War and Football


ON the way out to Soldiers Field Mr. Pennyfeather annoyed me by giving an imitation of an Old Grad. He groused, morosely. He complained that we should n’t find parking space in the same county, that he’d have a drunk in his lap at the game, that football was a fool pastime anyway, — they’d complicated the rules so it took a lawyer to understand them, — and that we were a couple of idiots to come out in a cold, gray drizzle to watch a lot of boys slither round in the mud. He predicted that Harvard would fumble whenever they got inside the Yale fifteen-yard line. They always did, he said: they were taught to, just as the backs were taught to run very, very slowly into the middle of the line three times and then punt. I patiently reminded him that he had n’t been out to the Stadium lately. ‘They’ve given up all that sort of thing for good,’ I said bravely. Anything to shut him up.

‘Conant told ’em not to, I suppose?’ he jeered.

‘Harlow. You’ll see.’

Pennyfeather laughed harshly. ‘Conant ought to lend ’em a couple of his roving professors for the backfield. I wonder which job the public really thinks more important: the President’s or the Head Coach’s?’

A more loyal ‘Harvard man’ than Pennyfeather does n’t exist. I suspect that he, like many another old grad, takes Harvard’s superiority so for granted that he can’t bear to see her in second place even in the relatively unimportant field of athletics, and so covers up his genuine chagrin by a show of pessimism. When Harvard wins he finds it only reasonable and natural; when Harvard loses he’s sore. I’d had a hard time persuading him to come out to the game at all; and now I was beginning to wish I had n’t, and told him so. But he cheered up when he found that our seats were on the thirty-five-yard line, and that beside him sat, instead of the predicted drunk, a young lady who, he whispered, might take his mind off the game if he did n’t watch out.

‘The gals look pretty good at football games, don’t they?’ I whispered back.

‘Yes,’ he admitted grudgingly, ‘even damp ones. Till they begin to yell. Of course, they only come here to see men hurt.’

I usually grunt — and did so now — whenever he makes an unnecessarily outrageous generality. Nevertheless, he seemed to be sniffing the old familiar attar of Stadium with some relish. It’s an air I like to breathe, whatever the circumstances, — even when its consistency is that of thin, cold soup; even when the sky is the color of threatening steel instead of blue and hazy gold, — and I suspected that Pennyfeather too was beginning to enjoy the smell of it more than he was ready to admit.

He sat quietly through the first half. When Harvard scored the first touchdown he called it a fluke — ‘Anybody’s likely to catch a pass,’ he said. And when Daughters presently dropped another pass on the Yale goal line he looked almost pleased at the vindication of his own pessimism. ‘Watch those damned Elis when they come back for the second half,’ he muttered darkly.

But he did have the decency to look glum when the Elis promptly made his prediction come true (‘That Hessberg!‘ he muttered. ‘Slippery!’) and his relief when the try for goal was blocked seemed as wholehearted as my own. I, as an old, addicted fan, continued to feel my customary prayerful, tense hysteria; uttered shrill spontaneous yelps and oaths, sprinkled with groans torn from the heart and sharp breath-hissings. Pennyfeather sat with his collar turned up and his hands in his pockets, gazing stolidly through the murky curtain of wet snow. What was my surprise then, when Foley trickled round right end in the last quarter for the winning touchdown, to find Pennyfeather on his feet beside me, roaring, one fist high above his head, the other pounding my dripping hat to a pulp. I laughed at him, the girl on the other side smiled, and he took it.

‘Brrrr — those last three minutes! They ought to be ruled out,’ I heard him say, relief in his voice, as we shuffled towards the exit. ‘The boys seem to have something at last. Good coaching, I expect.’ Then he was humming to himself, to the air of the old hymn, ‘Foley, Foley, Foley, Lord God Almighty . . .’ I smiled, and said nothing.

