Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 9, 2009

Big Lessons from a Little Country: The Games We Play–Part 2

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on December 9, 2009

Two weeks ago, when I posted the first part of this article, I did not imagine I would be writing a second part. I knew I was leaving out some analogies and observations that I had been musing over, but that’s all part of the process of writing and editing an essay, especially one intended for the Internet.

Some of the responses I got to the article made me reconsider the points I was making though. Likewise, developments last week, in particular in response to the President’s speech, placed some of my thoughts about game analogies in starker relief (at least for me).

No one who submitted a comment disagreed with my basic premise or my conclusions. But their insights and subsequent developments did get me thinking about the wider implications of sport as a metaphor for homeland security and out current strategic situation with respect to terrorism.

For the most part, U.S. sports either end decisively, in full-time or overtime as in football and basketball, or play continues until a winner emerges, as in baseball. In other words, the duration of the game is determined by the certainty of the outcome.

In contrast, other countries’ national games – cricket, soccer, and rugby are all generally good examples – avoid being overtaken by the American preoccupation with certainty of outcome, except in playoff and championship rounds or a tournament. Consequently, the choice to stop the game at a time certain, regardless of outcome, yields a different sort of play.

Knowing that a game can end in a draw due to time limits encourages players to give a bit more at key moments. It also has the tendency to make these game as much mental contests as demonstrations of physical prowess. A new strategy or strategies often emerges as the game progresses as required to capitalize on opportunities presented by the interaction of the time limit and the other team’s strengths (or weaknesses). Playing to a tie, especially when one’s side is otherwise inferior, thus carries with it a peculiar distinction of rising above one’s own limitations (not just the clock) and equalling an otherwise superior team through sheer cunning and determination if not prowess.

In addition to the tendency to start and end games at a time certain, the sports played abroad tend to proceed with relatively few timeouts and little stoppage of play. This means such games feature the added dimensions of stamina and finesse as well as the conventional influences of power and speed.

Many, although certainly not all, of these games involve a limited number of players who engage both offensive and defensive roles, often with limited substitutions. As such, it is not unusual for many if not most of the players who start a game to play the entire match.

How do these differences inform our understanding of terrorism and our efforts to combat it? For starters, we have adopted an approach that assumes we must play to certain victory. Containment, or a draw, is not an option.

In the absence of a time limit, we subject ourselves to a game of attrition that does not affect our adversaries in the same way if affects us.  It leaves us vulnerable to the distinct possibility that we will exhaust our reserves of patience before we deplete other resources, although the latter question clearly remains viable as well.

Last week the President’s message included what some have called a timetable for withdrawal (others have been less charitable).  As the week progressed, efforts to clarify the meaning of these statements did almost the opposite. It would appear,however, that it is the President’s intent to begin the process of drawing troop levels down within 18 months of beginning the current deployment.

Is this the beginning of the end or the beginning of the beginning? That will depend upon how we see the effort to defeat terrorism and how we decide to measure the outcomes. Killing or capturing Osama bin Laden may or may not produce the goals outlined in the President’s speech, either in regard to the situation in Afghanistan or the United States.

An article this week in the Chicago Tribune highlights growing concern about the radicalization of Muslims living in the United States. The arrest of an alleged co-conspirator in the attacks in Mumbai last year seems to validate these concerns.

The United States (both its citizens and its government) must acknowledge that the cunning and determination of its adversaries make them formidable opponents.  They need not defeat us decisively to score what amounts to a moral victory for their side. As we pursue all-out victory and a decisive outcome, we leave ourselves vulnerable in at least two ways: becoming impatient and acting imprudently by relying too heavily on our own formidable strengths or turning the contest into what Col. John Mosby once called American football — “a barbarous amusement.”

Committing ourselves to certainty of outcome may in the end require us to accept an open-ended time commitment.  If we insist on time-limiting our engagement, we must be willing to accept less certain outcomes, and guard against the tendency to engage in immoral conduct to achieve certain victory.

A time limit can help us focus our efforts on clarifying our goals and how we measure them, understanding the game being played by our adversaries rather than relying on our own strengths, and looking for ways to manage the impact of the game on those playing it. As spectators, we must adapt too. We need not enjoy watching the game to appreciate the effort that goes into playing it.

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2 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 9, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

Well if speculation is correct on the existence of a “GOD” gene then only with humanities demise is there an ending. Unless of course religion is confined to matters of faith and the process that started with the Enlightenment in Western Europe and the secularization that occurred in the Italian City States in the 15th Century becomes the norm. Personally I have come to believe more and more that currency must be given to the notion that the almost constant warfare between Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faith is much more the norm since about 700 AD then the exception. What is of course of interest is the depth of understanding of “Pagan” philosphers like the ancient Greeks, including Aristotle and Plato and others and their impact on the Western religions and the modern world. I detect more than a little lack of reasoning in the current efforts of radical Jihadist and US foreign policy and foreign relations. We choose military intervention in one of the poorest and most backwards nations in the world–Afghanistan–and then have allowed corruption and support of the international drug trade to not only continue but fund our enemies! And in addition we choose to intervene in one of the most secular Arab nations based on false intelligence! Whatever the merits of these two efforts, they really don’t sustain the notion that reason was the controlling factor in our (US) strategy. It would be interesting if readers of this blog could provide arguments based on reason as opposed to religion in order that our policies might become more “Enlightened.” After all Stalin and Mao may each have killed between 20-30 million of their own people but following Phil Palin’s earlier posts “containment” was in fact US policy,not preventive war. Personally reason might lead US to pick a religious faction–Sunni or Shia or whatever–and favor it or even pick a favorite tribe that acts progressively to form an alliance–Pushtuns perhaps–why not just favor a Pushtunstani as a new nation? Why defend lines drawn in the last century? After all the relative peace in the EU now appears to be in part because of 250 years or more of “ethnic” cleansing. Hey! Is this “REALPOLITCK” or evidence that I cannot reason at all when it comes to the current “troubles”?

Comment by christopher tingus

December 10, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

The stone walls of the Afghans, centuries old, must be addressed by the Afghans, people who for the most part have no contention with America and like its people, the most charitable people -

The good intentions of US policy in this region are becoming misconstrued and destined for failure. From many here on Main Street USA, we are willing to stand for the truth and justice, yet, we should use these trillions of “fiat dollars” to build new schools here in the States, new classrooms incorporating the latest technology and innovations in learning to enable not only our youngsters to be competitive, but to spur on innovation in technology and keep jobs right here in the good ‘ol USA!

Eight years w/boots on the ground is far too long! Yes, the region takes advantage of its youth and influences their perception often affected by very narrow minded perspective! Not always, however more often than not!

As far as you Mr. President, you talk about a timeline which the formerly US sponsored Taliban hear as well. None of the timelines or strategies have won the acclaim of those who cherish freedom and individual Rights though admittingly it is the likes of Pelosi and Frank which cause most of us here on Main Street USA to be very much alarmed!

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA 02645

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