Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Sports As Training For War

For no apparent reason, I was reminded the other day of Wellington’s remark that the Battle of Waterloo (meaning, I think, Britain’s part in the Napoleonic Wars) was won on the playing fields of Eton. Now, the closest thing to today’s sports that was probably played on the playing fields of Eton was probably rugby. And that set me to wondering: How have all of today’s modern sports played a role in giving young men skills for war?

I have no idea whether my answers below are correct or even plausible. I just had a bit of amusement thinking them up. You might have some amusement thinking up your own – or you might be happy to correct me.

Let’s start with rugby, since Wellington did. The core of the game, for those who haven’t seen a sample, is the scrum, in which several people on each of two sides lock arms and attempt to maneuver the ball in between them back to their own side so that runners behind can run free, pass back and forth down the field, and if possible kick through goalposts or reach the opponent’s end for points. In the scrum, a lot of things are fair: pushing your opponents back through sheer weight, kicking them, kneeing them, tripping them.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the scrum is in many ways like the situation when two infantries are locked together. In that case, we read often, from the days of the Romans on, of situations where sheer weight or the skill of the infantryman in using whatever weapons are to hand in the melee determines who wins – but note that it is not the infantryman as a soloist who wins the battle; it’s infantrymen in lockstep with their mates on the left and right. It is as if you were fighting with arms locked together.

Note also that in the scrum, the arms are taken out of the equation entirely. It is as if you are asked to fight with both arms tied behind your back; it’s great training for using the rest of your body, and it also makes sure that you can treat fighting with your arms (pikes, guns) separately from fighting with the rest of your body.

So there we are at the Battle of Waterloo, and the English infantry have played rugby, and the French infantry approaching them haven’t. What happens?

Well, in the first place, the British infantry feels very comfortable stretching out into a long thin line, three deep, just like the line in a scrum, as the French approach. That means that there’s lots more fire going at the French than is going at the British. And then, when the French reach the British, you might expect the superior weight of the French as they approach in their square to be able to punch through that line. No; the British are trained in this kind of push and shove, and will give much less easily – just enough so that the outside of the line will wrap around the French sides and maybe even the back. And now the people behind the front line, who thought they were safe, are getting shot from the side, and they are beginning to panic, and all the steam goes out of the forward push, and now it’s one to one at the point of attack as the people behind stop pushing, just like in a scrum, and the British scrum line starts moving forward, shooting, bayoneting, kicking in the groin, in lockstep, and just grinding that front part down, and then the next front line, and the next. Sounds like rugby is pretty good training, after all.


This one seems pretty fascinating to me. It turns out that there’s a record of a baseball game played by the Union Army of the Potomac in the Civil War in the spring of 1864. It wasn’t our modern game; you can tell by the score, because both sides scored more than 30 runs. But that makes a point: at least since that time, baseball has been played widely at the same time the US is waging war. So what’s the training going on?

Well, we can guess some of it from accounts of World War II. Over and over, we read accounts of American soldiers throwing grenades from semi-long distances that clear out bunkers, snipers’ nests, caves, etc. And it’s clear that Americans are pretty superior at that. We don’t hear that many stories of Germans or Japanese doing the same. No, with the Japanese it’s the mass charge at the appropriate moment, and with the Germans, it’s the tank-led advance.

So it seems to me that some of what baseball trains for, at least since the Civil War, is the skill of the long-distance accurate thrower. The batter is 90 feet away, and you have to fit the ball into a box bounded by the knees, the shoulders, and both sides of home plate. First base is about 90 feet away, and you the third baseman have to get the ball to a rough circle representing the range of the first baseman as he is standing on first base. Home plate is 200-300 feet away, and you have to hit a circle around it on the fly from the outfield to catch the runner trying to score. You practice straight fast throwing; you practice arcing slower throwing. A good outfielder can put that grenade in a pillbox from 400 feet away.

Now let’s look at the other possible skill baseball trains for: sharpshooting. I was struck by an account of Sergeant York’s actions during WW I, in which he single-handedly killed about 30 Germans. It is strikingly similar to the actions of a batter facing a 100-mph fastball being thrown from 90 feet away. Over and over, we read of great hitters with superb 20-20 sight, highly trained to pick up the baseball and determine what it is going to do at the moment it leaves the pitcher’s hand – 90 feet away. Squirrel hunting may train a youngster to shoot things close up; but it does not tend to train for seeing things 90 feet away.

