Of Cemeteries and Cricket
I come from a military family (more precisely, of air force pilots). Thus, I'm generally inclined to agree with sentiments of recognition directed towards the service of war veterans, the commemoration of the war dead, and more broadly, with a sympathetic take on folks who serve in the military. Still, I would be lying if I did not say that both the Australian team's visit to Gallipoli in 2001, and the English team's visit to Flanders yesterday filled me with some unease.
What bothers me about these trips is the idea that paying a visit to war cemeteries or memorials is a "bonding exercise" for sportsmen about to engage in a major sporting encounter. This notion is deeply problematic on two counts.
First, it encourages a facile identification between sport and war (note, I'm not saying the visits do it - they just encourage it). This identification has already infected sports journalism - what with its language of "sporting battlefields", "fierce battles", "thrashings", "humiliating defeats", "gallant resistance", language that is the stuff of headlines and which often makes me cringe. Some of the borrowing of this language is unavoidable; I'm sure it slips into my blogging as well. After all, sports is a competitive encounter with winners and losers; war is a "competitive encounter" as well. But there the similarity should end.
The terrible realities of war are a far cry from even the fiercest sporting rivalry. Rick McCosker, broken jaw and all, would be the first one to acknowledge that his "battle" with the English pacemen in the 1977 Centenary Test bore as much resemblance to war as a passing shower bears to a category five hurricane. Given this dissimilarity, it would be nice if all of us could ease up on the "sport is war" analogy-making. It dangerously elevates passions in sport, and it trivializes an activity that is perhaps mankind's most terrible invention. No matter how fierce the 2009 Ashes will be, they are tiddlywinks compared to war. (Cue Keith Miller's comments on pressure here).
Secondly, at the risk of sounding like an old conservative fart, I don't think sports teams should be using war cemeteries as venues for training. Whatever the expressed emotion, these visits are clearly some coach's brainchild, part of a strategy to prepare a team for a game. But if you visit a cemetery, come to pay your respects and nothing else. Do not use the cemeteries as a means to an end, to facilitate some sort of organizational success. Who wouldn't find it tacky if we heard a corporate board was visiting Ypres as a bonding exercise, as part of a day-long "strategy planning retreat"?
If you feel your wards are in need of a little maturity, and should appreciate that no matter how tough their lives, other young men had it much, much worse, then encourage them on their own time to visit war museums and other memorials and read some history (perhaps buy them all a copy of John Keegan's The Face of Battle). But this programmed, publicised with photo-ops package tour, which uses the graves of thousands of men as part of an elaborate training routine is lacking in some desperately needed good taste.
By all means, pay your respects to the men who died in distant lands, often fighting for causes they only dimly understood. By all means acknowledge the horrendous toll in life that wars have exacted, and remember the men who could not have full productive lives, and the families who lost them. But to be truly respectful to them, leave your agendas out of it. Especially if those are part of a new-wave sports coaching plan.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here