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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sport, Hearts and Minds and the Art of War

It’s interesting how much sports are a mirror to life, including warfare, politics and diplomacy, whether it’s tennis or chess or cricket or anything else. My professional life was spent studying politics and history so I feel I have something to say about this, using rather scary sporting analogies.

   Take chess, for example. Sylvia was telling me how her Grade 6 class kids were flogging her in chess games just about every time. While she was trying to marshal her troops protectively, her students were making daring and lightning attacking moves; not always clever ones, but upsetting any strategy she had in mind. They were winning because of these tactics. Fortune often favours the bold in circumstances where the strategist doesn't quite know what she's doing.

  I showed her how to counter this by getting her pieces out quickly and taking the initiative as early as possible in the opening moves of the game, and how the middle game worked – when to take advantage of a change in the balance of power, and how different the end game was from the earlier strategies in the game. I think she’ll give the kids a better run for their money next time.

   Or think about cricket. If you don’t understand or like the idea of a test match played over five days, then you can’t appreciate the subtleties of the game. How, say my American friends in particular, can you watch five days of a match and be perfectly happy with a draw at the end of it? Isn’t the object to win?

   Well, yes, but sometimes a draw reflects excellent tactics as well and is an appropriate outcome to a match, and may affect the outcome of a whole series and not just one game. No use trying to explain all this if you don’t already get it. We both know why.

   Sports also reflect national characteristics. Take the iconic American sport, their form of football; gridiron. Even the name tells the story. Tough, highly aggressive and involving carrying out to its logical conclusion something meticulously planned in every detail. Every soldier at his post. Heavy personal protection. Each man following orders to the letter. Personal sacrifice. Split second timing. The delight for the devotees is having faith in the plan and in seeing it unfold on the field. It’s limited warfare under rigid rules.

  Yet this assumes that each side plays to the same fundamental rules, clearly understood and adhered to by both. In general, no-one else in the world likes this game much, though they may admire elements of it and understand how it works. 

   I often suspect the mentality behind this game is partly why American governments have been so poor at understanding or accepting their failures in foreign policy over the past sixty years or so. To draw a long bow, they tend to assume, even in international diplomacy or warfare, that everyone else plays by the same tactical rules they understand and apply. Or if they don’t, they should, or should be made to. Like the Japanese with baseball, they'll get to appreciate it!

   No-one else is playing to their rules. Gridiron can only be really popular in its native land, played by the American perception of how it is done, or should be. Try to impose these local gridiron rules to other nationalities or mindsets, and failure in the longer term is guaranteed. It was OK in the Second World War, when the Germans and the Japanese essentially played gridiron rules just like everyone else except the partisans, but has never worked since nor is likely to work ever again.

   There is a far bigger game than ever gets played on the field, and since the Second World War, US administrations have played that game notoriously badly, mistaking the battle for the war. George Bush in Iraq epitomised that infamously when he declared victory in a war that is even today very far from over – the longest running military debacle in a hundred years. Propaganda and disinformation. ‘Embedding’ of reporters. Suppression of truth. Yes yes, the first casualty of war and all that, I know. Scores of people in Iraq die daily in that war, not worth reporting in the western press because people don’t want to know. 

   The outcome will be decided only when the outsiders have gone. Get out of Afghanistan, stay out of Pakistan. They’ll only have a chance at stability when we’ve gone or stop meddling, like bulls in china shops. And don’t even mention the Taliban until you understand what a motley and diverse collection of groups they are. Treat them as all the same, and you've lost before you started. The only honest brokers are the private security personnel. They know why they are there. Practically no-one else does.

   Wars in China, Korea and Vietnam should have taught us otherwise. Wars in the Middle East should have made US military tacticians more receptive to change. They read Tsun Tzu’s The Art of War at the US military academies and admire it, but have little idea how to apply it or counter its strategies. The way terrorists function should have helped them understand that the pilotless bombers operated from the US itself over foreign territories only win tiny battles yet increase their enemies tenfold, but don’t win where the winning matters. 

   There are no battlefields; only hotspots. If it were chess, the tactics reflect only of the opening gambits, a poor sense of the middle game and no sense at all of the period of end game. Generally speaking, American governments and their advisors still don’t understand Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, and they don’t have even the faintest clue about India and how it works. They have almost infinite intelligence information, but they have next to no idea how to use it – or use it the wrong way. The generals bamboozle and cow the politicians dreadfully.

   To switch to the gridiron analogy, they seem to imagine all that’s required is to make the rest of the world play that particular game and learn its rules. It’s not going to happen. If the rest of the world is playing any global football, it’s soccer, at which the US is a notable failure.

   The irony is that the American Revolution was won against an occupying force which played the same losing game as American tacticians now play in their overseas forays in world control. Double irony in that independence was won for American partisans by 1776 using the tactics that are now being used against them as occupiers of foreign lands in the midst of hostile nationalists. 

   When you don’t learn even from your own historical experience, then you’re really in trouble. To stretch the sporting analogy, they’re now using a gridiron mentality on the biggest soccer fields in the world, and just about any country in the world can lick them at that, especially when the fans in the stadium take part as well.

