Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 25, 2009

Big Lessons from a Little Country: The Games We Play

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on November 25, 2009

This is the second in a short (but as yet indeterminate) series of posts arising in part from my reflections on living abroad.

A few months ago I read somewhere that President Barack Obama had included the novel Netherland by Joseph O’Neill on his summer reading list. The choice intrigued me, so I picked up a copy myself.

The novel, set largely in and around New York City in the months after 9/11, follows the experiences of an expatriate Dutchman as he grapples with the changes in his life following that devastating event. O’Neill’s narrator, Hans van den Broek, turns to playing cricket on weekends with a ragtag assembly of other expats as he struggles to overcome the darkness that envelopes him after his wife flees the city with their son to take refuge with her parents in London.

The sport of cricket and those with whom Hans plays provide him with an intimate outlet for his energies while introducing him to an exotic and sometimes sinister world beyond the comfortable experience of his existence before the attacks. In cricket, Hans finds a connection with his past. As Hans forges new friendships with other immigrants through cricket, he rediscovers the importance of relationships and in doing so reconnects with himself and his family.

When I learned that the president was reading this book, I was intrigued because it followed the story of a 9/11 survivor (albeit fictional) who was not an American and told the story through his experiences with a game unfamiliar to most Americans. As I followed its narrative, I could not help but wonder what lessons the president took from its pages.

Americans are not alone in their penchant for sports metaphors and analogies. Like its alleged descendent, baseball, cricket has been the source of a rich cultural idiom, which is often reflected in our language. But unlike baseball metaphors, which tend to emphasize power and domination, cricket metaphors tend to emphasize fair play, equanimity, and the vagaries of life.

In baseball-speak hitting a homerun or whiffing suggests two opposite outcomes from the confrontation between the pitcher and hitter. In cricket – the game’s name itself is often used as a synonym for candid and impartial conduct – one might find oneself ‘on a sticky wicket’ such as the difficulty confronted by both the bowler and the batsman when the bowled ball bounces in a flat or inconsistent fashion due to a too wet bowling surface.

As an American weaned on baseball, I found it difficult to understand cricket when I first moved to New Zealand. A test match between national sides can last for up to five days, and sometimes ends in a tie. As an American used to certain outcomes from sporting contests, the confusion produced by watching a lengthy contest that ends in such an ambiguous fashion is only compounded by the realization that the players and fans often see this ambivalent ending coming after just two days of play. Yet they routinely continue the competition anyway.

The games we play affect more than the language we use. Insofar as they arise from our experience of the world, they affect the words we use to describe it. In turn, they also become metaphors for our relationship to the world and others in it.

In light of this, is it any wonder then that India and Pakistan (two of the world’s greatest cricket-playing nations) would – even after watching the Cold War end leaving both former adversaries armed but unsure whom to target – choose to arm themselves with nuclear weapons even though they arguably have little or no intention of using them against one another much less anyone else?

Tomorrow here in the United States we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. For many of us, sporting contests will feature prominently in our family rituals. It strikes me that these particular sports and the central role they play on such a significant national holiday say a lot about our own culture and values as well.

This seemed evident enough on Tuesday at a news conference after President Obama’s meeting with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, when the president, being questioned about his decision on General McChrystal’s troop request and the impending announcement of a new strategy for America’s involvement in Afghanistan, spoke of his intention to ‘finish the job’ and reiterated his administration’s intention to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy al-Qaeda. Which sporting metaphor fits these sentiments best, and what does it say about our opponents and our expectations?

With few exceptions, Americans enjoy sports that have gained little following or purchase beyond our own shores. The sports in which most of the world engages involve inherent ambiguities and often outright contradictions (as we witnessed this week in the dispute arising from the errant hand ball in the soccer World Cup qualifier between France and Ireland).

