By Robert Lipsyte (reprinted with permission)
Ever since 9/11, the customary description of sports events in the language of war has seemed particularly repulsive. Nevertheless, sportscasters still have teams "blitzing" and "throwing bombs," and games still end in "sudden death."
Just part of the hype, I thought, obnoxious but probably harmless.
But when warcasters described a change of plan as Gen. Tommy Franks having "called an audible at the line of scrimmage," the mingling of language suddenly seemed surreal, even dangerous. How could the deadly decision to switch from "Shock and Awe" to the "surgical decapitation" of Saddam Hussein be depicted in the breezy jock jargon of a quarterback changing an offensive play at the last minute?
Was I being a little sensitive here?
"Not at all," said Lt. Gen. Bradley C. Hosmer (Ret.) who flew fighter planes in Vietnam. "There's something of a play-by-play quality to the coverage that runs the risk of trivializing the horrifics of war. Go ask the families who have lost soldiers if they were playing a game."
Whether it's cynically intentional or just another offshoot of jock culture, the use of sportspeak narrows our perspective and obscures the larger debate of why we are in Iraq and how we might get out. No wonder the Pentagon treats the media like a pack of sportswriters allowed into the locker-room. While I applaud the reporters' bravery, I wonder why so many seem so willing to help create a climate in which the killing field looks like a playing field.
Last year, when Gen. Hosmer and I sat together on a Naval Institute panel, he was concerned that so few contemporary journalists had been in the military. Now that a generation of "embedded" reporters is learning about combat firsthand, the former superintendent of the Air Force Academy has new concerns. The public needs "legitimate eyes and ears" to be engaged, he says, and the military wants to forestall enemy disinformation about civilian casualties.
But the embedded reporters -- like the reporters who roam the sidelines during football games -- don't have "the big picture." And those who might -- the retired officers appearing on TV as analysts -- tend to be more "cautious" than their sports counterparts.
"Even in a football game," said Hosmer, "the color commentator doesn't really know what's in the coach's mind. And in this case, the color commentator doesn't want to make an intelligent speculation that could help the other side."
Hosmer's evocation of the Saturday and Sunday afternoon football booths was on target. Days of watching soft-faced anchors like Aaron Brown defer to axe-jawed analysts like Gen. Wesley Clark have made CNN merge in my mind with ESPN. When a general draws battle lines on a glass map, I keep seeing John Madden scrawling though X's and O's. The TV warcasters chatter about "momentum," about the "run to daylight" from Kuwait to Baghdad, about the Marines ramping up to "win ugly." I wonder if I have overslept into the NFL season.
"The language flowing back and forth between football and war confuses reality and fantasy," said Dave Meggyesy, a former St. Louis Cardinals linebacker. "The game is our national theater because it reflects a violent, macho culture."
In the 1960s, when then Vice President Hubert Humphrey was trying to dissociate himself from President Johnson's policies on Vietnam, he said he was just "a lineman doing some downfield blocking." A few years later, when the Pentagon dubbed the stepped-up bombing of Hanoi "Operation Iron Hand," the White House re-named it "Operation Linebacker." President Nixon's code name was "Quarterback."
President Bush, a former baseball owner, takes more of a cheerleader stance (he's been that, too) but the message in the sports metaphor is still about dislocation, dismemberment and death. And it could have a backlash.
"If you treat people like sports fans, they may end up acting
like them and you know how fickle sports fans are," said retired
Lt. Col. Brendan "Mac" Greeley, a Marine pilot in Vietnam.
"Build up their expectations, when we start getting hurt, the sports
fans might just lose heart and quit on us."
"I see how my patients have been emotionally manipulated by the excitement of it all," he said. "They've been lulled into believing that just like sports there will be a satisfying ending. Nothing too bad will happen. But how will they feel, how will we feel as a nation, when we see our troops inhaling poison gas after we've been lead to believe it's just a game?"
I doubt that this sandstorm of sports/war words was willfully thrown up to blind us with a language of mass distraction. But it's swirling around out there, clogging our reasoning powers and obscuring the larger questions about game plans that may include a long-term commitment to a hostile ball-park.
And the confusion of reality and fantasy is already claiming casualties among the most vulnerable Americans. Dr. Miletic was watching CNN the other day when his 6-year-old son ran past the TV, took a quick look, and asked, "What's the score?"
--Robert Lipsyte is a journalist and author of the new young-adult novel, Warrior Angel. This column ran in USA Today on April 7 and is reprinted here with the author's permission.