Sport and War: Combative Societies and Combative Sports

By J. A. Mangan

In history war has served sport and sport has served war. To concentrate on one without the other is to be guilty of an incomplete entry in an incomplete ledger--the association is that strong. Military activities have become community recreations, and community recreations have become military activities. The one has reinforced the other.

The sports field and battlefield are linked as locations for the demonstration of legitimate patriotic aggression. The one location sustains the other, and both sustain the image of the powerful nation. Furthermore, the sports field throughout history has prepared the young for the battlefield. Throughout history sport and militarism have been inseparable.

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More than this, heroes of sports field and battlefield have much in common. They are both viewed as symbols of national prowess, quality and virtue. The warrior and the athlete are crucial to the perceived success of the state.

Less often, sport has been an attempted antidote to war--bloodless competition with the purpose of assuaging bitterness, seeking reconciliation, attempting conciliation, pursuing comity.

Constructing Identity

Memory has a special power. The memory of war is one of the most significant ways of shaping national identity: images of sacrifice, heroism, mourning and loss provide symbols of unity in suffering, in sadness, in valediction. Sport, and the memory of sport, while of a different order of individual and collective experience, also has the power to shape national identity. Sharply focused memories of sporting moments--played or watched--are among the most frequently recalled and infrequently forgotten.

Sporting memories often offer the security of belonging. In the modern world, therefore, war and sport are potent forces in the creation of imagined communities. Both unite individuals in shared ecstasy and despair, happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain.

There is a need to further examine to what extent sport is a useful substitute for war--competition without killing--and to what extent, if at all, it deflects nations from military aggression because of heightened national amour-propre due to sporting success, the satisfactory humiliation of other nations and the reassuring involvement that makes evident a common humanity.

Contact through sport, of course, can, and does, have opposite outcomes. Sport reinforces antagonisms bred on battlefields, keeps alive memories of "battles long ago," defeats deep in the past and victories recorded in history books, and as such exacerbates antipathy, fuels hostility and extends dislike. Sport can be sublimated warfare kept alive repeatedly year after year, in "conflicts without casualties" in national stadiums keeping vivid past conflicts with casualties, and perhaps contributing to future conflicts with casualties!

What is clear from the evidence is the extent to which nations have used, and use, sport as a form of cultural conditioning to project images of desirable masculinity which lead directly to desirable images of martial masculinity.

The Making of Men

In history the making of men has carried the explicit and implicit message that men faced outward to the world and confronted its problems, while women faced inward to the home and its demands.

While that has been the past, the future may be somewhat different. Modern feminism now challenges a long established masculine heritage. Nevertheless, this heritage remains strong at this time of revolutionary change in gender roles.

Nada kusti is an ancient form of Indian wrestling that once played an important role in training warriors   [Tomasz Gudzowaty & Judit Berekai, Yours Gallery/Focus Fotoagentur]

In recorded history there have been few exceptions to this arrangement. This state of affairs has ensured a basic continuity in the making of masculinity. The fundamental concept of masculinity has changed little.

The key concept in any explanation is "fitness" for struggle. The facts of male freedom from pregnancy, greater explosive power and greater expendability, have resulted in cultures devoting considerable effort to prepare the boy to be a man in an atmosphere of aggressive competition, personal assertion and inculcated self-sacrifice--to the perceived advantage of the group, the team, the nation.

As David Gilmore has noted of the cultures he investigated in Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity, authentically neuter or androgynous cultures are relatively rare "on a global scale," and "wherever 'real' manhood is emphasized, even lightly, and for whatever reasons, three moral injunctions seem to come repeatedly into focus," namely, "Man-the-Impregnator-Protector-Provider."


Gilmore also makes the important point that these "three male imperatives are either dangerous or highly competitive. They place men at risk on the battlefield, in the hunt, or in confrontation with their fellows." Nevertheless, for the majority of men there is no escaping from these imperatives, and therefore, since "boys must steel themselves to enter into such struggles, they must be prepared by various sorts of tempering and toughening."

None of this is to deny the complexity of masculinity, the social or individual variations and the absence of a monolithic stereotype. Nonetheless, the fundamental cultural image of the continually applauded male as aggressive, competitive, confrontational and dominant when necessary has been a constant phenomenon in recorded history.