The officials in these games must often apply considerably more discretion than the balls and strikes or safe-at-home calls reserved to baseball umpires or the flag throwing and whistle-blowing of football referees.In some instances, these officials act as finders of fact and interpreters of law and can literally decide to call or not call an obvious infraction. Their decisions can and often do have a consequential influence over a contest’s outcome, yet their judgments leave no recourse for either side. Notwithstanding this situation, players and fans of these games consider these contests worthy of intense attention and most fervent devotion, which often means the heated debate after the match over a few pints is every bit as much a part of the action as what happened on the pitch between the sides.

As we look forward to the trials of the alleged 9/11 terrorists co-conspirators in the federal courts in the year ahead, we would do well to ask ourselves what we expect of these impending contests and how sport informs our judgments about what will happen in them. Does our decision depend on the outcome?

Likewise, we would do well to consider how others will see these tests. Is it likely that someone, although comfortable with ambiguity and more fluent in the contradictions of an uneven pitch and the vagaries of officials’ human fallibility, will see these trials or their outcomes as fair and just?

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by William R. Cumming

November 25, 2009 @ 5:42 am

Mark! This is a great post! Cricket was certainly once established the essential or quintessential British game. Having just finished Modris Ekstein’s book on the Great War (WWI) and the cultures of the various European countries his analysis of cricket and its impact on Britains approach throughout that war is fascinating. Novel to me what is narrative that Germany was the revolutionary power in many ways and not so deeply culturally impacted by sports as Britain.
Okay so where does this lead US? Trials of alleged criminals in the US often have a deep resonance and fascination for the public. What is most interesting is that the first WTC bombing carried so little weight outside of NYC and its metropolitan area. Because only after the “which” hunt post 9/11 was it discovered that the Grand Jury and even trial testimony documented an international conspiracy led by Al Queda for the perps of that incident did people realize that the intel agencies had not understood the significance of that first trial and its implications nor could they since the Department of Justice and US Attorney’s office failed to inform them of the basics of the facts they found and of course no analysis or implications of those findings for many reasons not the least being not trained INTEL personnel. Yes, INTEL is in fact a highly disciplined, highly difficult profession, where often not just the info but the judgements renedered on that info are crucial to future decisions and ops. So I can only speak to myself that there will be great interest in the trial and even more as to what is made of it in the MSM! Of course I will not know of the INTEL ramifications for both or all sides of the GWOT but for sure it will be followed closely by all of the Western INTEL operations and MOSSAD and probably the rising powers in East and South Asia. I wonder if cameras will be allowed? The basic right to confront your accuser, a Constitutional requirement that even SCOTUS has struggled with, will be interesting to watch. The Classified Information Procedures Act which became law in 1978 after DOJ and others realized something was need or no spy would ever be prosecuted because defense counsel would just insist that all classified info relating to the crime be released or else no due process, thus no conviction. Since I was once recruited by DOJ to help administer that statute I have some familiarity with it and its defects. What is of interest is that to my knowledge like another “reform” statute, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the establishment of the FISA court, neither of these basic national security statutes has been amended, supplemented or changed since enacted. As always could be wrong and hoping for more recent info.

Anyhow, the judicial rulings in the case will definitely involve appealable issues. One of the reasons I found so astounding that the newest Associate Justice of SCOTUS was asked not a single question that I know of about either national security law or federalism which I believe are the two most important areas of SCOTUS opinion writing and analysis for the next two decades. But of course as always could be wrong. Wishing the prosecution good luck but unlike many others not prejudging the case. All the MSM discourse makes it look like this case may dominate discussion of post-9/11 even more than the Iraqi and Afghan invasions and again points out the inherent flaw in the Attorney General not being a statutory member of the NSC! That issue came within one vote in the Senate of being changed under the influence of retired Senator Fritz Hollings and the issue of legal advice to the NSC and the relationship of both the White HOUSE Counsel’s office and AG to that provision of advice is one of the great weaknesses in national security in the US. As I used to point out to high level DOJ officials in many briefings the CONSTITUTION is not a waivable document despite some sense of emergency and of course was in fact written and adopted to some degree in a time of emergency.
Ah the complications of living in a democracy (Republic) and living with a written CONSTITUTION that only amended a few times given passage of time since its adoption says what it says and means what it says–as the saying goes.

