Interview | In war, shifting lines of scrimmage give metaphorical edge to soccer

Football vs. Soccer graphic

Editor’s note

The interview below follows from a discussion that began in the monthly Armed Forces Journal International. In “Football vs. Soccer” (Nov 03), Joel F. Cassman and David Lai argue that U.S. military strategy could be better conceptualized through the metaphor of world soccer rather than through American football.

In brief, they state that “football thinking” has dominated the U.S. military for too long and that using soccer as a paradigm for “decentralized control, decentralized execution” would be far more effective in meeting threats posed, for example, by terrorism. One wonders if Cassman, a career Foreign Service officer, and Lai, a native of China and a professor at the U.S. Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, foresaw the coming storm. [Update: Lai, as of 2009, is research professor of Asian security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.]

In March and April the journal prints spirited rebuttals by authors reluctant to jettison the American-football metaphor. One example:

[B]efore the U.S. cashiers its “football” approach to warfare for the more continental nuances and fluidity of soccer, Americans should recall the qualities that endear us to football—qualities that keep the United States the top-ranked team. (C. J. Krisinger and Martin Hertz, “The Football Advantage,” Apr 04, 48)

Within Cassman and Lai’s treatment we do not read, however, how U.S. armed forces might apply knowledge of soccer cultures to community- and nation-building projects in areas in which they work. Rather, the focus is the obsession of U.S. military thinkers with gridiron football as an analogue for how the United States should fight—and win—wars.

That is, the U.S. military should move “like a giant football team” and consume and occupy territory with overwhelming force. The fascination with American football, which long has proven a training ground for U.S. military and political leaders (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, etc.), extends now into the White House office of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Lai and Cassman open their study by quoting Rice’s attraction to the similarities between American football and war, to “the use of strategy and the goal of taking territory.”

Would switching to a soccer mind-set in military matters have practical effect? I do not possess such strategic expertise, although it seems that such conversations might be productive. “The United States needs to reorient its thinking about war,” Lai and Cassman write,

not as a series of discrete battles (“plays”) marching down a field to victory, but rather a continuous struggle, part of the human condition that will require continual effort over many years.

The authors’ reconception already has drawn hostile fire from the publication’s interlocutors, who read in Cassman and Lai’s model too great a willingness to surrender numerical superiority and to accept casualties or—dare we suggest it?—the dreaded draw.

My own view is cynical. The photographs accompanying this Armed Forces Journal series—primarily stock military frames of camouflage-clad trainees plunging onshore, tanks bristling with short- and long-range cannons or attack helicopters plowing up dust—should keep one aware that the debate is not abstract but involves equipping fighting forces for killing. Does it matter in practice if soldiers think of themselves as soccer players or football players as they go about their business?

I would rather see these infantrymen and women having kickabouts and unloading bags loaded with footballs from the armored-personnel carriers, showing their willingness to learn the local soccer culture rather than outflanking enemy militias in a 4-4-2.

American soldiers in Iraq quickly learned that such actions were just as, if not more, important in the “continuous struggle,” in Cassman and Lai’s terms, for hearts and trust.

Statement from David Lai and Joel Cassman

David Lai


First of all, we are very delighted to see a debate about strategic thinking and U.S. military strategy taking place. We want to thank John Roos, editor of the Armed Forces Journal, for his insight in this debate and for carrying the articles in AFJ. We would like to see more responses to our article. The following are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of State or any other agency of the U.S. government.

GG: To make your own position clear, is the importance of the “football vs. soccer” distinction purely metaphorical, or is there practical significance on the ground when one takes a soccer versus a gridiron-football approach to armed conflict?

DL & JC: As demonstrated by the 9/11 Commission hearings, it is clear that the U.S. government needs to undertake a fundamental paradigm shift in the way intelligence, military, diplomatic and law enforcement agencies interact and coordinate in order to face the asymmetric threats posed by the terrorists. Our position is that military strategy based on legacy thinking—summarized as the “football mind-set”—simply cannot adequately organize, train or equip our armed forces, law enforcement agencies or intelligence services to meet the current challenges posed by non-state adversaries.

The football mind-set—with its limitations of centralized control and execution and compartmentalized functions of “players”—does not provide the speed of intelligence sharing, mobility and deployability called for in current defense planning. Our approach is that a new paradigm based upon soccer principles would address the problems in interagency coordination that the 9/11 Commission has identified.

There is a world of difference between American football and soccer in theory and practice. Our article has highlighted the main differences. Today’s terrorists are trained to fight like soccer players. It is the way symmetric warfare is being conducted today against the United States. We need to learn as much as possible about the terrorist strategic thinking—that is, how the terrorists are trying to neutralize the overwhelming U.S. military superiority.

As a football team, U.S. military has no peer competitor. It is superior for fighting against well-defined nation-state enemies. Yet it is ill-suited to fight against dispersed terrorists. Our article is a think piece. We expect military and diplomatic practitioners to learn from this think piece and work out their operational plans.

GG: What is your reaction to the two critiques of your article that Armed Forces Journal has published to date (Timothy Malcolm, “Football vs. Soccer: Gridiron Approach Is a Winner,” Mar 04; Krisinger and Hertz, “The Football Advantage: Soccer Can’t Match Its Power and Flexibility,” Apr 04)? Specifically, Malcolm writes, “for the soccer-mentality fighters, loss of human life is not an issue at all, so they freely expend people to combat technology.” Is this argument valid?