Whatever the variations in ideas of masculinity, men virtually everywhere are prepared for war, inter alia in the modern world indirectly by an emphasis on school and post-school sport. The reason is clear. One constant masculine imperative throughout history has been "a moral commitment to defend the society and its core values against all odds."

Underlying much cultural reflection, planning and implementation associated with making men out of boys, therefore, has been training, both direct and indirect, for readiness for battlefields, on playing fields or similar venues. A further and associated concern of the educator has been to develop a sense of community through an emphasis on the social virtues of loyalty, obedience, cooperation and discipline. Crucial qualities perceived as inseparable from success in war, politics and commerce have also received careful attention: aggression, persistence and endurance. Far less of a priority has been an education for marriage, domesticity and parenthood.

Hard Sports

Much remains to be revealed about the relationship between masculinity, nationalism, sport and militarism. Whether it is instinct or society that is the key to the relationship between sport and war, what is clear is that, in the words of Phillip Goodhart and Christopher Chataway in War Without Weapons, "the harder and more dangerous forms of sport all give scope for militant enthusiasm" and, of course, for military competence both psychological and physical.

If there is truth in the view that dangerous sports allow nations "to fight each other in hard and dangerous competence without engendering national or political hatred," and that "The most important function of sport lies in furnishing a healthy safety valve for that most indispensable and at the same time most dangerous form of aggression described as collective militant enthusiasm," it is also true that sport can inflate this enthusiasm.

What is more to the point is that war will continue to serve sport and sport to serve war well beyond the 20th century.

Historically, sport has served anti-militarism far less well than it has militarism. The most horrific military confrontation in history--the First World War--stimulated in 1915 only a brief, pitiful, unsuccessful effort to replace war with sport. On Christmas Day at various locations along the Western Front something resembling football occurred. Private William Tapp of the Warwickshires wrote from just above Ploegsteert Wood: "We are trying to arrange a football match with them--the Saxons--for tomorrow, Boxing Day." Harassing British artillery fire, he claimed later, prevented it. There were other plans for such sadly pathetic competitions, right up to New Year's Day, once the clearance of corpses from no man's land had made available space for play.

Britain in the imperial afternoon and evening provides the clearest evidence of the functional association between sport and war, socialization and militarism. It is defined in this commentary on Edward George Henderson, VC, a public schoolboy in the brash militaristic era of the New Imperialism:

"Of George Henderson's life and work at Rossall one can assume that it was hard and regimented with the accent on the physical rather than on the academic disciplines. As in all public schools in that era of the preeminence in the world of Britain and her Empire, the qualities of leadership, example and pride in country were the foundation stones on which boys were prepared for positions of authority and responsibility. . . . It is said that, in the years just before the First World War, sixth form masters were in the habit of reminding their pupils that the Germans would have to be fought some day soon. If this was the case at Rossall then perhaps it was the only spur George needed to go for the Army."

In the era of Britain's New Imperialism the reason for the reminder was not hard to find. As anthropologist Richard Sipes writes, "Other things being equal, a society proficient at and prepared for warfare and willing to engage in it has had (until recently) a better chance of surviving and growing than had a society not proficient, ready and willing." Much energy and effort was expended in the period in public schools to produce the Henderson mind-set.

What is the relationship between sport and modern militarism and antimilitarism, sport and modern war and modern peace? These are questions well worth further investigation. It is not a dead but a living relationship.

Interest in Sports Studies around the world is growing hugely and will continue to do so. Such is its power, politically, culturally, economically, spiritually and aesthetically, that sport beckons the historian more compellingly and persuasively than ever. Eric Hobsbawm once called sport one of the most significant practices of the late 19th century. Its significance was even more apparent in the 20th century, and it will be far more apparent in the 21st century as the world develops into a "global village" sharing the English language, technology and sport.

Professor J. A. Mangan is the author of Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School and The Games Ethic and Imperialism. He has published some 30 books and is the founding editor of The International Journal of the History of Sport. He has adapted this article from his edited collections Making European Masculinities: Sport, Europe, Gender and Militarism, Sport, Europe: War Without Weapons.