War Games

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It’s war. They don’t give a freakin’ you-know-what about you. They will kill you. They’re out there to kill you. So I’m ‘a kill them. You write that in the paper. You write that. You make money off that. No, man, I’m pissed. All y’all take this down. I’m pissed, man. We don’t care about nobody except this U. We don’t. If I didn’t hurt him, he’d hurt me. They were gunnin’ for my legs. I’m a come right back at ‘em. I’m a fuckin’ soldier!”
– Kellen Winslow, November 8, 2003

It’s been nearly eight years since Winslow’s infamous postgame rant, unleashed after his Miami Hurricanes lost a close college football game to Tennessee, yet it still serves as a sort of cultural touchstone for post 9/11 America. The backlash to these comments was immediate, and the narrative universal: How dare a college athlete playing a child’s game compare his actions to that of a member of the armed forces? Facing a torrent of criticism, Winslow apologized days later, saying he could not “begin to imagine the magnitude of war or its consequences.”

Winslow’s initial statement, though melodramatic and a bit dense, deserves more thorough examination than originally undertaken. We live in an era of hyperbole, after all, where new best ever and new worst ever athletic performances are discovered and discussed ad nauseam every day. Accordingly, I doubt very much that any fan or competitor took Winslow’s words as an expressed desire to enlist in the Army.[1] Further, the equating of sports with warfare is neither new (Grantland Rice coined the term “The Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame in 1924), nor does it occur only with violent sports like football (see the various war-related headlines for last year’s 11 hour tennis match at Wimbledon between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut). And America’s newly crowned Douchebag of the Millennium, one Lebron Raymone James, utilizes military metaphors only slightly less than he refers to himself in the third person. Which is to say he does it a lot.

Though it’s considered unseemly in our time, this analogizing of sports to war makes complete sense – athletics, at its essence, is nothing more than mock battle. There’s “us,” there’s “them,” and “they” must be defeated. While modern athletes may not want to explicitly kill their purported enemy, they sure as hell don’t mind sending them to a figurative afterlife, i.e. the offseason.[2] Many of the same traits that mark an exceptional athlete – physical prowess, grace under pressure, an obsessive need to work and work at the small, technical aspects of a craft – also mark an exceptional soldier. And the same tried and true clichés (which are clichés because they are tried and true) that inhabit many sports about teamwork and sacrificing for the good of the game imbue the military, as well. The team is the unit, and the game is the mission.

If one were to draw a Venn Diagram to illustrate this union, the ancient Olympics would have a prominent place in the intersected part of the circles. Not only were these games partially assembled for temporary respites from war, but the final race of the Games was usually the Hoplite Race, an event that required competitors to don the helmet and armor of an infantryman, all the while carrying a bronze-covered wood shield. Training for war during peace – sounds like an ad slogan for the Nike Pro Combat line![3] Additionally, how many sports teams have borrowed the “band of brothers” line from the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Henry V? My completely unscientific research suggests somewhere in the 900-1200 range, and that’s just in the professional ranks.

To tighten this shot group a bit, America has its own complicated history with the relationship between sports and war, from Bob Feller to Muhammad Ali to Pat Tillman. The latest bizarre entry into this ever-evolving tome? When Marine Lieutenant Colonel Shane Tomko joked over the summer during an on-air interview that the only way to stop pitcher Roy Halladay was with a tank round.[4] Still not convinced? Still believe in the much-vaunted spirit of the game, and find the very concept of war to be something else entirely? Consider these words of wisdom by a pair of America’s most beloved dickheads, General George Patton and Coach Vince Lombardi. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,” General Patton said. “He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.” And Coach Lombardi? “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” The same sentiment pervades those declarations, if not the same degree of application.

While the sports world attempts to dramatize its happenings with overreaching comparisons to armed conflict, the complete inverse occurs within the military. Sports analogies exist, and exist in plentitude, in an effort to normalize the abnormal. Finding significant or sensitive information on a raid is a “touchdown.” Nicknames for local Iraqi and Afghani roads like “IED Alley” are coined and used by ground troops; senior command prefers less morbid terms like “Route Tigers” or “49ers Way.” During armor officer training at Fort Knox, my group of 40 second lieutenants was told we needed to quarterback combat operations in the vein of Brett Favre.[5] When appropriate, we needed to move with an Allen Iverson-like swagger, while still other times exude quiet confidence, ala Derek Jeter. One eccentric instructor suggested we watch pro wrestler Mankind’s greatest hits if we weren’t yet comfortable with how much blood could pour out of a human body.[6]

Then there was March Madness. No, not that one. Another March Madness.

In the spring of 2008, while the NCAA basketball tournament played out half a world away, Muqtada al-Sadr lifted the freeze on attacks against Coalition forces by his militia, Jaish al-Mahdi. The central and southern parts of Iraq exploded in violence, particularly in Shia-heavy areas. Based out of a village northwest of Baghdad that rested on a sectarian fault line, my scout platoon and I spent the first night of what came to be known as “March Madness” chasing a lot of ghosts and a lot of gunfire but finding nothing. The next morning we stood in the dirt, looking at a building with a sloping roof and two cannonball-sized holes in the middle of it, courtesy of an Iraqi army BMP (armored personnel carrier). They claimed to have taken gunfire from the second floor during the chaos of the night, so their gunner decided to eliminate said floor.

The streets were deserted, even on this main strip that doubled as a marketplace. At first, we came across only one local, a teenage security guard scared out of his mind, but forced to show up for work because his father made him. The pucker factor, as it’s so eloquently referred to, was high.[7] Every rooftop shadow became a sniper, every piece of garbage on the ground an anti-personnel IED. We turned a corner and came across a group of kids playing foosball.

