Thoughts on War and Boxing
As a child of the 1980s, I came of age in an era when military service was speculative and opaque, and represented in popular culture as an arena for the expression of an assertive masculinity largely unencumbered by the bloody specter of warfare. Still emerging out of the shadow of Vietnam, and in the final gasping breaths of the Cold War, it was films like 1986's Top Gun that positioned the military as a showcase for masculine achievement largely divorced from the patriotic bromides of the post-9/11 world. In that movie, characters with nicknames like Maverick and Iceman take to the skies to fend off fighter jets from some unknown enemy, in some farflung and not terribly significant locale. The movie carries little sense of nationalistic fervor, trading that in for a swaggering manhood that seeks out personal glory.
The marketing of the armed forces in this time period paralleled this curiously apolitical militarism, which again emphasized the opportunity for individual excellence and honor, rather than the themes of the twenty first century that have embraced a vision of service as beholden to the greater good. Emblematic of this trend is this television commercial for the Marines, airing in the 1990s, which depicts the soldier as a lone warrior overcoming a set of obstacles, then slaying a dragon in an arena filled with spectators. Here military service is reimagined as a personal triumph, the hero standing exalted on his pedastal.
It was all bullshit, of course. Even during the anodyne 1980s, the US military was engaged in conflicts in Central America, and the US government was flooding arms into Angola, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, and so forth. But these commitments rarely resulted in US casualties.
Today we like to imagine things are very different, given the protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 17 years. Seldom encountered in the 1980s, today tributes to veterans and active military members are de rigeur in almost all public places and events. From my perspective, it seems like a classic case of overcompensation: the vast, vast majority of Americans do not serve in the military (and have no intention of ever doing so), but knowing that thousands of Americans have died in faraway lands, allegedly to protect the homeland, prompts elaborate displays of gratitude that exceed all restraints. Now nearly two full decades into the War on Terror, it is hard to remember that sporting events did not always resemble America First rallies. But today if I go to a baseball game, I can expect at minimum three moments where the crowd will be urged to salute the flag, honor the troops, or affirm the inherent greatness of the United States.
What all this pagaentry fails to understand, or perhaps understands too well, is that the United States is an imperial power, with troops occupying dozens of countries all around the world. Like all empires, it construes any action as defense of the homeland, regardless of how many thousands of miles it takes place from America's shores. And like most empires before it, it also regards the soldiers who carry out its agenda as courageous warriors whose success implies the superiority of the nation as a whole. That most engagements with the enemy are now carried out by long-distance strikes and remote-controlled drones, that American casualties are dwarfed by the number of enemy combatants and civilians who are killed, these are all facts that are never mentioned. We still want to imagine our troops as pulling the sword from the rock and slaying the dragon, while all of us in the arena stand and applaud.
It is often said that boxing is like war. Indeed, images and expressions of warfare are central to the lexicon of the sport. No doubt, boxing's bloodlust and often extreme violence invite such comparisons. Yet to compare boxing to warfare insults the sport, and elevates warfare to a pedestal it does not deserve. Modern boxing emerged within the context of the industrial revolution, which had reduced working men to mere cogs in an uncaring machine. With its unapologetic violence and brutality, the sport stood in opposition to the bourgeois values of the era, which were intimately linked to the wealth and prestige garnered from global Western imperialism. In the boxing ring, a man could, in theory, rise from his class position, assert his strength and skill, and win praise and fame, all while flouting the fiction that modern society was essentially peaceful, progressive, and humane. Boxing, by its very existence, demonstrated something quite different: that industrial capitalism was a dog-eat-dog proposition, and that brutality and ruthlessness were central to worldly success.
To the extent that this bloodsport now evokes images of warfare, it hearkens back to earlier epochs when combat was conducted through rituals of honor and skill. Boxing, with its insistence on pitting physically similar fighters against each other, and with its fealty to a commonly understood set of rules, bears little relationship to modern warfare, which has been marked by massive disparities in technology and wealth and an assymetrical array of forces. When we stand for the flag, when we salute the troops, whether we like it or not we are showing our support for an imperialist world order and panoptical technology of death that routinely punishes the poorest and most vulnerable populations in the world. By envisioning the men and women who carry out this global project as knights slaying dragons, we transpose the martial values of the medieval and ancient world into a contemporary context where they do not belong. But it is upon this mass delusion that the entire military-industrial complex gains its popular mandate.
Last night I watched the Mercito Gesta-Roberto Manzanarez fight on ESPN2. It was a close match, with the shorter Gesta struggling to get on the inside, and the taller Manzanarez having difficulty sticking to his gameplan of boxing from the outside. There were few impactful punches in the entire fight, but from a strategic perspective it was an interesting bout. The fight was close (I scored it a draw), with Gesta winning a very narrow majority decision. Just prior to revealing the scores, the ring announcer asked the crowd to applaud "these two warriors," who had put on this exhibition of skill, determination, and courage for their entertainment. The resulting round of applause was modest but genuine, and if I had been present in the arena, I would have joined them. What were they celebrating with their applause? They were acknowledging two men who had risked their physical well-being for the benefit of the crowd, men whose suffering, triumph, and defeat allowed the spectators to experience vicariously a fraction of those experiences. When they applauded the boxers, the crowd celebrated individuals who fought entirely for reasons of the self, rather than the abstract concepts of nation and empire. They cheered an ethic of violence that is centuries old, but that today can only exist within the controlled conditions of the ring. Boxing is the capitalist fantasy of violence that fetishizes illusions of fairness and opportunity. When we celebrate the military, we honor the world as it is, and individuals as we wish them to be. When we glorify the combatants of the ring, we extol the human spirit as it is, and the world as we wish it to be. These are the fantasies, the ghosts that we chase. If we could create a world of justice and fairness, both the soldier overseas and the boxer at home would disappear.