And so (here I’m conjecturing) Sergeant York assumes he can shoot Germans from 90 feet away – much farther than the baseball-less Germans can shoot him. The moment he reaches that range, he focuses with his baseball skills, and then he shoots where he has focused. And it’s automatic.

But note that it’s not just Sergeant York alone. Otherwise, we’d just read about the Americans being good sharpshooters – ultimately, pretty useless in modern war. No, what this means is that many or most American infantrymen are comfortable shooting at longer ranges than their opponents. Isn’t it odd that, at Guadalcanal, the Marines newly introduced to war wiped out the Japanese mass charges, which had done pretty well against the baseball-less British in Malaysia? I don’t know; but I wonder if part of it was that the Marines could shoot them down at greater distances – because of baseball.


It’s impossible to talk about sports training kids for war without talking about soccer, because it’s so widespread. And it’s also puzzling to me: what is so useful about training kids to run long distances and kick a ball for most of that time?

Let’s start with the areas where soccer is hottest: Europe, Africa, South America. Not so much the US, not so much the Middle and Far East. All the areas where not just Britain, but also other parts of Europe were reaching out and settling in a major way in those societies from 1500-1900.

Now, what is it that running long distances and looking down at your feet as you do so is good for in the wars those Europeans have been involved in? Certainly, the scout. Probably, the skirmish line. Arguably, the long-distance infantry charge. But, again, we are talking about a sport that rose to prominence in the latter half of the 1800s. What has been its value in war training from then on?

Well, let’s start with one fact: in soccer, if you don’t attack, you lose. Whether it is the constant press or the counterpunch, fundamentally every soccer team understands that if you don’t continually keep up the attack pressure, you will be confined in your own end, eventually the ball will be taken away, and sooner or later by statistical chance a goal will be scored on you. When the sport is played at very high levels, this can be difficult to see; but for basic players, even the best solo dribbler can’t win for you; while constantly being able and willing to attack, will.

Now, this coincides with a fact of modern battlefields that, if I understand him correctly, John Keegan has highlighted: you simply have to find a way to attack, to break through, else you are faced with a bloody stalemate that everyone loses. The defenses are that good, now.

So, how does soccer avoid a stalemate? Well, here’s a scenario that I believe is somewhat typical: you get the ball; you feed it to the midfielder. He advances on the middle of the defensive line, and fixes it in place. He then kicks the ball wide to one side or the other, and the speedy wing races down the sideline and catches up to the ball, still typically outside what is now a defensive semi-circle. If the defensive line does not collapse back on the goal, the wing passes to the center forward, with the attackers in front of the goal outnumbering the defenders. If the defensive line does collapse back on the goal, the winger either crosses the ball to the center and trusts to luck, or passes the ball back and a ring of attackers passes the ball back and forth along the periphery, looking for a break in the defensive wall. You are always attacking. Attack frontally to fix in place; go around on the wings to attack from the sides; your opponents fall back, and back – if they can.

Sound familiar? It sounds like a German panzer attack on the soccer-less Russians, to me. And in a panzer or other tank attack, your infantry runs behind the tanks for protection, 30, 40 miles a day, always staying fixed on that tank. For your infantry, what comes naturally? Attack? Check. Run long distances? Check. Keep your eye fixed on something like a soccer ball as you do? Check. And their commanders, if they play soccer? Fix the opponent’s front? Check. Attack speedily on the wings? Check. Pass the ball of the attack back and forth between the center and the wings? Check. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, what I’m describing as a tactic, I have seen in books described as part of the genius of U.S. Grant in the Civil War. To me, what is striking is that no one else among the commanders on either side was thinking that way. Mercifully, apparently, U.S. Grant’s strategy has been enshrined in US military doctrine since then. But it clearly did not spring from any commander’s (or infantry’s) unconscious knowledge of attacking in soccer. Few in the US were getting trained in war by playing soccer.

