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The comparison of football to warfare and the mutual admiration that society has created between those who run into literal fields of fire and those who intentionally collide with one another is very real. Steve’s Marine-ness and Dave’s Athlete-ness were the things that bonded us over one beer that turned into six back in 2015.
In the book The Meaning of Sports, political science expert Michael Mandelbaum takes a crack at explaining why American’s love football so much and convincingly makes the case that the spectacle of violence, combined with the proliferation of television, is what propelled the NFL to the top of the sporting paradigm. The visual athleticism and violence on display in football is gripping, especially when it’s brought up close on television. (It’s a persuasive argument, and if you work in sport and haven’t read the book yet, we urge you to pick it up—it’s that good.)
The crossover between football and the U.S. military is on our minds this week in advance of the Super Bowl. The two have been intertwined since the game’s birth—a bond that was especially during the WWII era and only became stronger from there on. Future Chicago Bears owner George Halas played for the Great Lakes Navy Bluejackets and Pat Tillman changed duty stations from the Arizona Cardinals to the U.S. Army. And so, as an homage to this connective tissue, we’re going to let a friend from the military drive the Modern @thletics this week.
Lt. Col. Andy Graham is a Futures Architect for the U.S. Marine Corps. His job is to plan and think about the future of warfare. And the only way you can do that is by looking at the past with dispassionate eyes to cut through the myth and find real lessons.
Lessons From the Battle of Okinawa for NFL Teams and Players
By Andy Graham
From 1941 until April 1945, America and the Allies waged a global war on two fronts, dividing energy between the European and Pacific theaters. By the time the Americans arrived at the Japanese Island of Okinawa in March 1945, the Pacific campaign had been an economy of force effort for three years, pushing back the Japanese at tremendous cost to both sides.
On Easter Sunday, the first of April, 184,000 soldiers and Marines assaulted the beach with support from 1,400 Navy ships and nearly 750 fighters and bombers. As a study in the history of competition, the Battle of Okinawa provides lessons for a completely unrelated activity—like professional football or business. Here are some that stand out:
Thrive in the Competition of Learning
The Battle of Okinawa was the culmination of a competition in learning. After three years of brutal fighting, both the Americans and Japanese had learned how to be good at seizing or defending island fortresses. Early on in WW2 battles, a new tactic or weapon proved decisive, like paratroopers, tanks or flamethrowers. That was no longer decisive on Okinawa. The same is true in professional football. Thirty years ago, in the NFL, a single talented athlete could make the difference and win games for average teams. Now, every team has talent, and every team has access to similar strength and preparation techniques. What mattered in the Battle of Okinawa matters in the NFL today; you must be excellent in the basics of the game, in every engagement, until the game is over. Otherwise, you create the opportunity for a disciplined opponent to strike and win.
Expect the Unexpected
Even with ideal intelligence, no plan is perfect. Going into the invasion, the Allies did not have perfect intelligence; they had aerial photographs that were a year old and the harsh experience of brutal battles like Saipan, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima to guide their planning. The American ground commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., had every reason to believe that his Japanese opponent, General Mitsuru Ushijima, would try to attack him during the landing—the most dangerous part of an amphibious attack. Instead, Ushijima created a methodical, detailed defense that combined firepower, terrain, and engineering to make the Allies fight for every yard. And then the Japanese brought something new: waves of Kamikaze suicide fighter planes, a completely new weapon for the Second World War. With this surprise weapon, the Japanese cost the Americans 36 battleships and 4,700 sailors. Even in the Super Bowl, the team that has relied on a 4-3 defense for 19 games may show up with a 3-4, or something even more out of character.
Have a Redundant Plan to Generate Tempo
Tempo is speed relative to maneuver. Another way of saying it is that you must move, think and fight faster than your enemy can react. This is the lesson that translates best to the NFL. This can be best seen in the evolution of the no-huddle offense, signals from coaches on the sidelines, and observers in the skyboxes communicating down observations during the game. At Okinawa, the Allies didn’t rely on aircraft carriers for firepower; the point of the battle was to seize airports. Once the airports were seized, American aircraft could get off the aircraft carriers and fight from the shore, where they could take off, fight, drop bombs, land, refuel, and do it again far faster than they could from ships.
Have Multiple Ways to Win
A strategy means that no matter the outcomes, you still win. America had a targeted strategic bombing campaign and a submarine campaign destroying shipping, and an island-hopping campaign to seize airfields, and an atomic bomb program. Any one of these could come up short, and the enemy would still be forced to capitulate. When the Allies invaded Okinawa, the commander had two corps abreast—nearly 100,000 soldiers and Marines working together with airplanes and artillery; he also had three more divisions in reserve, and didn’t hesitate to commit them when the lead divisions were badly mauled. NFL teams need to have a solid running game, even if their passing game is best in the league. Sometimes it rains.
During the Battle of Okinawa, American forces were united by both purpose and effort. Despite different services and philosophies of battle, they combined their efforts together in pursuit of one goal. The Japanese did not. Japan’s Army commander (General Ushijima) did not command or coordinate with the Navy commander ashore (Admiral Ota) and their defense was disjointed. In the NFL, leadership is the reason the same teams keep coming back to the playoffs again and again. A team does not win a championship with just good players or coaches; leadership means that all members of the organization are invested and on the same page, including coaches, players, management, ticket collectors, concession vendors, and parking lot attendants. If it’s just a job, you’ll only put in just enough to get paid.
Unlike war, football has very specific rules and boundaries. Professional football is a violent game in which fortunes of money are involved, but you aren’t trying to kill the other team and their employees. Similarly, you can’t change the rules for your side or get more players. But in football, like warfare, you must think while competing and look for opportunities when the opponent gives them to you. Sometimes individual talent or athleticism makes a difference, usually preparation and determination are decisive. Unlike the Super Bowl, the Battle of Okinawa wasn’t expected to be the final bout; the Allies expected another bloody battle to invade and conquer Japan. And when it was over, it was over. The advantage you have in the NFL is that you know just how many games you must play, who you must play, and how to win. You just need to put together a team and put in the work to become champions.
The author is a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, strategist and historian. The views presented are those of the author and do not represent the views of DoD or its Components.
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