OPINION: Football and the art of war

Watching the soccer World Cup fans in full nationalistic cry is like a global version of America’s unbridled patriotism.

The lie-down-and-die attitude of soccer fans when their team loses and their violent delight when ball hits net are eerily reminiscent of the kind of passion a state must inspire in the populace to make them want to go to war. To believe that they are the chosen ones, the deserving winners.

I was recently in Washington, DC, and it struck me that the city is actually a string of glorious, larger-than-life monuments to all the wars (and they are legion) that the US has been part of – and the patriotism that fuels them. The wars in turn fuel the US weapons industry because, without war, what are guns good for?

Arlington Cemetery – rows and rows and rows, as far as the eye can see, of tombstones – is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After World
War 1, 100 years ago this year, the remains of an unidentified US soldier were returned to the US from the killing fields of Europe to represent all the young men who died there. He was given an elaborate tomb and a full-time guard. The guard walks 21 steps, halts for 21 seconds, rinse and repeat, to eternally represent the 21-gun salute.

Alas, as the number of wars increased so too did the number of unknown soldiers brought here to represent the dead – World War 2 and then Vietnam (though he was subsequently identified through DNA analysis and his unknown grave is empty). It is a powerful symbol of patriotism, full of pomp and ceremony, a celebration of sacrifice.

On the hot, muggy day I was there, thousands of children were watching the changing of the guard spectacular, and were shocked and awed into wanting to join the team.

Spring is school trip season in the US and every monument to war is surrounded by throngs of school children all learning to love the US enough to die for it. A colleague on the same tour explained that, as a teenager growing up in Middle America, he got a weekly phonecall from a Colonel Adams inviting him to sign up for the army. He declined.

The gargantuan bronze version of the photograph taken by Joseph Rosenthal at Iwo Jima on February 23 1945 is designed to show what a good team can achieve; the monument to the Korean War celebrates those who fight for the cause of others; the Vietnam War memorial is a monument to yet more sacrifice. What they all have in common – along with the monuments to all of America’s founding fathers (there are seemingly no mothers) and presidents – is that the US team is the team you want to join or support.

It is a powerful message, like the one put out by every nation when there’s a World Cup. Makes you wonder what football is a proxy for.