Drill and Kill: How Americans Link War and Sports

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U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons


The big story as golf's Ryder Cup begins isn't the selection of Tiger Woods for the American team or the captainship of Colin Montgomerie for the Europeans. It's the choice of Maj. Dan Rooney—an F-16 pilot who started Patriot Golf Day to raise money for families of military casualties—to address the squad to psych them up for the encounter.

As the Wall Street Journal related, this follows on the heels of last time's captain, Paul Azinger, modeling his team approach on a strategy used by the Marines, and the 1991 Ryder Cup, held at Kiawah Island which was billed "the war at the shore" and where Corey Pavin wore a military-style camouflage hat for part of the week.

This week's team talk also follows an incident in which the American national soccer team at last summer's World Cup turned for inspiration to Dan Jollota, the helicopter pilot from Black Hawk Down, who "gave the footballers a lecture in bravery and team work, passing on the US soldier's motto of 'no man gets left behind'."

Sports and war have been closely linked in the minds of Americans for generations, which many Europeans find unusual. The first colleges to make sports a major part of student life, in addition to the Ivies, were the military academies. They did so for some of the same reasons as the elite schools—athletics instilled character, etc.—but also because Army and Navy endorsed the old General Wellington idea that battles were won and lost on the playing fields of youth. The better the sports program, they reasoned, the better the soldier, in a reverse of all those recent team talks. (In fact, "Anchors Aweigh," the official song of the Navy, began as a football song in 1906.)

The link between sports and war was also cemented by the rise of sports journalism, which often tended to confuse the two. Stephen Crane once said that he had no trouble writing the battle scenes for The Red Badge of Courage because even though he had never seen war, he had covered sports.

During and after World War II, the military began to assume a much greater cultural role in American life. (The U.S. didn't really have much of a standing military before then.) After the war, as the GI's returned home, the "military ethic" began to descend into the secondary and elementary schools, primarily through school sports programs, and particularly in the region that has the most reverence for the military—the South. Athletic "educators" and coaches began using the language and philosophy of warfare in the way they coached and taught, as General George S. Patton became the model of how coaches should act.

It's why a surprising number of our more revered coaches either started their careers at a service academy or attended one: Vince Lombardi, Duke's Coach Mike Krzyzewski, and Bobby Knight all came through the sports programs of the military. And the model still holds as we've seen this week. College hoops coach Rick Pitino begins a chapter of his book, Success Is A Choice, by admiringly quoting Winston Churchill. Of course, the latter was referring to the struggle to survive against the Nazis; the former is trying to beat Seton Hall.

So, this weekend in Wales it will be do or die with the battle in the trenches. Go team.

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Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. More

Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. He is the author of four books and one e-book and has written frequently for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and both the Boston Globe, where he was an op-ed columnist and the Montreal Gazette, where he was a world sports columnist.
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