are no wins and losses, only gains and setbacks - neither of which are permanent.

We can be thankful on this day for the joys and excitement of football. We can also be thankful for those in our military who are risking their lives for the country. But let's not confuse the two. Football results are measured in objective wins and losses that remain in the record books forever. Military engagements are about temporary gains and setbacks.

If we stubbornly pursue "victory" in our military engagements, all we will get is setback after setback.

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