Football and Our Warrior Culture

A few months ago I wrote a piece arguing for the separation of football and school. In it, I argue it’s ludicrous for a sport that can cause brain damage to be attached to institutions of learning.  While I still believe this is true, today I want to talk about one of football’s benefits.  In addition to providing structure, meaning, and discipline to young people’s lives, football helps preserve our nation’s warrior spirit.  No, this is not a joke.  As a highly physical and violent game, football maintains the notion that violence can be useful when used correctly.  It’s weird to hear anyone argue in favor of violence these days, but that’s exactly what I want to do.  Football does a service to our nation by reminding us that the world is still a place where violence matters, and where knowing how to use it properly can be the difference between winning and losing.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the reasons why some countries are willing to use military power and invest in it accordingly, and others shy away.  The crisis in Ukraine and living in Spain has helped clarify things.  Europe’s unwillingness to impose tough sanctions on Moscow is frequently attributed to the continent’s close trade ties with Russia.  There’s undoubtedly a large amount of truth in this statement.  But what if some of Europe’s reluctance is due to its unfamiliarity with violence?

Western Europe is the land violence forgot.  As Robert Kagan outlined years ago in his still-influential book Of Paradise and Power, since WWII Western Europe has abandoned the security competition and balance of power politics that made it a violent, but powerful, region.  Instead, European states have constructed a “post-history” paradise, where the universal existence of liberal democracy has obviated the need for inter-state competition.  Instead, cooperation, shared competencies, and an aversion to confrontation have become the norm.  This is a remarkable change for a region that only a hundred years ago launched the First World War.

But the problem appears to be that Europe has forgotten the rest of the world doesn’t function like it does.  Outside of Europe, competition among states remains the norm.  Europe has achieved a remarkable thing in eliminating the possibility of conflict within its territory, but it is an outlier in global affairs.  Moreover, the scarcity of violence in Europe exists not only on an inter-state level, but also within states too; Europe boasts some of the lowest crime rates in the world.  As such, entire generations of Europeans are growing up without any familiarity with violence and conflict.  Even the favorite sport in Europe, soccer, displays a child’s conception of violence  – something to be faked and played with, rather than serve as an integral part of the game.

Within Europe, the lack of violence is unquestionably a good thing.  Fewer murders and fewer wars among like-minded states have produced a prosperous and happy civilization.  But the rest of the world doesn’t share Europe’s democratic values, or its interest in promoting a free and fair market.  Many states, in fact, see these attributes as threats and actively seek to curtail them.  But can Europe rise to this challenge?  The world we grow up in influences how we view things for the rest of our lives.  If Europeans are growing up in a world sheltered from conflict, does it make them less likely to fight for the things that really matter?  If how we are at home affects how we act abroad, is Europe’s unfamiliarity with violence a handicap when it comes to projecting its power and defending its interests?

From an investment standpoint, the lack of consistent state-level threats makes arguing for higher defense budgets difficult.  After all, if conflict is never the problem, how can it be the answer?  But even in instances where Europe’s security is not obviously or directly threatened, such as in Afghanistan, Syria, the Central African Republic, and other locations abroad, larger proportions of Europeans than Americans are always against the use of military force.  And in general, Europeans have less faith in the utility of force to accomplish their goals.  The continent that conquered the globe at the end of a gun barrel no longer believes there’s much of a role for the military outside of national defense.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the military remains a popular choice for policymakers and the public alike when facing an international problem.  Of course it’s difficult to prove that the reason for this difference between Europe and the U.S. is because of Europe’s increasing unfamiliarity with violence; it could simply be a coincidence that Americans believe in the utility of force and love football, whereas Europeans prefer soccer and non-confrontation.  Or it could be that both are symptoms of another difference between the two cultures.  But it’s an interesting hypothesis and at a gut-check level makes sense.  Human beings often express opinions based on how they feel, or the world around them feels, at that moment.  This is why the percentage of Americans who believe in anthropogenic climate change, for example, changes so easily in conjunction with the strength of the economy.  In other words, it can be hard for people to see the big picture.  We focus on responding to frequent and immediate stimuli.

At the end of the day, in the U.S. violence is part of our frequent and immediate stimuli whereas in Europe it isn’t.  Football is part of this landscape of conflict we consume daily in America.  Every Sunday for more than twenty weeks a year millions of Americans tune in to their TVs to see which teams of hulking giants can better use force to win the game.  It’s a game where strategy, force and, of course, luck carry the day.  In many ways it mirrors a real battle, where you can never be certain of your enemy’s intentions or of how good your team is until you actually put it to use.  And as George Carlin famously noted, even the language used to describe football is warlike.

Football may be dangerous for its players and certainly poses a moral quandary for the schools it is attached to, but it’s not all negatives.  Football keeps Americans mentally ready to fight, which when you’re the strongest country on the planet, is a good thing.  After all, the world is still a place where violence matters, and knowing how to use it can be the difference between winning and losing.

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