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

David Lai 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.”

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