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Talk of war, football and COVID-19

| Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Talk of war surrounds discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic. When University of Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins announced only in-person classes for fall, he invoked comparisons to the risks of war and called for courage. Thereafter, legendary ND Football Coach Lou Holtz told Fox News that colleges should play football while invoking memories of heroes who stormed Normandy’s Nazi-held beaches during World War II. While some scholars have criticized militarized COVID-19 rhetoric, use of military analogies has merit. However, this Domer, U.S. Army veteran and college faculty member thinks militarized rhetoric should inspire caution.      

In The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog, professors Jessica Blankshain and Danielle Lupton claim warlike analogies were problematic. At ND, professor Susan Cannon Harris also laments warlike rhetoric. I contend military frameworks are warranted for several reasons. First, when Fr. Jenkins initially used militarized rhetoric, we had nearly twice as many COVID-19 fatalities as U.S. combat deaths from the Vietnam War.  Before long we will likely surpass the U.S. Civil War’s approximately 215,000 total combat deaths. Second, COVID-19 makes normality very difficult, embodying the “friction,” which Carl Von Clausewitz claimed was inherent in combat when writing “On War” roughly 200 years ago. Third, tracking a mutating virus with testing and contact tracing resembles the intelligence challenges of stalking a wartime adversary.  

Holtz’s use of military analogies was unsurprising. He was a history major at Kent State University and an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Moreover, some Buckeyes do not fall far from the tree. His coaching mentor, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, had great interest in military history. I argued in the Journal of Global Security Studies this spring that Hayes was one of several noteworthy coaches who argued that football was essential to American military power. Such coaches justifying their status this way are one leg of a gridiron triangle that, along with members of the media and government officials going back to Theodore Roosevelt, have woven football into American culture. Cumulatively, they infused hyper-militarism/patriotism into the sport that made it easier for fans to demonize protesters not standing for the national anthem, despite their critically important message.

Although I find militarized rhetoric applicable, ND’s professor Richard Williams argues it did not suggest only in-person classes. Similarly, the Normandy invasion was delayed because of weather until General Eisenhower’s forces finally moved, and then only against a totalitarian threat rather than the specter of online courses.     

ND’s professor Michael Desch explained that opening battles rarely go well, and certainly there were American losses to Germany early in World War II. However, ND’s COVID-19 setback begs the question whether the administration learned sufficiently from what appears to have been a fiasco. How else could one explain Fr. Jenkins’ unwillingness to “Face the Nation” on CBS several Sundays ago? When I served a stressful year-long tour within artillery range of the North Korean Army in the 1990s, I benefitted from effective leaders. If campus leaders do not demonstrate the willingness to take media questions, how can they expect courage from students, parents and workers?      

Holtz used an example of a successful military operation that seemingly justifies risk-taking. Yet there are countless examples where wishful thinking ended tragically:  Lee at Gettysburg, German and British leaders at different times in the First World War and when the Allies tried to go “a bridge too far” in the Second World War. Similarly, General “Lightning Joe” Collins’ warnings against a potential quagmire in Vietnam were forgotten.  

Alternatively, cautious adaptation can yield victories. During the American Revolution, General George Washington avoided irrevocable mistakes and lured the British into the Carolina backwoods where they became exhausted and vulnerable subsequently to defeat. Holtz should understand the merit of caution. Miami Hurricane Coach Jimmy Johnson provided Holtz’s Fighting Irish with an inside track to the national championship when Johnson gambled for a win instead of a tie on Notre Dame Stadium’s unfriendly terrain in 1988. Johnson lost that battle and the war, a mistake Ara Parseghian did not make in 1966 when his Irish settled for a tie against Michigan State and became national champions. 

ND professor Patrick Griffin argues COVID-19 presents opportunities for sharing in the world’s suffering while demonstrating virtues, like humility. However, the humbler response would be to deviate from the norm of only in-person classes, which is the sacrificial reality of many schools today. Do not we who are Catholic expect young women faced with unplanned pregnancies to radically deviate from their routines and put the lives of their children ahead of their own plans? Notre Dame’s choice looks more like “my will be done” than “thy will be done.” 

Inflexibility flowing from status and hubris has precedence. University leaders fired our first and only African-American head football coach based on apparent overconfidence about attracting Urban Meyer as his replacement, which never materialized. The result was an apparently good man and role model was fired, and ND paid Charlie Weiss for several years after his departure. ND’s pandemic response reminds me of a resort near my hometown. During World War II, it only turned off its exterior nighttime lights to safeguard ships from predatory U-boats after being embarrassed by radio broadcaster Walter Winchell. Now that the football season has kicked-off, I pray everyone shows good judgement in how they gather.        

My criticism of Griffin’s position notwithstanding, Domers should embrace suffering when justifiable. They can volunteer with the Peace Corps or various religiously-affiliated or secular non-profits. They can even sign up with Uncle Sam if they want an authentic military experience. However, justifying only on-campus classes to benefit the local economy ignores the financial capacity of the University to cushion such blows, the risks to campus and the greater risks of community transmission.

Paul Vasquez

class of 2009

Sept. 16

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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