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

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