But then, I ask myself, why was it that the British – who certainly were nuts about soccer from the late 1800s on – were not so good at the panzer attack? Why was it that, according to some accounts I have read, even Montgomery was more cautious and slower in his attacks on the wings than Rommel, so that for the most part Rommel lost to his opponents only because of fundamental weakness in his forces and tank resources? And then I remember reading Stalky & Co., Rudyard Kipling’s semi-fictional account of his stay at a pre-military-command academy in early-20th-century England, and I note that prowess in rugby was met with approval, while playing soccer is not even mentioned. Could it be that the British inability had something to do with the fact that while the infantry was trained in soccer, their commanders were trained in rugby? It’s a stretch, I know. Still, I wonder …

Other Sports

As far as I can see, other modern sports are not so widely trained in that they can affect infantry skills. Polo? That’s a horse sport, and, as someone noted in a discussion of Union cavalryman Grierson, from 1820 on the horse wasn’t a serious weapon, it was just “great bloody transportation.” Basketball and American football? Not really widely played as the primary sport until perhaps the 1950s or 1960s (and, by the way, until the use of the forward pass in the 1920s football was a bit like rugby). Tennis? Golf? Hockey? Give me a break. Auto racing? All right, I can sort of see it for modern tanks.

In fact, the one other modern training “sport” that I see as having a profound impact on one side’s ability to wage warfare is the video game. Again and again, the ability in a battlefield so dangerous that you could die at any moment to survive over hours and days comes from developing your ability to point and shoot really fast while playing a video game that stretches for hours and hours. Yes, sir, that tank battle that “won” the 2003 Iraq war was won on the playing fields of the Internet. Over the rise the American tanks come, as surprised to see the Iraqis where they were as the Iraqis were to see them coming from that direction. Guess who fired first, and more accurately, over and over, every one of those tank gunners? How much do you want to bet me that none of them had ever played video games?

But the one I’m really curious about is lacrosse. As I understand it, lacrosse comes from Indians in the Northeast playing it between villages starting sometime between 1400 and 1700. I understand the long-distance running; but why would they bother with a lacrosse stick? During most of that period, horses were not widely available there, so throwing spears from a horse was not a big factor in war – which seems to be the only obvious use for training in throwing something using a stick with a ladle.

The only thing even remotely approaching plausible I can come up with is that the lacrosse stick wasn’t about throwing at all; it was about training in not getting clubbed to death. I know, bear with me. At least some accounts suggest that what Indians did to win, eventually, was to club their opponents unconscious. Sorry, even with Indians, arrows are low-percentage. You get up close, and you hit him on his head. Now, think about how the lacrosse stick is used when you don’t have the ball. You’re trying to take the ball from your opponent, and you’re clubbing like mad. But you’re not clubbing his head (all right, I know some do), you’re trying to club the stick right next to his head, to jar the ball loose so you can scoop it up. And when you have the ball, you’re trying to avoid your stick getting clubbed. Much safer. Who needs training in clubbing? You need training in not getting clubbed.

And, of course, that means that lacrosse is pretty much useless in training for today’s war. Seen anyone getting clubbed lately?

The Future of Sports Training for War

Well, I think we have one plausible scenario for what future wars might be like: the tail end of the Iraq conflict. The enemy is not fighting in the front line, or even as guerillas; they are fighting house by house, city by city, soldiers and civilians intermingled. Your video game skills, your eyes and ears, are far less useful, because the enemy has been on this ground before you and prepared a death trap for you both that you can’t fully anticipate. And when you make a mistake and kill a trapped civilian, you create a new enemy, and so the resources of the foe are continually renewed. And this might go on, house by house, town by town, until you grow weary of the endless struggle, survey the wreckage, call it peace, and sanely withdraw.

Still, video game skills are not at all useless in this type of war. Clearly, the ability to assess a situation and react on a hair-trigger, hour after hour, situation after situation, at least gives you a better than even chance in each house-clearing. What you don’t have, from any sport popular with young men, is the ability to instantly assess whether it’s better to treat that house as full of civilians to be wooed or combatants to be overcome.

And yet, as it turns out, there’s a computer game that does indeed fit the purpose. It’s called King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella.

You win the game not by force or speed (mostly), but by solving puzzles. You are placed in an alien land, and your success is defined by your ability to figure out who should be fought, and who should be befriended and gifted. The rules are the rules of folk tales, universal to every culture. Your protagonist is a woman, so you simply cannot win anything by strength alone.

It appears that girls and women are better at this game. I had some training at folk tales, and I did terribly when I tried it – much worse than at shoot-em-up or even technology-puzzle games.

Which brings up an interesting question. If girls and women are better at this sort of game, should we have them be our infantry and our commanders in this war of the future? Or should we decide not to start this kind of war in the first place?

I don’t know about you, but I know what I’m going to do.

I’m going to go play tennis.


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