‘ Does n’t it tire you, though, watching a game?’ he continued in a drowsy voice when we’d found the car and begun the battle of fenders in the parking space. ‘I’m absolutely exhausted. Too bad prohibition’s over — I could use a flask.’ He yawned, and set me yawning, enormously. ‘Oh, but it’s an irritating game — a fool game when you stop to think of it. Whistles! Penalties! Rules! Referees! I suppose it satisfies some instinct in us. Force, speed, smartness, deception — perfect expression of the national spirit. Oh, I know, it’s supposed to be a jolly, character-building sport, teaching fair play and teamwork. My eye! It’s a game of trickery.’

‘Of course it is,’ I interrupted in surprise.

‘I don’t mean secret signals and hidden ball plays; I mean beating the law. How the devil can a game teach fair play when winning depends on superior cleverness in taking advantage of the rules? Like faking an injury to get an illegal breathing spell. None of that to-day, I know. Nevertheless —! Of course the decent coaches and players don’t like it, but they do it just the same. It’s part of the game. And putting in subs to stop the clock and gain more time; and stalling when you’re ahead — deliberately going off side, for instance, to delay the game, and suchlike trickeries. Stalling has become such a matter of technique that it has a technical name: freezing, they call it — did you hear that man behind us explaining it to his son? Then next morning you read in the paper, “Head Coach Brown has made great progress in teaching his boys how to move fast and think fast. Smith’s ability to fake an injury in the fourth period was one bit of quick thinking which marks him as a youngster who plays with his head as well as his feet.”

‘You remember the famous accident last year when Kelley kicked the loose ball and won the Navy game for Yale? Against the rules to do it on purpose. No doubt it was an accident; but did the papers admit it? Not they! They said Kelley had always shown himself to be a smart player, and that if it was an accident it was the first he’d ever been mixed up in. They assumed he’d taken deliberate advantage of the rules, and gave him full credit. If that’s the sign of a character-building sport, I’m Mussolini. Don’t blame the reporters. They simply reflect the spirit of the game as they find it.’

‘Come off it,’ I said. ‘Why not take things as they are?’

‘Never!‘ retorted Pennyfeather with passion. ‘Look out for this sportsman in the yellow job here — he’s got a nasty face.’

I was easing ahead on my clutch towards the narrow exit, my bumper inches behind the car in front. I slowed up to let the yellow job cut in ahead, and the sportsman driving it, instead of giving me a nod of thanks, sneered at me in a superior way as if he’d successfully bluffed me. I got mad.

‘Son of a &emdash!’ I muttered conventionally. ‘ He’d cut out of line at his own grandmother’s funeral.’

‘There, there,’ Pennyfeather soothed me. ‘What’s the hurry? Pretend they’re subhuman. You would n’t be far wrong, either.’

I relaxed and drove in silence, the parking space behind us, thinking of what he’d said. ‘All the same,’ I observed finally, ‘it’s the best game in the world, with all its faults, and you know it.’


‘Because it’s the most exciting, the most dramatic, to play or to watch. You just like to grouse.’

He grinned. ‘Have it your own way: best game in the world. It must have something, to pack ’em in the way it does. It can’t go on forever, though, the way it’s heading. Too much like war. The only things it lacks right now are poison gas and machine guns. And I expect they’re on the way. Soldiers Field is well named.’

I drove on homeward. ‘There’s an idea in that,’ he went on presently. ‘ War and football: why not substitute one for the other — let the nations fight it out on the gridiron? Like the Davis Cup. Why not?’

‘Fine,’ I agreed. ‘Except for the little matter of getting rid of war first. How are you going to do that?’

‘ Bottle up the Hotspurs,’ he answered promptly, as we drew up in front of my house. ‘Hotspur, the typical halfback. And the professional patriots. Muzzle ’em! Chain ’em!’


My daughter Mary came in with a tall young man, at cocktail time, and after dinner I took him into the library for coffee with Pennyfeather and me. His name was Prentiss, a Junior at Harvard. He stood very straight and had very blue eyes and serious manners, in which he differed agreeably from Mary’s last, who had been short and dark, and with no manners to speak of. He listened politely to Pennyfeather’s account of the game, and was properly amused by his idea for replacing war by football. During the course of the ensuing conversation about the various states of peace now raging in the world, Prentiss admitted, a little hesitantly, that as for war, he was against it.