Comment by Quin

November 25, 2009 @ 10:38 am

The football vs. soccer analogy was the subject of a quite interesting article a few years ago.


American culture likes big numbers (could you imagine football if a TD, one score wasn’t worth 6 points?), an all in effort and a winner and loser at the end of the game, war or movie. Sports provide an excellent window into a nation’s culture, and may even serve to reinforce certain views.

While lengthy conflicts are the rule, not the exception through history, this country has never faced one of any length. Even our primary involvement in Vietnam was only from late 1966 until 1972. The US has never seen a major conflict last more than 2 presidential election cycles.

But I also think Americans are accepting of more ambiguity than observers would expect. For example, look at the still unfolding NBA referee scandal (check out the website Deadspin for the excerpts from the still to be published book of a convicted NBA referee). Considering the passion many Americans have for the NBA, and the conspiracy theories on NBA refereeing circulating for years (and with a major backer in owner and billionaire Mark Cuban) there has been precious little backlash. It’s almost as if under all the certainty we see on the surface of american sports, we quietly know, and accept, that beneath the surface is a turbid chaos.

And for the upcoming trials, they already have the feeling of foregone conclusions, not necessarily something promoted by our justice system for “normal” trials. The President, the Attorney General, and Senator Lindsay Graham are all on record saying that they see conviction nearly a certainty, stopping short of pre-ordained. What many miss is that the Attorney General has stated before the Senate that even if one of them were to walk, or receive a shorter than expected sentence, that under the laws of war, they could continued to be held as (unlawful) combatants. A decision I personally agree with (its settled law you normally hold combatants until the end of hostilties). But how we square holding combatants for 4-5 years and return them to a country that rebuilds into a friendly democracy (what the US is historically used to), with now holding them for likely their natural lives, in a conflict characterized as much by competing ideologies as lines on a map is yet to be seen. But in a way it may be nothing more than another meeting of classical western culture of warfare that probably arose during the conflict of the Greek city states prior to Alexander, with the more fluid, mobile, lengthy, “hit and run for another” day measure of warfare reflective of the great vistas of Asia and the east.

Comment by Greg Maloney

November 30, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

Mark Chubb tells us that we are “ALL” responsible for Hasan’s murder spree at Fort Hood. HORSEFEATHERS (the polite term for: #@%&*! ). I was at home writing,almost all other Americans were almost home, at work, or occupied with other activities than the mass killing that was taking place at Fort Hood. So who bears the responsibility for this tragety?
1.The base commander-for failing to secure the base.
2. The Commander-In-Chief-for failing to remove the overly severe practice of disarming soldiers at military bases.
3.The officer responsible for the content of basic training programs for failing to include training and drills on indoor/office ambushes.
4.Maj.Hasan and his jihad buddies.
5.The “intelligence” agencies that waffled and fumbled the ball due to inattention and political correction.

Deflecting attention away from the real parties who bare the guilt for this mess is almost treasonable negligence, especially on the part of those who would inform the public through whatever part of the communications media they use. It is also false.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 30, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

The one-person (so-far?) sleeper cell represented by the Major should serve as a wake up call as to the vetting procedures for the active military. Apparently he not only gave speeches setting forth his views but may well have by giving those speeches accomplished the conversion of others. The text of those speeches as revealed appear to be “sedition” under the UCMJ as currently drafted. This may indicate the depth of politicization of the ARMY and its total misunderstanding of the role of the military in a democracy (republic)! Not only JAG officers should be trained on the UCMJ but all officers and enlisted ranks.Was this training accomplished and when and where by Hassan and his various chains of command. Or were MD’s exempted from such “basic” training? A complete breakdown of military discipline IMO! Where does UNIT COHESION start and stop at FT HOOD? Maybe the ARMY needs more PhDs in Anthropology and fewer in “mind games” whatever their medical label. Many of the Psychiatrists I have met socially indicate that modern discipline more about Chemistry than FREUD or JUNG! Are ARMY medical personnel tested for both ethical drugs as well as illegal drugs? Impaired physicians are often victimized by their self-prescribing!

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>