Krisinger and Hertz state that the soccer model lacks the ability to assess the “big picture” in wartime and, later, in a more metaphorical vein, that the objective of conflict should be massive victory: not a 1–0 result, but a “49–0 drubbing.” Is this an example of a mentality that needs to change?

DL & JC: The two critiques show that our article struck a sensitive nerve among many readers of the Armed Forces Journal who adhere to legacy thinking of the football paradigm for the use of force. In our view, soccer strategy, as a model of decentralized control, decentralized execution, is a much better way to get the interagency coordination piece right in defending the United States against non-state adversaries. The soccer strategy is simply more appropriate to organize, train and equip interagency anti-terrorist teams, which need flexibility, speed and actionable intelligence against potential threats. As stated by CIA Director George Tenet in his testimony to the 9/11 Commission: “It will take another five years to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs to combat al-Qaida and other terrorist threats.”

We hope he reads our article and incorporates some soccer strategy and tactics in the changes to his organization.

We don’t see Malcolm’s point that soccer mind-set does not care about loss of life (players?). What will he say about football?

Removing the impediments to effective law enforcement/military/intelligence coordination will require a fundamental shift in the way government works. We need to match resources with our available means. While the “football” mind-set would seek an elusive, absolute victory against terrorism (“the 49–0 drubbing” quoted by Krisinger and Hertz), our recommendation for the United States is to develop a soccer strategy that uses finesse, patience and steady pressure to look for opportunities to dominate and eventually control
terrorism. It is a more realistic approach.

Staff Sgt. James Pepoon persisted with his idea for a regional football tournament in Taji, northwest of Baghdad, despite original objections from his platoon leader. “He first told me that it’d have to be played in body armor, and that didn’t sit too well with me.” The event, which took place on 26 Dec 08, featured sides from Rekiya, Taji and Hammiat and one team from the Strykehorse Squadron. (Photo © Sgt. 1st Class Brian Addis, 25th Infantry Division)

GG: No doubt these reactions in the Armed Forces Journal represent debates taking place elsewhere. What in the way you framed the question—“football vs. soccer”—has stirred such passion in the armed forces and attached communities?

DL & JC: Legacy thinkers, whether in science, economics or politics, often fiercely oppose fundamental paradigm shifts. Clearly our article stirred passions among persons who do not share the vision of a thorough transformation of the U.S. military to meet the new threats and continue to think in terms of conflicts with peer-competitor nation-states. The differing “corporate cultures” of the U.S. military services and law enforcement and intelligence agencies make coordination difficult. We are proposing fundamental changes that challenge the long-held ways of doing things—those barriers that prevent effective intelligence sharing. Defenders of the status quo may feel threatened by these profound changes.

GG: From a personal point of view, how has soccer come to shape your thinking so that you thought to relate the game to military doctrine? Do you have a long history of watching, teaching or playing soccer?

DL & JC: Joel Cassman has played both American football and soccer, and enjoys watching the professional and college games. He grew up in Nebraska and remains a lifelong fan of
the Cornhuskers. During his Foreign Service career, Cassman lived in a variety of South American countries
where soccer is the national passion, including Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. He is a huge fan of

David Lai is from China where soccer is also a national game. Now a U.S. citizen, Lai is also an American football fan (his greatest passion is with the John Elway and Mike Shanahan dynasty). While we take pleasure with the games (watching and playing), we also connect these games to war and diplomacy. Sports, as we put it in our article, are reflections of and substitutes for conflict and war. They are civilized competitions.

Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu

GG: Other than Sun Tzu, are there strategists whose ideas about battle might be related to soccer or to other field sports? Is not chess generally considered the most appropriate strategic analogue to military planning?

DL & JC: Lacrosse, ice hockey and even tennis are sports that require a combination of surprise, finesse and speed. They could also be considered as strategic models for how to deal with terrorist and non-state actors. These sports could provide insights on the fundamental changes needed to restructure U.S. military, law enforcement, and intelligence forces to deploy, win and recover much more quickly than in the legacy football model that emphasizes power over all else. But we think that soccer offers the best strategic model for the asymmetric threats we face today due to its worldwide popularity.

Americans liken international relations to chess play. Not all Americans play chess, but many act under the influence of the chess mind-set. Former national security adviser Zbigniew K. Brzezinski wrote a book called The Grand Chessboard. He intentionally uses the chess analogy to characterize international relations and discusses the future of geo-strategic relations in chess schemes.

Dr. Lai has a monograph coming out of the Army War College Strategic Studies Institute in Apr 04 (see “Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, Shi”). It is about a Chinese strategic analogue to military and diplomatic planning and tactics. It will be an eye-opener to many American military and political leaders and, hopefully, will make the debate more engaging.

GG: Would you add to your recommendations about soccer’s relevance to war planning and to the paradigms governing U.S. armed forces a statement about understanding its cultural importance? Would not cultural understandings about soccer be of use to troops abroad or to anyone serving the U.S. government in a foreign posting?

DL & JC: We agree that understanding soccer tactics and strategy would greatly assist U.S. policymakers and military/diplomatic/intelligence personnel both domestically and abroad. We need to “get into the mind” of our adversaries in order to understand and respond to the threats we currently face. In our view, legacy “football” thinking will not defeat terrorism—it will just multiply those threats and dissipate scarce U.S. resources. We need to fundamentally change our thinking to win the war on terror. American leaders will do themselves a great service by learning the strategic significance of soccer.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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