Pennyfeather pricked up his ears. ‘ Good for you, Prentiss,’ he said. ‘ Why? Are you sure? Thought about it a lot? Not just one of these undergraduate Peace Day faddists, I hope?’

‘I helped organize the Peace Day — yes, sir. But I’m no faddist. It simply seems to me that war is the last and stupidest error, and since governments are n’t capable of preventing it, it’s up to the individual. If enough private citizens refuse to go, there can’t very well be any war. At least that’s the way I look at it.’

‘ Conscientious objector? ’ Pennyfeather asked him. ‘ Pacifist ? ’

I thought Prentiss looked a little uncomfortable, so I played host. ‘Those are just words, you know — don’t be afraid of them.’ I switched the current to Pennyfeather. ‘How about yourself? ’ I asked him. ‘Would you go again?’

‘Me?’ He looked startled. ‘Good God, no!’

‘How the devil can you be so sure?’ I persisted. ‘You don’t even know whom we’ll be fighting, or how the angle of hate will be drawn for us by the powers that be.’ Having suffered all my life from double vision, the kind that makes me see both sides of a question, I am ever freshly appalled — and amused — and made a little envious, to tell the truth — by Pennyfeather’s magnificent single-mindedness.

‘Because I’ve been to war,’ he answered promptly. ‘I know about war. One part excitement, nine parts boredom, childishness, and futility. Going to war twice would be like going up twice in an airplane: you’ve had the thrill — nothing left but the noise and monotony. I’m a conscientious objector, too,’ he smiled at Prentiss. ‘I conscientiously object to discomfort, for one thing, especially when I know that it won’t do anyone any good. But then, I’ve been through it once. Are you sure of yourself? ’ he demanded of Prentiss. ‘ Do you understand the consequences?’

‘Yes. It’s really a question of principle.’ Prentiss spoke with the appealing arrogance of youth, which knows best. (And does know best, and swears never to make the mistakes the old men made, and does n’t; but makes a new set of its own, just as fatal to its dreams.)

‘All right,’ said Pennyfeather, ‘and I ’m all for you — as long as you keep from feeling like a martyr about it,’ he added, shaking a finger. ‘A pleasant sensation, but bad for the morals.’ He drew a deep breath, and let it out slowly. ‘There’s so much bunk written about war — God knows it’s bad enough without that. If I had a son your age,’ he went on, looking suddenly serious, ‘and he should ask my advice, — which you have n’t done; this is purely gratuitous,’ — he smiled apologetically, — ‘I’d tell him to go ahead, in spite of my own belief in war’s futility. To keep him safe would be to cheat him of something precious: the chance of proving himself in adventure, of knowing one of life’s fundamental experiences, of sharing the spiritual release of self-forgetfulness in a common effort.

‘ But I would urge him to go with his eyes open, keeping his loyalties free. I’d say to him, Don’t believe anything they tell you, either that you’re engaged in a holy crusade, or that there is anything to be won for your country or humanity. Don’t go in the name of democracy, I’d say, or patriotism, or for revenge, or principle, or even for glory. “He who did well in war just earns the right to begin doing well in peace.” Browning said that, of all people, in Luria. It ought to be carved over every war office in the world.

‘In the last war I believed every blasted thing I was told. My God, but I was young! I loyally hated the Kaiser, believed every word of Allied propaganda, detested slackers, loved the generals, literally believed that in going to France I was defending my country against ultimate invasion and helping make the world safe for democracy. Yes, sir, I was the original push-over. I was not only ready to die for the cause — and I thought of it as a Cause! — I felt vaguely cheated when the war ended and I found myself still alive. The reaction was bad. It was n’t shell shock: it was war shock. For years nothing mattered, nothing seemed worth doing. Disillusion! The stale taste! Death would have been trivial in comparison. Well, I’d still rather see a man die young in battle than watch him slowly decay, grow soft, covetous, timid, mean, afraid of life and its insecurity. Peace is hard on some people — especially hard, I think, on those who are temperamentally unable to see it for what it is: the chance to live quietly from day to day, without hope of fame or expectation of heaven, but simply for the sake of ordinary decency and self-respect.’

