Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sports, Tribalism, Epics, and War

This is not a well-supported or well-edited blog post. (I've got to start somewhere.) Tell me what you think.

One thing I've been pondering of late is war, the ways that it's changed over the years. The expression "War is hell" is not immemorial, but came from the mouth of General William T. Sherman.

I'm certain that Alice (whose class on War in the Middle Ages sounds so awesome to me) is a lot more knowledgeable on this account than am I, but it just seems to me that the very nature of war has changed in the past century and a half. I think of it as once epic and heroic (recall the battle scenes from LOTR, or tales of chivalric battle, or of the Roman Legion).

I mean, it's not that the horrors of war were any less graphic or brutal then, nor that the danger of death was less. What really sets apart the past and the present in my imagination is that once, battles were occasional great struggles of a few hours or days, known in advance and prepared with courage. (Not that people didn't die outside of battles, but then, that was a constant no matter what they were doing in those centuries.) The majority of the time was spent training, marching, boasting, and drinking (and, er, other things). Nobility, glory, camaraderie and, yes, joy found time to flourish beneath the banners of old.

In recent times, war has been a prolonged state of anxiety and reflex, either in the months-long grapple for filthy trenches, or in the constant fear of snipers and ambushes.

Shakespeare had never heard of a phenomenon like post-traumatic stress disorder when he wrote the monologue to begin Henry V. The chroniclers of ancient war never described it; men of those days looked back with unalloyed pride on their earlier days of battle. From all that I've heard of the condition, you don't often get it from a battle of short duration for which you're prepared, but from a sudden attack or a prolonged state of fighting.

In fact, that which now resembles the passion and preparation of those noble tales of old is not warfare at all: it is sports. As war has become hell, we civilized societies have focused more and more on a substitute. Perhaps that is healthy; perhaps there is some part of the human temperament (for most people) that seeks out that outlet. (Of course, one can take it too far.)

Anyway, I was thinking all this when I came upon a really great essay in a place I least expected: the commentary pages of ESPN.com. (OK, I admit, I was wasting time reading about the football games of last week and this week.) Bill Curry, a former college football coach, writes about his experience of sports rivalries, their connection to the concept of tribalism and to the larger world outside.

I realize that I've often mused about the larger relevance of sports on this blog. What can I say? Sports do matter to me, and so I think about them.

As regards war, I don't mean to excuse all wars of old- a just cause was still always necessary (as were the other conditions), and in most cases I can imagine, at least one side lacked a just cause for war. I'm just thinking that there was once a great nobility to warfare for a good cause, one that has evaporated as the methods of war have grown steadily more inhuman. It leads me to think that war should now be entered into, if at all, with a trepidation and caution beyond that exercised in any other age- not just because more lives may be lost, but because the methods of taking them are more barbaric, more remote and mechanical and revolting, than ever before. If the way that the Catholic Church speaks of war has changed its vocabulary, it reflects the change that war itself has undergone.

UPDATE: Before the comments box empties itself (they seem to have a shelf life of a few months), I'll note that I was convinced by my friends that the above is wrong, that I've been ovely influenced by romanticized accounts of war by those who never saw battle, and that grizzled reporters would have made Agincourt sound every bit as brutal as Okinawa. I leave it as a monument to a small piece of my naivete.

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