An annotated link post: REPOSTED
Another season of tackling and blocking is almost over. In a series of essays published here in 2021, I explained how the autumnal ritual of American football and mass fire warfare produce the same characteristic form of brain injury. This is not really an accident, for the game has always been a cultural celebration of the values and tactics of modern battle. The strands of sports culture and military revolution are inextricably woven into a single social fabric. These posts are archived and available for premium subscribers. Here is a synopsis.
Head injuries account for 20 percent of all wounds on all battlefields since 1914. Whereas the head makes up just 9 percent of our human bodies, blast injury has accounted for about half of all wounds sustained in Iraq, with most of those injuries happening to soldiers’ heads. A 2009 federal study of nearly 4,000 veterans of the war in Iraq found that almost one in four of the sample population had a “clinician-confirmed” case of mTBI. Separately, a 2008 study found strong links between TBI and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as depression.
These findings have challenged a century of conventional wisdom about combat trauma. Until the last decade, virtually all behavioral and cognitive issues in war veterans were ascribed to either psychological wounding or moral inadequacy. We now know that many of these invisible injuries occur through physical blows to the brain.
What do we mean by “modern battle”? To understand why American Civil War veterans invented football, one must see their experiences in the context of a global armaments revolution that was taking place in parallel development across five continents.
In a classic case of overcompensation, the defeat of 1871 stung proud France so badly that her armée went to war in 1914 with a doctrine called attaque à outrance (literally “attack to excess”), marching headlong into a cauldron of steel and explosives spat out by far more advanced armaments, producing 75,000 French casualties in the first three days of combat along the Belgian border. Collectively known as the Battle of the Frontiers, these clashes at Bertrix and Charleroi and the Ardennes would prove the most lethal of the entire conflict, and largely because there were no trenches from which to fight in relative safety. Two months later, the survivors of those early battles were living and fighting in trenches along a 430-mile battlefront consisting of “no man’s land” between opposing lines, the format by which we still remember Le Grande Guerre (“the Great War”). In the parlance of military theorists, the movement to contact phase of meeting engagements had been followed by planned, set-piece battles of offense and defense.
But we can also say that, having “kicked off” their war and run all the way from one “sideline” (the Swiss border) to the opposite sideline (the English Channel), the combatants began to wrestle along parallel lines of “scrimmage” with a “neutral zone” in between, measuring success in yards gained. In fact, this butcher’s bill, incurred as the two sides fought over tiny pieces of northern France, is how westerners understand the entire war a century later. Yet the situation that developed in 1914 was not unforeseen.
Instant high-explosive blast is a very different force from the repeated bodily impacts of tackling and blocking, but their profound effect on human brain cells is the same. Ironically, this realization has given us new insight into the supposed mysteries of “shell shock” in the First World War.
Unfortunately, because doctors could not see the injuries to their patients’ brains, they soon turned to other explanations. At the time, the fashionable science of invisible disorders was psychology, which ascribed these behaviors and symptoms to stress. Even Dr. Mott was convinced that the exhausting conditions of the trenches and “experiences … depressing to the vital resistance of the nervous system” played a role in the phenomenon.
Two competing explanations for shell shock emerged by the end of the war. Sympathetic professionals argued that men had suffered injuries to the mind, and that the horrors of war were too much for any man. Less-sympathetic professionals argued that these men were just not manly enough: contemporary diagnoses call them “nervous,” or suffering from “neurasthenia,” and often “hysteria” — a 19th Century term that was loaded with misogynistic meaning, inferring that shell shock victims were too feminine for the manly rigors of war.
Helmet technology has also changed with the new rules. Instead of preventing skull fracture, football helmets are now designed to reduce the angular momentum of impact that causes brain injury. However, the history of helmets on gridiron and battlefield suggests that all attempted technological fixes will create new problems.
Their effects on battlefield medicine were immediate — and perverse. Field hospitals filled up with survivors whose head injuries would have killed them if not for their helmets. Doctors were now treating more head and brain trauma than ever before, while the number of cases of “shell shock” rose dramatically. For while these new steel helmets were very good at stopping small, high velocity objects from penetrating the brain, they offered no protection from blast pressure waves — the signature form of injury on the Western Front, where the use of shrapnel shells was already declining in 1915 as each side deployed more and bigger high explosive munitions to dig the enemy out of his trenches.
A similar tragedy was forming under the new football helmets. Because fewer young men were dying immediately on the field, or succumbing quickly to head injuries sustained in play, the long-term damage of concussions and cumulative trauma went unremarked. Tackle drills continued to emphasize hard impact instead of “wrapping up” an opponent. Players still launched themselves against one another from low stances. When young men complained of dizziness, coaches still urged them to “play hurt.”
Finally, the politics of the possible are set by the trends of the time. Major football programs can be compared to the military-industrial activities of modern states — indeed, they are top line items in many American university budgets, while professional clubs are billion-dollar concerns. What does it say of the “exceptional nation” that this high-tech pastime demands so much of those who play it?
While Canadian football is very similar to the American game — close enough that an uninformed observer would be hard-pressed to figure out the differences — most American football fans discount the Canadian game completely. Canadians have never tied their version of the sport as closely to matters of national identity or civic virtue as the American game. Canada is a good point of comparison, for while the northern neighbor of the United States does not quite share the same history of racial animus, they do share the fraught history of Native American “boarding schools” like the one that produced Jim Thorpe in Carlisle, a site now belonging to the US Army War College. Canadians also proved to be the shock troops of the British empire in France: pioneers in trench raiding, meticulous planners, adept in the operational art of a combined arms attack. When the Germans gleaned intelligence that Canadians were in the opposite trenches, they braced themselves for an offensive in that area. In a very real sense, Canada’s national identity was forged in the fires of the Western Front.
Perhaps Canada’s climate explains why Canadians have collectively chosen to invest a sense of national identity in ice hockey rather than football. What matters for this discussion is that Americans see their game as exceptional much the way they see their American nation as exceptional.