Similarities between war and sports are obvious and have been noted for many centuries. Business mogul Ted Turner described sports as “like a war without the killing.” As for war itself, Chinese genius Sun Tzu’s masterpiece “Art of War” is perhaps the most insightful analysis ever written about successful military strategies. It remains popular not only for its applicability to war, but also other endeavors that require a knowledge of one’s rivals. It used to be said in the heyday of the British Empire that its future military leaders began their training on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow. Like young animals that develop their skills by first scuffling playfully with one another, so the youngsters at these schools honed their leadership qualities in sports.
The vocabularies of war and sports often coincide — offense, defense, aggressive, leadership, reserves, weaknesses, strengths, strategies, victory and defeat. In sports and at least some wars there are rules of engagement.
Historians note that the Roman Legions prevented more battles than they fought and maintained the Pax Romana, or Roman peace, throughout the empire for nearly 500 years. Nothing like it exists today. Enthusiasm for war and military power has waned in many countries even as the popularity of sports has soared exponentially and probably for inversely related reasons.
A team can win a game and savor the victory, but today it is much less certain that a country can afford to win or lose a war. If a trusted adviser could tell French King Francis in the 16th century that “War is the solution to problems that have no solution,” today there is a general consensus that war itself, win or lose, is a greater problem. The invention of atomic weapons, which once appeared to make wars more winnable, in effect made it next to impossible to wage them.
The classic objective of conventional warfare was to defeat the opposing army, not destroy the enemy nation. The truth is that in traditional wars only a relatively small percentage of the population died. Now a war fought with atomic weapons could destroy not only whole armies — but entire populations. Only limited wars are possible, but instead of solving problems, limited wars seem to exacerbate them.
The world has not found a replacement for war as a means of dealing with tyrannical regimes and aggressor nations. With rare exceptions, diplomacy, sanctions, economic and political coalitions, and economic pressures prove ineffective. And for obvious reasons: they have no personal effect on tyrants and their military. The populace may go hungry, but dictators and their armies never miss a meal. On the other hand, we can go to a stadium or turn on the TV and see our favorite team, our surrogate army, win or possibly lose, but at least the competition is soon over and the matter resolved without loss of life. Sun Tzu was a genius of war; what the world needs now is a genius of peace.