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

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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