‘Come, come, Pennyfeather,’ I interrupted. ‘ Be careful: that’s almost Christianity!’

He did n’t even hear me. ‘I’d tell him, this son, not to fool himself about war the way my generation did. I d paint it black because black is its color: pain, sickness, dirt, fear, boredom, humiliation. But, I’d go on, he could n’t afford to miss it, even so. For war means battle, and battle has its great moments of disciplined fury when men’s souls rise and mingle in a divine comradeship. The exaltation of battle is one of humanity’s deepest experiences. It’s like the exaltation of love, or of creation, but more easily attainable. Not every man is spiritually capable of exaltation in love; those who have the gift, the genius, to lose themselves in the creation of a sonnet, or a symphony, or a painting, are even rarer. But almost anyone can swing a right hook, and most of us do, at times, and the emotion at the moment of impact is good. That’s why men play football, and love it. So I’d say: Go to war, go ahead! But go with your eyes open. For your own sake you can’t afford to miss it. Over your tomb, instead of “Died Gloriously for His Country,” I’d carve, “Died Gloriously in Search of His Soul.” ’


Pennyfeather broke off, looking a little embarrassed. ‘But then,’ he smiled, ‘I have n’t got a son. Pardon the oration. Any more coffee? Thanks.’

I said, ‘Very interesting, Oscar. But I don’t believe you’ll find many people going to war on those grounds. You always sound so sure of yourself.’

‘Sure of myself?’ he retorted indignantly. ‘I’m sure of nothing — nothing on earth. Just ideas. I like fooling with them. Have you read the war books?’ he asked Prentiss.

‘Some of them. It all sounds pretty unreal to read about, though. I was only five when the war ended.’

‘No, you can’t learn anything from reading about it. I’ve read them all, and I’d say not one gives a true objective picture of war as it is — not even the best of them, War and Peace. They’re not content to show us war; they all try to sell an idea, in terms of propaganda. The current fashion is to emphasize the horrors, and so frighten humanity away from it. And a worthy impulse too, except that man has never shown himself capable of being frightened by anything for long. The war books don’t tell the truth. War is n’t divisible. The truth must show all sides. The books that make war seem a fairly agreeable kind of romantic picnic—like The First Hundred Thousand, for instance — are just as true in their way as the books of disillusionment and despair, such as All Quiet, Three Soldiers, Captain Conan, Paths of Glory, Journey’s End, The General, to name the first that occur to me. Bairnsfather’s cartoons, and Poulbot’s, are just as true as Raemaekers’s. War is not divisible.’

‘How about Seven Pillars?‘ I asked.

‘Yes, that one tells the truth — all of it; especially about the insane confusion of war. But it’s really more a portrait of a man’s soul than of a campaign. Still, it ranks well up with Tolstoy. The history books are the worst — at least the ones I read when I was young. Sheer patriotic propaganda. Look at the Civil War histories. Plenty about the Boys in Blue springing to arms, very little about the scandal and corruption that saturated the Northern effort. I’ve been reading Professor Shannon’s Organization and Administration of the Union Army, a grownup history that gives the facts, and the facts are n’t pretty. It’s a picture of supply scandals, desertions, an army organized and officered, during the early years, by the politicians for the politicians, in the holy light of the spoils system. Northern workmen did n’t want the slaves freed to compete with them — they rioted at the first suggestion. Neither did their employers, especially in the industrial Northeast, see anything in the war but a glorious chance to profit. The Northern creed was a simple Business First. Here’s a passage I copied down from Shannon, a quotation from the New York Tribune of August 8, 1863. It seems to be the Tribune’s best advice on the popular topic of avoiding the draft.’ Pennyfeather took a slip of paper from his wallet and read aloud: —

‘If you are drafted, and can possibly leave your business, go; if you cannot go, send your substitute, the best whom money will obtain; if you cannot possibly get one, pay the commutation; but pay $300 for a substitute rather than $300 as commutation, if for no other reason than that, if you send a substitute, you cannot be drafted again while he continues to serve in your stead; whereas, if you commute, that suffices only for this draft, and leaves you clearly liable to the next, if next there shall be.