   You don't believe me? Then you've fallen for the propaganda and the rhetoric. I don't blame you. It's slick and its everywhere, like the glorious Golden Arches of MacDonalds or KFC. And just as finger-lickin' good for you.

  I guess, when it's all said and done, it’s just not cricket, is it?!


  1. Watching cricket is almost as good at playing it. Except for the grass stains, the bruises and the sun burn at the back of your knees...

  2. What a great post Denis!
    (Julie told me of it)

    I have taken to liberty of alerting my forum friends to it (we are keen watches of the international madness).

    But unfortunately, don't we all stencil world according to our own agreements? More or less anyway ... I hope I'm on the less...


  3. Anon: hey, you can have it all watching it too. Just fill up on booze, start a fight on the Hill, and the grass stains, bruises and even the sunburn will follow. It's the natural order of things on a slow cricket day. :)

    Michael: thanks for the comment. All analogies break down at some point, and there are plenty of places where mine can be challenged! I did want to make a distinction between US governments and the US people, because there are very large numbers of the latter who know what's gone askew in government, but are finding it extremely hard to make their voice heard.
    I guess we just hope for better from the country in the world with the greatest potential to change things in that direction. Obama has discovered limits he didn't know were there when he took office.

  4. Denis, I was surprised you didn't include Julian Assange in your examples. There's a classic case of people not playing by the same rules.
    And oddly enough, that example does seem to include much of the American public, who have taken their government's side in outrage at the rule violations. It is a good example of how the power elite in the world are reluctantly being forced to grapple with (previously secure) rule changes.
    And they don't like it. Ross Cameron's article in the SMH recently was an insight into how even those on the Right are realising the world is now playing a different game.

  5. America is crazy, but how many refugees or even migrants are trying to get into Pakistan, Afghanistan, or India, permanently? It is so full of contradictions, and while they might play gridiron football, so does Canada. Polite, mild mannered, gentile Canada loves gridiron.

    I used to watch my mother during the Grey Cup (annual gridiron orgey). My civilised mother, ranting at the television and screaming, "Smear 'em!!". It lets off a lot of steam, that game.

    Having lived next door to and travelled in America, I believe that the main problem is education. People are kept ignorant of what goes on in the rest of the world and are bred with a kind of belief that everyone is like them and if they're not, there's something wrong with them. As you say, Denis, the propaganda is too thick for them to penetrate, and only their world makes sense. Perhaps the internet will change this, but there's too much information to chew through.

    Americans, on the street, are generally wonderful. Generous, gregarious, optimistic. Contrary to what we see, they are not all shooting each other. But the small coterie of powerful people, the WASPS, have handed down power over the generations to like-minded people, keeping their money and their power under the tight control of private industry.

    Obama is not one of the in-crowd. Neither was Kennedy. Obama's undoing, I think will be because he will try to be one of them, and become totally co-opted, betraying his real principles, the ones he was elected for. This is happening right now to Julia Gillard and the whole Labor party.

  6. Michael: the only reason I didn't get on to Assange and Wikileaks was that I wouldn't have been able to shut up! I am not sure what the American public really thinks or whether they understand what's at stake. Perhaps it's embarrassment. I don't know. Perhaps 'the American public' just can't cut it as a description of shared values in the USA.
    In that sense I agree with Joan's paras 3 -5 just about 100%. I'm talking about that group that controls America, not the real people, from whom I have had nothing but warmth and hospitality in my travels there.
    The Canada/US thing is fascinating, as Michael Moore showed in Bowling for Columbine. Too much for me to write about, here and now, but any team sport is rightly tribal, and tribal passions can be enjoyable as long as they don't get too out of hand!

  7. Must say though, Joan, that India has enormous numbers of refugees who pour in for safe haven from all the surrounding countries (Tibet, Bangladesh,Sri Lanka, Afghanistan). Also I have met many westerners (Americans from the USA included)who have tried to attain Indian citizenship and some who have succeeded. I think it's the money people are after when they go to America, but will they want to go to China for that reason ? Perhaps not! It's interesting too that people from the US travel overseas so rarely compared to those from other western countries. I haven't been to the US but the characteristic I notice most about Americans I've met is their self assurance. Denis, you mention 'Bowling for Columbine' -did you ever see MM's 'Sicko'? Another big difference to Canada -the health system.

  8. I am aware that there can be hundreds of thousands of refugees in many countries at any time, but my point was about permanent migration. America is the richest country in the world (not for all its citizens, that's for sure), and yes, it's the money, but it's also the freedom and opportunity that people are after, real or not. I don't think they'll be desperate to get into China too soon.

    One thing that is important to understand about America, especially when it comes to their health care system -- Americans have an underlying belief (often unconscious) that everyone should be self-reliant. No one should have to pay for their health care, and they shouldn't have to pay for anyone else's. People should look after themselves and their own families. They are not socialists! This belief often functions to their own detriment, obviously, but if it's not taken into consideration, it's impossible to understand some of the weird things that go on there.


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