HOW WE LOVE OUR GAMES OF WAR by David Williams, Sunday, November 19, 2023
The world I grew up on Eisenhower Street, 30 miles outside Chicago, was an enchanted playground for a kid, as new ranch houses sprouted up left and right, which meant mounds and mounds of dirt piled high from the digging out of basements and foundations. Eventually, remnant tall grasses of the prairie would grow to create jungles taller than us kids, and we’d hack trails through them, passageways, making shelters and forts. In those days kids ran free. If we played baseball or anything else, it was utterly disorganized. There were no organized sports. We had our little neighborhood gang of kids that would get together, splinter, then reconfigure, with the strongest and most confident kid always the leader everyone else looked up to. We were just like our primate cousins, the chimps.
But of all the games we played nothing was as good as war. We had plastic guns, of course, but we’d also make bows and arrows (that did nothing), while dirt clods were the other weapon of choice. Two competing gangs would form, and we’d chase through the suburban jungles of grass, up and down the hills, hiding, spying, strategizing. If someone got shot they had to count to ten before they could rise and go at it again. No one taught us to do this. It was completely natural, and war required complete immersion of all one’s faculties—cunning, theory of mind, creating alliances, negotiations, hunting, devising plots, deciding the ethics of taking prisoners or just shooting our enemies, all while trying to get the other team to surrender. No game was more thrilling than this. And while we played at other things, like constructing landscapes in the sandbox, even there we had little green toy soldiers and tanks and miniscule guns, and we’d create imaginary battles through the rivers and mountains we carved and built in the sand.
I can only attribute this great desire and love for “war” to Human Nature, at least for boys. Other than this most fun of all activities, I was a choirboy, a faithful Christian, devoted to the social gospel of “do unto others,” which has remained with me all my life, and which led me down the opposite path of my brother, who went the way of Trump and Christian nationalism. But back then we were in sync—good Christian kids who paid no attention to “turn the other cheek.” Not when it came to the fun of war. But as I grew up, I moved further and further from my warlike proclivities, eventually protesting against the war in Vietnam–with the exception of football in junior high and my first year of high school–where I put on the battle gear of the warrior and went after enemy kids who were also clad in helmets and massive shoulder pads that did nothing to protect our brains.
Of course, we didn’t know there was any real danger back in those days. When it came to football, the mantra of the coaches was that of any general: “Go into battle, be brave, take one for the team, brothers in arms, hit hard and break the other guys, but most of all win!” If someone got taken down from helmets crashing, or getting tackled too hard–ending up crushed in a mosh pit–we were told to just “suck it up and carry on.” (Though any injury we might receive we wore proudly in school, especially if we had a limp or actual bandage, for that evoked sympathy from the girls. But we were doing it all for a greater cause. Right? For football, of course, is just a toned-down version of “war,” as are all contact sports—a more civilized outlet for that thing in us that loves to fight and have enemies to overcome.
We no longer have stadiums with gladiators killing one another or slaughtering animals of every kind, as it was in the many Roman coliseums scattered across their empire, but we still have the drive for blood sport in America, as small towns throughout the landscape elevate football into the national and weekly battleground and frenzy, the place where mere kids are lifted into heroes or brought down as losers—where families devote themselves to a near religious fervor that seems to mean so much more than common sense would suggest it should.
The New York Times posted a very disturbing feature a few days ago about rafts of kids who have died in their teens and twenties from playing football, struck down by CTE. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/11/16/us/cte-youth-football.html?searchResultPosition=1. These were not pro-athletes, just normal boys who began playing football in 7th or 8th grade, just like I did, and on into high school, but the collisions they suffered in normal play led to multiple concussions that had already begun to deteriorate their brains at a very early age. Their minds were gone, their tortured synapses leading to agonizing hallucinations, bizarre voices, episodes of utter forgetfulness, dangerous mood swings, with everything off kilter. And no hope for a cure. Numerous kids committed suicide, some leaving video testimonies, asking that their parents have their brains tested for CTE after they had died. (For CTE can only be confirmed from an autopsy of the brain). All these young athletes had CTE it turned out. Of course, the parents were devastated. Some swore that if they’d known they’d never have allowed their kids to play football, but other parents would not go that far, saying that of course football was a risk, but that kids knew that ahead of time and decided to play anyway. That’s the power of our cultural obsession with this “sport,” and an insight into our insatiable desire for action on the field.
I played football, my dad played football, my son played football. It does create the same kind of camaraderie soldiers develop in battle. There are many positive things about football in that regard. Bonding. Allegiances. But I have come to think that it, and any other sports that rot brains, like boxing, need to stop. It is unfair to our kids to say they know what they are getting into. They don’t know. Yes, just like when we played war in our suburban environments, we were after the thrill and glory. For somehow, there DID seem to be bigger purpose behind our actions. We didn’t know that we were just performing rituals of primate behavior that had been circulating in our genes for millions of years—for one group to fight and dominate another. Yes, the males of our species have these dispositions, and our culture drives them forward with complete mania and fealty, but unlike rams, which developed massive cushioning to protect their delicate brains from extreme violent head smashing, homo sapiens did not evolve such protections. Primates are not head bashers.
We have taken our inclinations for battle and turned it on our young people by worshipping a game that has real deadly risks our young men do not deserve. That the motivations for such behavior are part of our Human Nature does not make this either good or acceptable. How to get the worst elements of our Human Nature under control—that we need to think about. Due to CTE, many young football players will eventually lose their ability to think at all. We have not been able to abolish war itself, but maybe we can at least vanquish the war-like games that also have terrible consequences.