My guilty pleasures: NFL football and World War II

schmooklerBy Andy Schmookler

This piece differs from my usual op/ed offerings that appear in the newspapers in my conservative congressional district (VA-06). Usually, my columns are designed to challenge the conservative reader in these dark times on the political right– to disabuse them of falsehoods their leaders have peddled to them or to summon them back to the better angels of their nature. Expecting that many such readers regard me, therefore, as their enemy, I seek occasionally to offer something of a non-political nature that might make some sort of human connection. It is in that spirit, and that hope, that I decided to share with that readership this “Guilty Pleasures” piece, below.

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NFL football and World War II share certain characteristics that make them, for me, guilty pleasures.

The pleasures come from my lifelong love of good games of strategy and of heroic action.

For these pleasures, no sport seems to me the equal of NFL– largely because of the excellent structure of the game: the series of downs, which can be renewed; the cumulative nature of field position; the balance between offense and defense; the management of the clock;  etc.

The strategies in the game are interesting at every level—from the execution by individual players of their assignments on each play, to the play-calling and game plans, to the variety of formations for both offense and defense.

And then, on TV, spectators enjoy the benefits from the discontinuous nature of the action, which allows time to savor – via replay – all the heroic actions: the great catches, runs, tackles, etc. And the level of play is so outstanding! (My having played the game in high school helps me appreciate just how good these players are.)

Such are the pleasures.

The guilt behind the pleasure comes from knowing the human toll the game takes on these fine athletes. We now know about the concussions bringing later problems of dementia and depression, and we’ve heard also about the formerly great athletes whose knees, later in life, are so damaged they can’t climb a flight of stairs.

Recognizing the obvious – that collisions between men who are exceptionally large, fast and strong are damaging to their bodies – taints my pleasure in watching this otherwise magnificent game.

All this applies to World War II—probably the greatest human action drama, the most momentous contest, there has ever been or (I expect) ever will be.

War is hell, I know. And WW II in particular killed tens of millions of people and damaged the lives of countless others. In countless ways, a nightmare.

But what a story! What a trove of countless great stories!

Born in 1946, I grew up on movies about WW II and, as an adult I’ve studied the history surrounding that cataclysm.

For a lover of strategic thinking and heroic action, WW II is hard to beat. (Not at all like the First World War, whose action consisted largely of misery in the trenches punctuated by charges of incredible folly, with generals squandering thousands of lives for a few yards of territory. A terrible “game,” terribly played.)

WW II presented interesting challenges at every level—from platoon-level fighting in the French countryside, through the generals planning D-Day, all the way up to the decisions made by national leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill.

It was a war conducted across the entire planet, with a huge variety of environments, objectives, and circumstances.  War in Europe and North Africa, war in the Pacific and Asia. On land and sea and air.

It was a war in which the human and technological elements may have been in some kind of optimal balance—extending human powers but not replacing them. (They had fast and capable airplanes, but it was the people who had to be smart because the bombs weren’t.)

There were submarines and paratroopers and radio communications and aircraft carriers and code-breakers.

And more than usual in human affairs, it was valid to think of the conflict in terms of good vs. evil.

No wonder it has been an unending source of engaging – sometimes great – movies.

This past Memorial Day, I watched parts of two great World War II movies enacting dramatic strategic duels between highly intelligent combatants.

Patton dramatizes a duel between the American general and his equally brilliant German adversary, Rommel. (“Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” our hero exclaims, upon winning that duel.)

Then Midway shows us American and Japanese admirals compelled to make highly consequential strategic decisions based on scarily incomplete information. (The film ends with the Americans wondering if they won because they were better or just luckier.

These were games of strategy at their best, with history riding on the outcome. These stories will never outlive their ability to engage our minds and hearts and even – as we enter the film action vicariously – our muscles.

Peace-lover though I am, I expect I will never give up my guilty pleasure of reliving (at a safe distance) the dramas of what may have been history’s greatest – though also its deadliest — game, World War II.

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