They were in front of the village’s “arcade,” which was nothing more than a couple pool tables, some dartboards, and this one foosball table. One of their cousins had given them the keys, and because the electricity had gone out over the course of the previous evening, they’d moved the table outside.

If any of these scrawny, malnourished boys were frightened about what had occurred the previous night or what was to possibly come, they didn’t show it. They were way too involved in the happenings of foosball, every touch pass a shout, every goal a cheer. There were five or six of them, aged anywhere from 7 to 16, and in lieu of finding order and peace in their existence, they had created their own.

Still on edge, my men and I at first sensed a trap.[8] After deciding an ambush would’ve already occurred had there been one set, we laughed at ourselves and joined the Iraqis at the table, first the interpreter and I playing a game, then a sergeant and a private. The rest of the platoon took turns swapping security and spectator duties. In the meantime, the madness and the stresses of the war drifted away for a few minutes, lost in the beauty of a game. A child’s game, I might add, fittingly played with children.

Eventually, the radio squawked, imploring us on to some follow-on mission, but this experience still lingers with me, and not in the same way that most “no shit, there I was…” war stories do. In many ways, those skinny, clowning kids did more to return their village to normalcy than we did. That dirty, trash-ridden street served as home for them, and home meant something. Sometimes that something meant foosball. Our presence there, though, was transient – there’s only so much peace twenty Americans carrying rifles and machine guns can bring to a foreign land; for us, it was just another day in counterinsurgency, an irregular type of warfare that doesn’t fit the clean American narrative of killing the bad guys with as much munitions and grunting as possible.

Which brings this back to Winslow.

Given the parallels between sports and war, and an established precedence for equating the former with the latter by athletes and American culture alike, why did Winslow’s outburst get so much attention and incur the people’s collective wrath? First, he made the mistake of appearing earnest in the video clip in question, and nothing attracts derision nowadays quite like earnestness. Second, his timing couldn’t have been worse, as the American military was less than a year into the Iraq War, with yellow ribbon patriotism at its most fervent and garish. But most prominently, Winslow upset the understanding of who and what modern American soldiers were. This actually reflects far more poorly on society as a whole than it does on a giant 20-year-old with soft hands and a big mouth.

Since shedding the Draft like snakeskin for an all-volunteer force, America’s military has taken on a voyeuristic identity not too unlike that of a celebrated athlete. No longer populated by the literal boys and girls of next door, the modern American service member serves the role of a hollow caricature. When less than one percent of a nation fights two separate wars for the better part of a decade, it’s all too easy to turn those individuals into ciphers onto which are projected all kinds of ideals, hopes, ambitions, and fears. These ciphers, sequentially, are then distinguished and known and remembered only in the abstract, where they can remain brave, loyal, and forever sacrificing. (Or the opposite, if the projector desires it to be so.) Winslow violated all of that by attempting to interject anger and emotion and raw, ugly intention into what he understood as his purpose, football. Again, this purpose is often mocked by our society as a child’s game, yet we all still enable the Kellen Winslows of the world to believe it to be more by pouring millions and millions of revenue dollars into it every weekend, every autumn.

Kellen Winslow’s greatest sin wasn’t diminishing the gravity of war, or exaggerating the importance of football. We all do that daily, whether we’ve served in the military or not.  No, Winslow provoked our fury because he inadvertently gave a face to those we prefer faceless. And he did so with all the vanity, self-absorption, and cocksureness of a 20-year-old raised and cultivated in a fish bowl. The 21st century warrior caste also operates in a self-contained environment populated primarily by young men with too much testosterone and too little life experience, some of whom are vain, self-absorbed, and cocksure – especially in the throes of anger. Ask a young infantry foot soldier how he feels about the American public or al-Qaeda or Jaish al-Mahdi immediately after a firefight in Afghanistan or Iraq, and Winslow’s rant would seem like child’s play, suddenly remarkably appropriate for that misleading and misrepresentative “kid’s game” label.

Perhaps the most famous moment of war and sports converging occurred in the winter of 1914, on the Western Front. “The Christmas Truce,” between British and German soldiers, led to a spontaneous game of soccer in No man’s land, while their brothers in arms cheered them on and swapped gifts with one another. By all accounts, it was a fleeting moment of peace and compassion in the midst of one of the darkest times in world history. Men put down their rifles, picked up a soccer ball, and tried to find themselves again, if only for a day. And there’s the rub. For all the similarities between war and sports, the latter enriches our humanity, while the former attempts to destroy it. Sometimes, too many times really, the world goes entirely mad. And when that happens, playing a kid’s game to wait it out doesn’t seem childish at all.


[1] I’m inclined to point out here that, with proper training, Kellen Winslow would likely make a fantastic soldier. One of my fellow platoon leaders in Iraq played high school football with Winslow, and frequently described him as “a fucking monster.” Considering the fundamental purpose of any military – kill the enemy before they kill you – it’s fair to assume a spot on the front lines could be found for an angry, macho athlete that measures 6’4 and weighs 240 pounds.

[2] Insert Ray Lewis joke here.

[3] Why Nike doesn’t get more flak for this, I’ll never know. It’s infinitely more cheapening of military life and culture than anything an overly garrulous jock has said in an interview.

[4] Lieutenant Colonel Tomko followed up that gem with “I can say whatever I want because I’m a war fighter.” Err … yikes. Ladies and gentlemen, the civilian-military divide!

[5] I’m not sure if the U.S. Army has an official position on cock shots or not.

[6] Maybe you had to be there.

[7] If you have to ask, you probably shouldn’t know.

[8] Admiral Ackbar understands.


Originally from Reno, Nevada, Matt Gallagher is the author of the Iraq war memoir Kaboom and coeditor of the forthcoming short fiction collection Fire & Forget. He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. More from this author →