‘People were n’t slow to take such advice. Business first. In the draft of July 1863, if I remember the figures, of 292,000 men enrolled 26,000 furnished substitutes and about twice that number paid commutation. Incidentally, only about 10,000 of the whole enrollment actually served. The rest either enlisted as volunteers or were exempted for physical disability or business and political reasons, or simply never showed up at all. There were great waves of emigration to Canada and the Far West coinciding with the four drafts. Shannon quotes a contemporary cartoon in Harper’s Weekly on the subject of draft avoidance — a picture of a husky citizen pleading before the draft board, “I’m over age, a negro, a minister, a Cripple, a British subject, and an habitual Drunkard.”

‘There were 268,000 desertions from the Union armies during the Civil War — did you ever read that in a history book? It’s fair to add that many of the deserters were bounty jumpers—mercenary gents who enlisted for the state bounty paid to volunteers, then deserted and reënlisted for a different state bounty under an assumed name. Then there was — ’

‘Out for all they could get, eh?’ I broke in. ‘Just like the American Legion and the bonus.’

‘Yes —except that the Legionnaires did n’t have to do anydeserting. Just like all men everywhere after every war, as a matter of fact. And during wars, too. It’s a rare man who does n’t holler for a bonus for merely doing his duty, in war or peace.’


Pennyfeather paused to light his pipe. Prentiss cleared his throat and leaned forward earnestly. ‘I think perhaps the conception of patriotic duty is changing,’ he said.

‘I’m sure it’s changing,’ Pennyfeather answered eagerly. ‘There are plenty of signs—like the Veterans of Future Wars with their poppy seeds: that’s my favorite. But is it changing fast enough? Some day, of course, we’ll look back on patriotism as a sort of primitive tribal creed, but it has n’t run its course yet. Some day we’ll have its equivalent in world-wide form, real international solidarity. I suppose nothing would hurry it along so fast as an attack by a League of Planets; but we can hardly count on that. Some people think Trotzky has a strangle hold on the one idea that might save us. I don’t happen to, myself, but — well, prophets are seldom prophets to their own generation.’

‘In the meantime,’ said Prentiss, returning to his original declaration, ‘it may not be so long before there are enough people who oppose war on principle — enough of us who see it as a patriotic duty to oppose war— to swing the balance. I may be wrong, but I mean to give it a try, anyhow.’

‘I’m sure you think you can swing the balance,’ Pennyfeat her agreed pleasantly, ‘and I respect you for it. But what you can’t conceive, before you’re in it, is the wartime atmosphere, the hysteria, the rule of mob opinion. Will you be able to stick to your principles when the drums and bugles and flags go by? And the women start yelling — they’re the noisiest of all. For a while, yes, you probably will. But remember this: never before in the world’s history has government had at its disposal such powerful agencies for spreading propaganda; never before has the great public ear been so trained to listen, or so fixed in the habit of believing what it is told.

‘You’ll start with high principles and heroic determination, and some of you will stick. But most of you won’t be strong enough. You’ll drift off, one by one, all armed with the best excuses: “This war is different,” you’ll say. “It’s a defensive war; I won’t attack, but I’ve got to defend my home.” “My sister was killed by a bomb — let me at ’em!” “If we don’t lick ’em over there, we’ll have to do it later on over here.” Oh, there’ll be plenty of good reasons, all old as time itself — not to mention the other strings tugging at you: the relief of joining the mob, the surrender of responsibility, the secret hope of glory; and the question that sensitive men — all conscientious objectors are sensitive men — are eternally asking, “Am I being honest with myself? Or am I really just afraid? Of course I know I’m not afraid, but will other people?” And then the conviction that every man clings to — if he did n’t there would n’t be any war, ever — that he’ll get through alive anyway. Oh, it’s a mess, a tangle of emotions, all pulling every which way. Don’t fool yourself: pacifism is n’t enough. Not yet. The world is n’t ready for it.’

