Fighting terrorism: Football or soccer?


Matthew Yglesias uses a headline that is striking in its simplicity and in the way it recalls those halycon days of 2004 when the Democratic nominee couldn’t seem to stay out of his own rhetorical way on the way to a demoralizing defeat.  That headline: Kerry was right.

Well, duh.

About which issue?  The budget deficit? The environment? Energy prices?

Yes, yes and yes.  In fact, Yglesias could probably run several weeks worth of blog posts with the title “Kerry was right” and just change the issue.  On this day, however, he’s talking about Kerry’s position on fighting terrorism:

As you may recall, back during the 2004 campaign John Kerry said something about counterterrorism being primarily a question to be dealt with through law enforcement and intelligence rather than something that should be understood as primarily a kind of war.

While we were still high on the whole “war on some tactic that has no definitive end point or location,” President Bush was able to spin this into the typical, “weak on defense” that has plagued Democrats since the Barbary Coast War.  Turns out, folks, including the Pentagon, are starting to realize that Kerry was correct:

“Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests there is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” said Seth Jones, the lead author of the study and a Rand political scientist.

This isn’t a new concept.  Waaaay back in 2003, people who actually study this kind of stuff (aka, not the President, any of his advisers or any other politician) made the analogy of America’s War on Terror is to American Football as The Right Way to Fight Terrorism is to Soccer. (Also AWOT:NFL::TRWTFT:MLS)

In this article in the Armed Forces Journal, Joel Cassman and David Lai make the following point with the analogy:

In spite of the Army’s mantra of “lighter, faster, more lethal” and its much-publicized Transformation, everywhere this military moves it goes like a giant football team; it employs football-like strategy and tactics in conducting the nation’s security missions. However, the lack of a peer competitor raises questions about the strategic value of traditional U.S. reliance on overwhelming military power. Today’s enemies include terrorists and failing states. While U.S. power is superior in strategies against peer competitor nation states, it historically has proven less successful against guerrilla insurgencies, terrorist organizations and other unconventional challenges.

By way of analogy, soccer offers a useful model for these unconventional threats, in that the teams use finesse, surprise attack and patience instead of power and force. Soccer is an ideal paradigm of the concept of “decentralized control, decentralized execution.” To compensate for their comparative conventional military weakness, terrorist organizations and failing states fight like soccer players. American football teams are not well suited to fight against these new threats. In preparing to confront these opponents, the United States should incorporate some soccer concepts in its military planning, training and war-fighting doctrine.

And what would such tactics require?  An emphasis on intelligence gathering and the best practices of law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Somehow, I don’t think Kerry would have scored many political points by trying to convince us to dump football for soccer.  But… he was right.

(Couldn’t remember where I first read about the Lai and Cassman article.  Turns out it was the New York Times magazine.)


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