‘Then what’s the answer?’ Prentiss asked a little sadly.

‘I don’t think there is any clear-cut answer. None that will serve present generations. Future hope, I think, lies in a league of the nations; not this league, necessarily, but the one that will grow out of the seed of this one — maybe not till another general war has made all the nations understand that they must unite or perish.’

‘And in the meantime?’

‘There are signs. I think the Mediterranean anti-submarine patrol is a hopeful one. It’s just such a form of coöperative international police as Malinowski, for one, predicts, or hopes for. The only possible agency for maintaining peace until such time as the will to war has disappeared from the face of the earth. He’s a pretty wise man. Yet he places no reliance on human goodwill. He thinks the world needs an international superstate to ride herd on the gangster nations.’

‘Do you really believe the human instinct for war will ever die?’ I asked.

‘Sure. Some day.’

‘It’s been with us a long time now.’

‘Oh, but that’s a stale argument,’ Pennyfeather said disgustedly. ‘As Malinowski points out, theologians used to maintain that human slavery was ordained by God — until it stopped paying. Then they discovered that it was immoral. Well, everyone knows to-day that war does n’t pay — even the field marshals know it; but nobody dares act on that knowledge, yet. Give ’em time. In the meantime, an international army. Would you enlist in that, Prentiss?’


Prentiss did n’t answer at once. Presently he looked up, grinning, and said, ‘I think your idea of replacing war with football is a better bet, on the whole.’

‘Maybe you’re right at that,’ said Pennyfeather. ‘Think how easy the shift would be. Practically all you’d have to do would be to change the name of the Secretary of War to Secretary of Football. Otherwise they’re about the same. Sure, I mean it: spirit, background, organization, everything. Most men play football for the same reason they enter aviation in wartime — for glory. To-day’s ace flier will be to-morrow’s star halfback. Look at the way intercollegiate football is organized: each college has its general staff of coaches; its secret service — scouts to-day, but out-and-out spies not so long ago; its recruiting branch, made up of old grads; its QM corps; its press department for propaganda; its treasury, selling tickets instead of Liberty Bonds, and for the same purpose; its diplomatic branch, for writing notes and breaking off relations — everything, even intercollegiate leagues and conferences to keep the game clean, just like the League of Nations.’

‘How would you recruit the squad?’ I queried.

‘Oh, conscription, of course. Bred from infancy to die for dear old Latvia. Federal training camps for candidates, and none of this nonsense about getting an education. That’s what ruins so many college teams to-day.’

‘I should think the politicians might give trouble, though,’ I suggested.

‘Politicians always give trouble,’ he replied, ‘but I don’t see how they could give any worse trouble than they ordinarily do. They’d go on swapping votes. A senatorial tackle appointment, say, for a vote on a favorite constitutional amendment. I can’t see a flaw in the scheme. And think how pleased the colleges will be. No more hiring of mercenaries under athletic scholarships, hence nothing but intercollegiate love, peace, fraternity. Would you enlist if your country should declare football on England, Prentiss?’

‘You bet,’ said Prentiss. ‘I like to play football.’

‘I did n’t know you did play,’ Pennyfeather said in surprise, as I got up, suggesting a move into the other room.

Prentiss seemed embarrassed, as if he’d been found out. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said hesitantly. ‘ I was out there this afternoon, as a matter of fact. I went in at right end.’

‘I’ll be damned,’ Pennyfeather laughed. ‘And you like to smack ’em down?’

‘ Well — yes, sir; to tell the truth, I do.’

‘And you a pacifist!’ said Pennyfeather.